Perfect Your Pantry

Jenna Helwig

From oils and vinegars to spices and fours, pantry goods are supporting players—and often, even the stars— of almost every meal. Having a well-rounded group of staples on hand makes cooking less of a chore and lets you whip up an improvised meal using just what’s in the cupboard. Sometimes, though, it can be tough to know exactly what to have available. It’s still important: Paying close attention to your pantry choices gives you a golden opportunity to improve your family’s diet. If the building blocks of your meals are healthy and organic, chances are your meals will be too. To help take the guesswork out of what to stock, we’ve put together a list of key dry goods that will make any kitchen a more efficient place to create wholesome, delicious dishes.

Oils

Choosing your cooking fat is one of the most basic and important pantry choices. The good news is that there are a lot of options, and the bad news is…there are a lot of options. It can be tricky to navigate the cooking fat terrain, both from a health and a flavor perspective. Most experts agree that extra-virgin olive oil, a healthy monounsaturated fat, definitely deserves pride of place on the pantry shelf. Why extra-virgin? “Extra-virgin olive oil is cold- pressed mechanically, versus using chemicals to extract the remaining oil, like in ‘light olive oil’ or ‘olive oil,’” explains Michelle Dudash, R.D., author of Clean Eating for Busy Families. “It also contains more beneficial polyphenols.” Even within the extra-virgin olive oil category, though, you’ll find a huge range of choices. Test a few moderately priced bottles to find one you enjoy for everyday cooking, such as sautéing and roasting with vegetables. If you find a pricier oil you like, save it for eating raw in salad dressings or drizzled over fish or pasta for a silky finish. oilOlive oil works very well over medium-high heat, but for grilling, stir-frying, or any other technique where you want to crank up the temperature, look for oils that can withstand higher heats. One to try: peanut oil, recommends Melissa Clark, New York Times food columnist and author of Cook This Now. “I love the flavor and like it for high-heat frying and Asian-inspired dishes,” she says. For a more neutral flavor, or if there are peanut allergies in your family, opt for grapeseed oil or organic expeller-pressed canola oil. Coconut oil is another good option for certain dishes. “The pros of coconut oil are that it’s natural, has a rich coconut aroma, and luxurious texture,” says Dudash. But she cautions: “One tablespoon of coconut oil delivers 13 grams of saturated fat, which is over half of the daily limit for most people. Meanwhile, butter contains 7 grams of saturated fat—33 percent of the daily limit.” In addition to a special olive oil, it’s also worth stocking a few other distinctive varieties just for drizzling over finished meals. “I use intensely flavored oils to jazz up certain dishes,” says Cathy Wong, a naturopathic doctor and nutritionist based in Boston. “My go-to is dark sesame oil, but I also like roasted walnut oil and pumpkin seed oil.”

Vinegars

Vinegars are another kitchen staple, without which salad dressings, soups, and pan sauces just wouldn’t be the same. Like oils, you’re likely to find a baffling array at your local grocery store. But just a few will do the trick. Red wine and white wine vinegar are two pantry basics that are key ingredients in salad dressings and many other foods. Balsamic vinegar is another classic that lends a savory richness to grilled vegetables, cheeses, or meats in a marinade. Balsamic vinegars can range in price from a few dollars to a king’s ransom. A smart strategy is simply to choose the best bottle you can afford. Rice vinegar is also a good staple to have on hand. It’s a natural in Asian dishes and often seems less acidic to children. If you want to expand your vinegar stock, sherry vinegar and apple-cider vinegar are both versatile choices.

