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In a few of the cookbooks I own there are sections that go over a list of "must-haves" for a well stocked pantry. I acknowledge this question is subjective, but I do think that there are a half-dozen to a dozen things out there that are universally essential. I also checked for other similar questions and the two I found were both open and received lots of community input.

Specifically I'm looking for things with the following properties:

  • Long shelf life
  • Versatility
  • Great substitutability for other ingredients
  • May work in both savory or sweet dishes (not required)
  • Not salt or pepper
  • Not olive or vegetable oil

I rule out those last items because they are obvious.


Ground rules. Be specific to a single "category" of ingredients. e.g. dry goods, spices, condiments, nuts

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closed as too broad by rumtscho Jul 30 at 6:52

There are either too many possible answers, or good answers would be too long for this format. Please add details to narrow the answer set or to isolate an issue that can be answered in a few paragraphs.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

Voted to close; I think as well as subjective it's just too wide a question. "What vinegars" and "what knives" are much narrower / more focused. –  Vicky Jul 16 '10 at 9:33
I'll wait to see the answers before voting to close. I think this could be a useful "canonical" question. One thing I'd like to request is that people limit their answers to one food/ingredient or group thereof (different kinds of "rice" are fine), along with why or how well they meet the criteria specified. Otherwise the result is going to be basically unreadable. That make sense to you, dave? Think you could include a few ground rules for this poll? –  Aaronut Jul 16 '10 at 17:07
Two reasons. First, it's kind of a meta trend. Second, I tend to exhibit slightly different personalities on each site and don't always want the names being immediately associated (although I'm not trying to remain anonymous either). –  Aaronut Jul 16 '10 at 17:32
@hobobodave Do you think we can merge [essentials] and [pantry] as tags. This question is currently the only one marked essentials, while pantry has 5. I definitely see a need for basic ingredients to always have at home, but does essentials convey that differently or better than pantry? I'm concerned that essentials could convey technique or some other aspect not obviously related to ingredients. –  Ocaasi Aug 7 '10 at 7:15
I happened upon this question. It was a fine experiment back when the site policies had not crystalized yet, but in today's rules it is clearly the wrong type of question. When such questions get dug up at all, it's usually just as a precedent on the lines of "why did you close my question when this old one is open". –  rumtscho Jul 30 at 6:54

9 Answers 9

up vote 9 down vote accepted

I keep a bottle of sherry and a bottle of vermouth all the time. Sherry is self-explanatory: it tastes good in a lot of things, and it lasts a long time.

Vermouth is what I use whenever the recipe calls for "white wine": it's dry enough that it doesn't go bad if you just leave it sitting in a cabinet, and it fills the generic wine niche very nicely. No more opening a bottle and then having to drink it, or having it clutter up your fridge, just because you needed a single cup of wine.

I also keep a bottle of worcestershire sauce, a bottle of soy sauce, and a bottle of tabasco sauce. They last forever, and they're good in a lot of dishes. I also tend to keep a bottle of "Kitchen Bouquet": which is a sauce browning/thickening agent.

Honey is good as well, if you swing that way. I generally have 3 or 4 different kinds of honey lying around: it's a light sweetener with a distinctive character, suitable for all kinds of uses. And it lasts forever.

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This is my favorite answer so far because it fits mostly into what I had in mind. Also, it's very specific in it's own way. "Things in bottles" perhaps? –  hobodave Jul 16 '10 at 18:12

Canned tomato products - I keep the full range, from tomato paste to whole tomatoes, and everything in between (i.e. tomato sauce, crushed tomatoes, and diced tomatoes). Very useful.

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Oh I love canned tomatoes, I have no shortage of canned tomato product in my pantry. There's such a narrow window to get a good fresh tomato. –  hobodave Jul 23 '10 at 2:01

I won't touch on spices, but I will say get as many spices as you can in seed or whole form. So much better than powders!

Rice -

  1. Jasmine (for Thai)
  2. Basmati (for Indian)
  3. Arborio (for risotto)

Pasta -

  1. A Spaghetti (any long noodle, Spaghettini, fettucini would also do)
  2. Penne (any short noodle or spiral, fussili, rigatoni)
  3. Lasagna

Sugar -

  1. White
  2. Brown

Vinegar -

  1. White
  2. Red Wine
  3. Rice Wine
  4. Balsamic
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I'm not sure I buy that you need to have Lasagna noodles in your pantry at all times. A lasagna is involved and usually requires a special store trip anyway (e.g. for ricotta). Plus Lasagna noodles fail both the versatility and substitutability criteria in the original question. –  kevins Jul 16 '10 at 14:53
I disagree, I think your only looking at one type of lasagna. Lasagna noodles can be used as replacement for other types of noodles if you don't have them on hand, i.e. cut em to make fettuccine. Lasagna's can be made with anything. Great for using up leftover veggies, chicken, literally anything. Hence why I like them. But I guess thats why this is a bit subjective –  Tree77 Jul 16 '10 at 16:05

In my kitchen, it's definitely the beans:

  • Chickpeas (garbanzo beans on that side of the Atlantic)
  • Black beans (the mexican variety)
  • Red kidney beans
  • White beans

I usually keep some others, but these can substitute for the others usually. With these, you can always make a casserole, soup, chilli, curry, mega-pilau of the apocalypse or anything else you fancy.

