Contrary to the popular adage, if you teach a man to cook, there's still an excellent chance he'll starve if he has no food in the house. What you may not realize is that it's extremely possible he can also starve if he has too much food in the house.
He comes home with the illusion of having plenty to eat, but upon closer inspection, he realizes that what he has, in fact, are four cabinets and half a refrigerator full of nothing but condiments. Not knowing how to properly meld together honey mustard, rainbow sprinkles and a half-full jar of pickled jalapeños, he falls back on Chinese takeout, adding more packets of duck sauce and hot mustard to the collection.
This is often due to the misguided notion that we need tons of ingredients on hand to make a good meal. There have been so many times I've gone to the supermarket with a list of ingredients to make one dish and come back $80 poorer with a sack of ingredients I'll use once. Somehow I'd manage to make eating in more expensive than eating out.
That's why I've pared down the items I keep on hand at all times to the ones you see here. Even though I'll buy a few specialty items each week to go with my menu plans, for the most part, these items are capable of making a killer dish out of any meat, seafood or vegetables you happen to bring home. Stick to the list, and you'll never starve (not to mention save a boatload of cash).
And speaking of sticking to the list -- read to the end and you'll found a short, printable checklist version of this pantry list.
Extra-virgin olive oil: Even if TV tells you to, you should not always use this for cooking. Olive oil smokes and burns at a lower temperature than other oils do, so it shouldn't be the only one you have in the kitchen. Use olive oil for salad dressings and dips, roasting vegetables or in anything where the flavor can shine through. Splurge on a fancy one. You're worth it.
Grapeseed or canola oil: These are the oils you should be using for high-heat cooking. Also good for baking cakes or adding to any recipe in which you don't want the oil to add any flavor.
Soy sauce: If you live by an Asian grocery, buy this there — you'll get a large bottle of it for far cheaper than at your standard supermarket. In fact, if you live near an Asian supermarket, you should buy a ton of things there. Especially candy. Have you had Asian candy? Those guys are on an entirely different plane of existence when it comes to snack foods!
Apple cider vinegar: The internet says this cures every health problem that has ever existed. I think a splash of it makes lots of soups pop. Soup is good for you — maybe these are related?
Red wine vinegar: Makes a salad a billion times snazzier than balsamic does. Try it, and convert!
Balsamic vinegar: I actually rarely use this, but I like knowing it's there. It helps me sleep at night.
Honey: Fun fact — vegans won't eat this because it's technically bee spit. This doesn't bother me, because I eat things like ham. Ham is nothing but pig butt. I'll eat butt if it's delicious; why not spit?
Peanut butter: For eating out of the jar at 2 a.m. (See chia seeds farther down this list for a hack that will make you less depressed when you do this.)
Tahini: Like peanut butter but made out of sesame seeds and not sweet, so really, it's nothing like peanut butter. You can find this in Middle Eastern specialty stores, though it’s now readily found in many supermarkets. It's the backbone of hummus, which is another thing that's good for eating at 2 a.m.
Pitted Kalamata olives: Pitted. Pitted. Piiiiiiittttteeeeeed. Seriously, you have no idea the rage that comes over me when I'm eating and then bite into an olive pit. It's like putting a bear trap into your salad. Just check the damn jar before you buy and again when you get home to make sure it didn't change through black magic.
Artichoke hearts: To use in recipes, buy them either frozen or canned in water. For sandwiches, salads and "other," grab the marinated ones.
Capers: The ones in brine are great. The ones packed in salt need to be rinsed in water, yet no matter how much you rinse them, you'll still somehow get a big piece of salt in your mouth and will feel like a failure.
Pepperoncini peppers: True story — one time a guy played a practical joke on my husband and gave him a glass of pepper juice while telling him it was lemonade, and now he can't even smell them without getting nauseated. I still keep them in the house, because I don't care — they're delicious.
Pickles: Sliced, whole, dill, gherkin — no one has ever said, "Mamma Mia! I have too many pickles! How will I ever eat them all?" Never. Never, ever happened. Not once.
Mayonnaise: Hellmann's or GTFO.
Ketchup: Not my favorite condiment, but I'm pretty sure that as an American you're required to have this in your kitchen at all times.
Mustard: I have 1,000 different mustards in my fridge, and I don’t know where they came from. Yet somehow I need all of them.
Hot sauce: All hot sauces are not created equal! And many people have many strong feelings about this, so we won't bother getting into it. I cannot deal with the emotional fallout that will bring. (The answer is, Baron’s Hot Sauce is the greatest ever, and the rest of you are wrong!)
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