Cooking 101: Building the Perfect Pantry System
Wouldn't it be terrific if you could count on being able to make a healthy and delicious meal at a moment's notice—and without an extra run to the supermarket? With a properly stocked kitchen, you should be able to do just that. Our pantry system lists about three dozen items that you should keep on hand at all times. We've divided them into Brilliant Basics (mainly canned staples), Cold Comforts (food kept in the refrigerator and freezer), and Flavor Savers (herbs and spices, but also salsa, mustard, and the like).
Once you have them, you'll come to understand how versatile these ingredients are. Suddenly, broth is more than just a soup when you use it in place of water to cook grains and pasta. Canned tomatoes become a base for homemade pasta sauce or soup, or a topping for grilled chicken breast. Salsa is great as a dip, but you can also top a grilled fish fillet with it, or use it as a quickie sauce for cooked vegetables. Fresh lemon and lime juice can be sprinkled over cooked vegetables, mixed into salad dressings, or squeezed into a glass of ice-cold water. No-sugar-added preserves become part of a glaze for pan-seared meat, chicken, or fish, or, melted down, they're a syrup for pancakes, waffles, or French toast.
A good pantry will equip you to try new recipes, since these basic items are the building blocks of many, many dishes. To illustrate the system's flexibility, we have designed four recipes prepared entirely from these pantry basics (see box). And remember: A pantry is a work in progress. For example, once you have the basic vinegars on hand, you might decide to branch out to include more exotic types such as champagne vinegar. Similarly, extra-virgin olive oil is easy to find, but you could add walnut or macadamia nut oil to your collection for a different kind of flavor.
There's an art to building a great working pantry, once you have the right blueprint.
Canned beans: Types that are good to have on hand include black, pinto, garbanzo (chickpea), and red kidney beans. Choose lower-sodium when possible. Leftover beans can be refrigerated, covered, for 2 to 3 days.
Canned tuna: in water, not oil. Any leftover can be stored in the refrigerator, tightly covered, for 1 to 2 days.
Brown rice: Store in an airtight container for up to a year. (Keeping a dried red chili pepper in the same container will repel mealy bugs.) Cooked rice can be refrigerated, covered, for up to a week.
Whole-grain pasta: at least one strand (linguini, spaghetti) and one shaped (penne, fusilli) pasta. Uncooked dried pasta can be kept in an airtight container for up to a year. If it develops white speckles, toss it. Cooked pasta can be refrigerated, covered, for up to 2 to 3 days.
Fat-free or low-fat reduced-sodium chicken and vegetable broth: Once opened, broth can be stored, sealed, in the refrigerator for about 1 to 2 weeks.
Fresh tomatoes: Store at room temperature. Once cut, wrap well in plastic and refrigerate for 1 to 2 days.
Canned whole and diced tomatoes: Refrigerate leftover canned tomatoes in an airtight container for 3 to 4 days or freeze for up to 4 to 5 months.
Tomato paste: Try to get the tube rather than the can; although the tube is slightly more expensive, leftover paste is more easily stored that way in the fridge.
Potatoes: sweet potatoes and white (Idaho/russet) potatoes. Buy hard potatoes with no bruising or splitting. White potatoes should not be green and should have no sprouting or eyes. Sweet potatoes' first sign of deterioration is shriveling and softness. Store both kinds for up to two weeks in a cool, dry bottom pantry shelf with good air circulation.
Meat: skinless chicken breasts and thighs, boneless pork tenderloin, ground white-meat turkey, ground white-meat chicken, or lean ground beef (93 percent). Keep for only 1 to 2 days in the refrigerator and no more than 4 months in the freezer, tightly wrapped.
Frozen vegetables: broccoli, corn, spinach, peas, or a medley of these and others. Use within 4 months. Tightly seal unused portions.
Frozen stuffed pasta: tortellini and the like (whole wheat if you can find it). Use within 8 to 9 months.
Eggs (large): Store in the coldest part of the refrigerator in the original carton for up to 3 weeks.
Lemons and limes: Use within 1 week for best freshness.
Fresh herbs: parsley, cilantro, mint, and dill. Bundle together with a rubber band and place in a glass of water. Cover loosely with a plastic bag. Store in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days.
Fresh carrots: Store in the fridge's produce bin for up to two weeks, or until they begin to wither and become soft.
Fresh celery: Wrap loosely in a large plastic bag and place in the produce bin. It should keep for about 3 days.
Scallions: Purchase plump scallions that are not withered or beginning to yellow. Wrap in damp paper towels and keep refrigerated for up to 2 days.
Vinegar: red wine, white wine, and balsamic. Use within 1 year.
Extra-virgin olive oil: Transfer to an opaque container (can also be refrigerated). Use within 6 to 7 months.
Lower-sodium or light soy sauce: Use within 1 year.
Dijon mustard: coarse or smooth. Use within 1 year. Once opened, store it in the refrigerator.
Salsa (in a jar): Keep for 1 year in the pantry. Once opened, keep in the refrigerator for no more than 1 month.
Fresh onions and garlic: Keep in the bottom of the pantry in a container with good air circulation for 1 to 2 weeks. If they start to sprout, toss them.
Dried herbs and spices: basil, oregano, Italian blend, rosemary, cumin, ground cinnamon, chili powder (hot or mild), dried red chili flakes, ground cayenne, ground coriander, allspice, onion and garlic powders, ground paprika, black pepper (preferably whole peppercorns for grinding), and kosher or sea salt. Keep tightly sealed, away from light and heat; use within 1 year.
Capers: Use within 1 year. Once opened, store in the refrigerator for 2 months.
Black olives: Use within 1 year. Once opened, store in the refrigerator and use within a few weeks.
No-sugar-added preserves: Use within 1 year. Once opened, store in the refrigerator.
Plain bread crumbs: Store tightly covered and use within 1 year.
Sweeteners: Choose some combination of sugar, Splenda, stevia, honey, maple syrup, agave nectar, and brown sugar.
Wine: Avoid "cooking wines." Choose dry whites like pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc. For reds, you generally can't go wrong with merlot and Chianti. Once opened, use within a few days.
Up to Par
Want to run your home kitchen the way the professionals do? Then you need to keep what is known as a par. This is a running tally of all the food items you have in your kitchen. To establish one, you will need to figure out how often you use certain items, and how much of them. For example, if you use 3 cans of diced tomatoes a week, make sure you always have at least 4 to 6 on hand, so you never run out. It's an easy system that you can store on a computer, or just tack a sheet of paper on the inside of the pantry door to record your inventory. Keep it updated at all times, and you'll be able to make your favorite recipe whenever you want. Another tip: Write the date of purchase on food packages, so you'll know when it's time to dump them. Below are a few ideas for cooking on the fly from what's in your kitchen.