We're vegetarian, so we tend to eat more beans than average perhaps. They are so good for protein, iron, magnesium and other stuff.

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I don't keep enough beans around. I have a 2 year old can of pinto beans, and a 2 month old can of black beans. I think this situation needs fixing. –  hobodave Jul 23 '10 at 2:00
I would never get to two years. Every winter I make at least one five bean chilli to finsih beans off and rotate stock. I'm trying a nine bean chilli come winter this year. –  Carmi Jul 24 '10 at 4:12
The chili I tend to make doesn't have beans. :) –  hobodave Aug 6 '10 at 8:56

I believe that a variety of nuts - especially but not limited to peanuts*, walnuts, almonds, cashews and pine nuts, are very useful, if not "essential", to keep around.

  • Although improper storage can make them go rancid, in-shell nuts in vacuum-sealed containers will last for months or even years. Shelled nuts can also be canned to split them up and preserve them, if they were bought in bulk.

  • All sorts of various dishes call for various types of nuts, and many can be substituted for each other, because often the role of nuts in a recipe is to provide texture rather than flavour.

    • Toasted chopped nuts (particularly peanuts) make a great garnish for virtually any spicy Asian dish.

    • You can use them as crusts, in desserts or breaded meat.

    • They make great additions to any dish already using fruit, especially dried fruits such as raisins or currants.

    • Melt some chocolate over them or candy them and you have a dessert. If you're truly desperate, you can just season and eat them.

    • Throw some in a food processor to add texture to a savoury sauce (pine nuts are standard in pesto sauce, but you don't have to stop there.)

    • You can make "milk" with them (almond is the most common), if you ran out of the real thing or if you're cooking for somebody who's lactose-intolerant.

    • You can even grind them up very fine and use the result as a flour substitute.

All in all, I think they fit the bill for "always on hand."

* P.S. Peanuts and almonds are technically not nuts. For the purposes of this answer, that really doesn't matter.

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Some that are not mentioned yet:

  • Chicken, beef, and vegetarian broth.
  • Crushed, diced, and whole tomato cans
  • white, wholewheat, semolina, and potato flour
  • pickle jars
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Onions, garlic and related plants.

As I think through our list of favorite main dishes. Nearly all contain at least one member of the onion family: Onions, garlic, leeks, shallots or scallions. All of these are different, but in a pinch they can substitute for each other.

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I'd probably have to start with a good selection of dried legumes, including all the classic sprouting varieties. These would provide the base for a variety of meals, including hearty casseroles, salads, and dips. I'd also include a few varieties of rice. probably Basmatti, aborio and a good long grain rice to make sweet dishes.

I tend to make a lot of preserved items, in oil, vinegar or alcohol, such as blackened peppers, artichokes, dill cucumbers, various fruits etc. So these would definitely be part of the pantry.

A good selection of dried spice in seed form, preferably, as I prefer to make my own spice mix for various dishes, such as 5 spice powder, garam masala, or just a good rub for meats and fish.

Various types of flour would also have to find a home, as baking is an essential part or our daily lives. These would typically include a good quality plain (all purpose) flour, a bread flour and probably a gram flour, as I prepare a lot of Indian dishes.

I'd also need some basic flavourings, such as a good quality Dark and light soy sauce, balsamic vinegar and rice wine vinegar.

Finally, a good selection of wine, both for cooking and for consumption :)

I believe most of the above have a pretty good shelf life, if stored correctly. The preserved fruits can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes, as can the spices and balsamic. Flour can be used in a variety of ways, as bread, pasta, pastry for sweet or savoury pies and tarts and of course as a thickening agent.

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Enormously broad question, if you're a cook with a pantry worth its, salt:

Vinegar - White, apple cider, balsamic

Mustard - Yellow, brown, dijon

Asian - sesame oil, soy sauce (tamari), ponzu, teriyaki

Sweeteners - honey, agave, maple syrup

Fats - butter, cream cheese, extra virgin olive oil, vegetable/canola oil

Misc - Mayo, horseradish, tomato paste

Grains - pasta, brown rice, wild rice, oatmeal, quinoa, kasha, couscous, potatoes (starch)

Beans - red beans, white beans, black eyed peas

Heat - hot sauce, chipotle, cayenne, red pepper flakes

Allium - onions, garlic, shallots

Beverages - red wine, white wine, lager, ale, vodka, coffee, green tea, black tea

Dairy - whole milk, eggs, cream, cottage cheese, yogurt, goat cheese, cheddar cheese, parmesian

Nuts - cashews, almonds, walnuts

Herbs - basil, thyme, dill, parsley, sage, rosemary

Spices - pepper, salt, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, garam masala, 5 spice

Dessert - dark chocolate, vanilla ice cream

Baking - white flour, whole wheat flour, baking powder, baking soda

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