12 Essential Pantry Ingredients Slideshow
Unless you bake often, sometimes it's easy to forget to stock up on this pantry staple. Besides its obvious uses in cakes, pies, jams, cookies, and ice cream, sugar is also an important component in non-dessert recipes. It finds its way into marinades, sauces, and stir-fries, and is a central component in Southeast Asian, Indian, and Latin American cuisines.
2. Olive and Canola Oil
No cooking oil generally means no cooked food, unless one is content with steaming, microwaving, or toasting everything. Olive oil is useful for salad dressings and low-to-moderate heat applications. For a more neutral flavor and high-heat applications such as deep-frying, canola oil (or another vegetable oil) is the way to go.
3. Soy Sauce
With a little canola oil, soy sauce, sugar, and some leftover meat and vegetables from the fridge, a quick lunch or dinner is just a few flicks of the knife and a trip to a searing hot wok away. Just make sure to opt for the low-sodium variety: a typical soy sauce contains 920 milligrams of sodium (that's 38 percent of the daily value based on a 2,000-calorie diet) in just one tablespoon. Trust us, low-sodium is already plenty salty.
4. Tomato Paste
Ever made pasta sauce from canned tomatoes only to find that it's just too thin? One solution is to let it sit around for another hour, or however long it takes for it to look more like sauce and less like salty tomato juice with carrots, but if there's tomato paste around, it can help thicken up the sauce in a jiffy. Just a tablespoon or so should do the trick for a quart of sauce.
5. Crushed Tomatoes
Crushed tomatoes are a great base for everything from basic marinara sauce to stews, soups, and casseroles. When tomatoes aren't in season, it's an easy and economical way to work some tomato-y flavor into a dish.
6. Chicken Broth
Nuts like almonds, walnuts, and pecans are a good source of protein, iron, calcium, and dietary fiber. Plus, a little goes a long way — they can be worked into salads to give a little crunch and flavor, crushed up and used as a crust on fish fillets, or ground into delicious pesto.
Even if you don't like to bake, flour is a useful ingredient for thickening sauces (the French, for example, mix it with equal parts butter to make a beurre manié, which is then swirled into a sauce), coating meat for stir-frying or pan-frying (think chicken parm), and making fresh pasta. Don't leave the store without it.
9. Salt and Pepper
It's been said so many times before, but we'll say it again: Always, always, always, season your food. And not just in the beginning or at the end — season as you go (and taste) and food will be less likely to come out tasting oversalted or bland.
10. Brown Rice, Whole Grains, and Pasta
Pasta is great for a meal in a pinch. Toss it with some garlic and olive oil, maybe a few red pepper flakes, some salt and pepper, and it's a meal. Brown rice and whole grains are also great to have on hand; their superior nutritional value and fiber content more than make up for their extended cooking time. Try cooking up a batch on a lazy Sunday for the workweek so that you can work it into salads and soups, or just serve the grains as a side dish for a quick main.
11. Beans and Lentils
Like whole grains, beans and lentils are also a great source of protein and fiber. While dried versions also have extended cooking times, canned versions can be worked quickly into soups and stews to thicken them up. If you prefer the dried versions, make sure to give them a good soak overnight (and discard any floaters) to cut down on cooking time.
Vinegar is an essential component of many salad dressings, but is also useful for balancing out heavily sweet, savory, or salty dishes. Plus, it helps erase food stains on clothing. You probably won't miss it until it's not around, but make sure to keep it on hand anyway.