Sugars and flours

The days when mom stocked just plain granulated white sugar and regular light brown sugar are over—or at least, they should be. In terms of taste, hyper-processed white sugar screams “sweet,” while less processed cane sugars retain a slight caramel color and favor that many people enjoy. Plus, if you buy organic cane sugar, you can avoid the synthetic pesticides and herbicides that many conventional sugars harbor. And a tastier swap for standard brown sugar: fine-grained, organic muscovado sugar. Of course, sugar is only one part of the sweetener story. To complete your pantry’s selection, stock maple syrup and honey. “Maple syrup is my go-to sweetener,” says Wong. “It’s so flavorful that I only need to use it sparingly.” Make sure to buy real maple syrup, especially the dark, thick variety labeled Grade B (which is less refined), if you can find it. Try adding maple syrup to salad dressings or stirring it into yogurt. flourHoney favors vary widely depending on where it was produced and the type of blossoms the bees feed on. “For example, bees that feed on orange blossoms produce a honey that bears a taste and aroma of orange blossoms,” explains Dudash. “Temperature and rainfall can also affect the favor of the honey from year to year.” Find one you love for adding to tea or oatmeal and then, if you’d like, another more strongly favored variety for fruit or cheese. On the four front, make whole wheat your staple and reserve white four for only your most delicate cakes, cookies, and biscuits, if at all. Dudash also recommends stocking brown rice four. “It’s a great gluten-free option for coatings and breadings, like on chicken tenders.” Baking powder and baking soda are other must-haves.

Pastas, grains, and rice

As most parents know, a box of pasta in the cupboard is like gold on a busy weeknight. But not all pastas are created equal. Whenever possible, opt for fiber-rich, nutty-tasting whole wheat pastas. At the minimum, stock at least one package of a shorter pasta like penne and one package of longer pasta like spaghetti. Along with pasta, healthy whole grains deserve a prominent spot in the organic pantry. Wong recommends always having oats. “I use them in muffins, granola bars or bites, and other recipes.” Opt for steel-cut or old-fashioned rolled oats, which maintain more of their nutritional value—and favor—than instant oats. Steel-cut oats are the most minimally processed of the bunch; the oats are simply cleaned and cut (as opposed to rolled and steamed). They take considerably longer to cook (about 30 minutes), but it’s easy to cook up a batch and keep it refrigerated to eat throughout the week. Both Clark and Wong also sing the praises of quinoa, a grain-like seed packed with protein that can be cooked in less than 20 minutes. Serve quinoa as a hearty salad component, in soups, reheated in milk for breakfast, or mixed with egg and veggies, shaped into a cake, and then sautéed. Quinoa pasta is also growing in popularity. While it may not have the same toothsome texture as traditional semolina pasta, it’s great for families avoiding gluten. Farro, which is becoming increasingly available in the United States, is another heart-healthy whole grain to seek out. An ancient Italian wheat, farro is nutty, delicious, and can be cooked like a risotto, added to stews, or tossed into a hearty vegetable salad. Look for the pearled or semi-pearled varieties, which have been slightly processed (but are still fiber-rich) and cook in less than 25 minutes. For quick meals, don’t forget another Italian staple: instant polenta. This crowd-pleasing side is ready in less than five minutes. When it comes to rice, brown is your best bet. White rice has been stripped of its healthful bran and much of its vitamin and mineral content. Brown rice does take longer to cook (about 50 minutes), so consider making a double batch and freezing half until you need it. But, do be mindful of the recent findings that have shown brown rice can contain high levels of arsenic. “I look for California-grown rice, because it seems to have a lower arsenic level than rice grown in other regions in the United States,” advises Wong. In addition to these basics, Clark also likes to keep a few other starches at home to add variety to her family’s meals. “I love whole wheat couscous, orzo, and bulgur,” she says.

herbsHerbs and spices

Choosing which spices and dried herbs to keep in your pantry is largely a matter of taste. Wong is a huge fan of cumin, cayenne pepper, and cinnamon. “I put cinnamon on so many things because it gives a natural sweetness without added sugar.” A bare-bones spice selection might include: ground cumin and chili powder for Latin-inspired dishes, curry powder for Indian-style foods, dried oregano to crush into salads and stir into pasta sauces, and cinnamon and nutmeg for baking. The most important part of stocking herbs and spices? Make sure you replace them on a regular basis, since they tend to lose their punch after a few months. A good rule of thumb is to swap them out once a year. But use your judgment: If that jar of paprika still has some zip after you smell it, save it for a bit longer. To help combat waste, buy dried herbs and spices in smaller quantities at local health food or specialty stores. This way, you’re more likely to use the spice before its favor has significantly deteriorated.

