12 Must-Have Pantry Staples by Caron Golden

A cook can’t live by pantry alone, but a well-stocked pantry can be the difference between a just okay meal and an utterly delicious one. It can also be the difference between getting a homemade meal on the table and relying on a frozen dinner. Think of the ingredients that make up the recipes in everything from magazines to Instagram that make your mouth water. What ingredients or ingredient combinations make them special? Once you start noticing these things you can add them to your pantry to also use in other ways. For instance, that soulful smoky paprika used in an easy paella recipe can also make air-popped popcorn or roasted vegetables irresistible. If you’re making a whole grain dish, low-sodium broth, whether chicken or vegetable, adds a depth of flavor beyond what mere water can offer. Need to add some protein to a salad? How about some canned garbanzos or tuna in olive oil?

12 Must-Have Pantry Staples A well-stocked pantry also gives you the ability to make a meal when the fridge is kind of barren. A can of San Marzano tomatoes, canned cannellini beans, reconstituted dried mushrooms, extra virgin olive oil, a dash of sherry vinegar, and your favorite herbs and spices can make a quick sauce for whole-wheat pasta. 

With all this in mind, here is our list of one-dozen must-have pantry staples along with easy ways to use them in your meals.

Broth: Whether in cartons or cans, chicken, beef, or vegetable, look for low-sodium, fat-free versions. Use them to make soups or stews; replace water to cook grains, rice, or lentils; or to braise chicken or vegetables. 

Beans and legumes: Canned beans are indispensable for salads and soups or to make dips like hummus. But also consider cooking up dried beans in broth. Lentils and peas make for flavorful salads and soups. 

Grains: Rice is great, especially brown, jasmine or basmati. But branch out and try making wheat berries, hulled barley, and whole-wheat couscous. 

Whole-wheat pasta: Keep the portions small and the pasta whole wheat or grain if you’re gluten free). Experiment with different brands to find the ones that you love.

Oils: Use walnut, toasted sesame, or flavored oils for dressings or to finish a dish, but others, like canola, grapeseed, and avocado for their neutrality and high smoke point when you’re sauteing. Extra virgin olive oil is great for sauteing or dressings—but save the really good stuff for finishing.

Vinegars: A good collection can include basic distilled vinegar, red and white wine varieties, rice, sherry, apple cider, and balsamic. Use them in vinaigrettes, of course, but also to quickly pickle vegetables, create a piquant dipping sauce, and marinate meat.

Dried vegetables like mushrooms and tomatoes: With dried mushrooms you’re getting a twofer—both the plump reconstituted mushroom and the liquid, which you can add to soups or stews. Sundried tomatoes can be reconstituted, then marinated in oil. Add to pasta or a grain dish—and add the now-flavored oil to your sauce or as a dressing ingredient.

Canned tomatoes: Canned tomatoes are an obvious go to for a pasta sauce, but they can be the foundation for a hot or cold soup or stewed chicken. Look for San Marzano or fire-roasted (low-sodium) versions for the most flavor.

Canned seafood: Yep, tuna, of course, but also salmon, sardines, and clams—even mackerel and herring. Sure, make your traditional tuna salad. but also think about a composed salad Nicoise. Make salmon patties or flake the salmon or oil-packed tuna and make a topping for pasta (sauté in a little olive oil and garlic, add lemon zest and a splash of white wine). 

Spices: From your basic salt and pepper to cinnamon, chili powder, cumin, and cloves, a good spice collection can steer your dish to your unique flavor preferences. We recommend that you limit your salt intake or use sodium-free seasonings instead. Add to sauces, dressings, soups, and stew. Rub on fish, chicken, or meats. Add to a grain salad, sprinkle on roasted veggies.

Dried Herbs: The same applies to dried herbs. Gather oregano, thyme, marjoram, tarragon, and sage for starters, then build. Even better? Grow your own.

Condiments: Mustard isn’t just for a sandwich. A full-grain Dijon mustard can lightly coat chicken for baking. Items like chili paste, hot sauces, ketchup, honey, Worcestershire, and soy sauce are fundamentals for dressings, sauces, and marinades. Just watch out for those high in sodium.

Recommended for You