Beans and lentils

For both vegetarians and non-vegetarians, beans and legumes can offer a fast hit of fiber and protein. It’s smart to have two types of beans in the pantry: dried for when you’re planning ahead and canned for when, well, you’re not. Again, this is a time to look to your own family’s preferences. If tacos are regularly on the menu, black beans are a good option to have. Wong, for instance, always keeps chickpeas in the house. “They are so versatile and rich in fiber. A delicious snack is chickpeas tossed with olive oil, garlic, balsamic vinegar, olives, and fat-leaf parsley,” she says. Other good choices include cannellini beans, kidney beans, and pinto beans, but there are a plethora of options. When you’re buying canned beans make sure to look for cans that have a BPA-free liner. It should say on the label. Dried lentils, which are small, fat legumes, require no soaking and cook much more quickly than dried beans. Simmer them and toss with vegetables and a dressing for a salad, cook and mash to make lentil burgers, or boil them in a broth for soup. Two basic varieties are red lentils, which lend themselves well to Indian preparations, and French green lentils, also called lentils de Puy. They hold their shape when cooked and are perfect for salads.

fruitandnutsFruits, seeds, and nuts

Fruits and nuts are great for adding favor and nutrition to meals. While you should follow your family’s tastes, good dried fruit options include raisins, dates or figs, dried plums, and apricots. Toasted seeds like pepitas and sesame seeds also add a satisfying crunch to salads and stir-fries. And if there are no nut allergies in your family, don’t forget the walnuts, almonds, cashews, pine nuts, and pecans. Nuts are incredibly versatile—you can eat them out of your hand for a snack, chop them for a topping to proteins or salads, or grind them in the food processor for nut butter. Full of protein, fiber, and nutrients, they’re both filling and tasty.

Broths and veggies

In a perfect world we would all make our own chicken and vegetable broth. But even if you are a regular stock-maker, it’s smart to have a couple of cartons of chicken and/or vegetable broth on hand for an impromptu soup or to splash into a dish for a little extra favor. Clark also considers boxed or canned tomatoes pantry essentials, and most home cooks would agree. Diced, crushed, or whole tomatoes can be the basis for any number of dishes, from pasta sauces to braises to soups. Like canned beans, make sure the tomatoes you buy come in BPA-free cans. A good bottle of marinara sauce can also be super helpful come dinnertime. But don’t stop there. Canned artichokes, hearts of palm, jarred olives, and sun-dried tomatoes can also provide the extra oomph that a meal needs.

Snacks and sweets

While having an overload of snacks in your cupboard can encourage overeating, it’s still a good idea to have a few things in the pantry for when hunger strikes between meals. Be sure to look for organic, natural products that are relatively low in added sugars. Whole grain crackers, seaweed snacks, and popcorn can satisfy almost any craving. In addition to nuts and dried fruits, Dudash says, “I stock snack options like no-sugar-added natural fruit cups for those days fresh fruit isn’t an option, snack bars made with ingredients I can see and pronounce, and individual cans of olive oil-packed tuna—perfect for spreading on crackers.”

Storage secrets

A pantry may be an actual closet where you keep your dry goods or it could be more of an organizing concept, divided among various cabinets and drawers. Whatever your kitchen’s arrangement, make sure your dry goods are stored in a dark, cool place. This is especially important for spices, oils, and vinegars, which might lose their favor or, in the case of oils, go rancid more quickly if exposed to light and heat. So the shelves next to the stove are not the best home for your oil and vinegar collection; consider a closed cupboard near the refrigerator instead. You may choose to keep your dry goods in their original containers, or, if you frequently buy items in the bulk aisle, opt for glass jars or other containers. Just remember to label opaque containers with their contents and expiration date.

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