Some Thoughts About Stocking Your Pantry

A shelf of canned fish
Canned fish – essential for many. (Photo public domain)

A preface: I do not tend to be fond of “must-have” articles. What each person needs to do or keep for food differs: what do they eat? How much can they spend? Where do they live? What do they do? Must-have articles always seem to make far too many assumptions, and then ask folks to keep things that they never actually use, or do things that are totally unreasonable. (Three types of salt? To quote the kids, “whomst.”) That said, I do seem to write a lot of advice articles. People seem to like having ideas or general advice, and I strive to be suggestive rather than prescriptive. So for this article, please correct me if I mess up.

A few people wanted me to write an article about “how to stock a pantry.” Despite what so many food bloggers tell you, this is actually a hard thing to write. What to stock and how to stock depend on where you live, what you eat, what you can afford, your cooking habits, and all the social things that also intersect with food. So instead, here are some thoughts about stocking your pantry, which come from two places. One is my own experience and research. The other is you. I surveyed friends and readers about what they kept in their pantry. Then, I cobbled together data from dozens of responses to get an idea of what other pantries look like, in all sorts of situations.

So, here is some advice. Keep in mind that what you can afford, where you live, what you can and cannot do, and what you eat all play a role in stocking your pantry. You may not be able to have very much in a dorm room or a temporary place. You may not have a good refrigerator. You may have tons of space and money and be able to go all out – but not really have a diet that necessitates all those ingredients. Some things someone can tell you, but this is one thing you will need to partly figure out yourself.

Which is to say: this advice is not prescriptive. I give only suggestions! Mix and match as you need.

Canned vegetables on a shelf.
Canned vegetables: a life saver for some. (Photo Parenting Patch via Creative Commons)

An important note on cuisines: your pantry should change based on what you eat. This pantry list is largely for Ashkenazi and Western Sephardic cooking, with some other addendums. If your primary diet is a different cuisine, be it Japanese, Korean, Senegalese, Ethiopian, Lao, Mexican, O’odham, or Cree, you will need to stock accordingly for the base ingredients in your main cuisine. So, you will probably want to first look at advice from other folks that eat those cuisines primarily. Many “pantry” stocking articles assume a generic Western standard that applies for everyone. Let us not do that here.

With that said, let us dive in!

Pantry Stocking Advice

I have sorted the following out into three sections, and the second section has three parts of three parts each. The first is a general rule on what to make sure you have. The second part sorts some things out by how to store them, then split up into how much preparation they require. I give suggestions across a range of flavors and budget levels. The third selection is on building up a spice and seasoning stockpile.

Bags of frozen vegetables
Frozen vegetables are handy for many. (Photo public domain)

Things You Should Try to Have

You should try to have the following two things: some food that they can eat with no or very little preparations, and ingredients for a simple meal.

I am about to say something heretical for a food blogger to say. You need to have a ready-made meal, or something that can be treated as such, on hand. Ideally, a few. There are going to be days when you cannot cook, days when your stove is out of commission, or days when you’re suddenly stuck at home because your road is blocked off, and you have few groceries. This is where industrial food comes in. Platitudes about real food are all nice and good until you have a real need for food that cannot wait. So, keep some things on hand. Some things I recommend are: instant noodles, microwave meals if you have a working freezer, canned soups, protein bars, breakfast cereals, and microwave-pack shelf-stable meals. I personally stock some protein bars, breakfast cereals, frozen mac and cheese, and shelf-stable microwaveable pasta and vegetables for emergencies. I do not recommend making these a mainstay of your diet if you can avoid it, but they are a good idea. We live in a time where industrial food has enabled us to stockpile safe, somewhat tasty food if we can. It would be a shame not to take advantage.

Kasha varnishkes in a metal bowl
Kasha varnishkes can be made with shelf-stable ingredients. (photo mine, May 2017)

The other thing I recommend is keeping shelf- or freezer-stable ingredients for a simple, easily cooked meal. This could be as simple as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You should have a carbohydrate and a protein, and sources of salt, fat, and acid. Vegetable matter is always nice, too. I usually keep the ingredients for pasta with tuna or beans at all times:

Ingredients for Tuna/Bean Pasta

  • Pasta
  • Canned or frozen vegetables
  • Canned tomato sauce
  • Canned tuna or beans
  • Salt and some spices
  • Onions or garlic, using powders as a backstop
  • Cooking oil
  • Vinegar

In this list, the pasta, beans or tuna, salt, oil, and vinegar are the most essential, with the seasoning and vegetables adding flavor and nutrition. You can mix and match as necessary.

Here are ingredient lists for four more shelf-stable based cooked meals that you can plan for:

Rice and beans

  • Rice
  • Canned black beans
  • Salt and some spices
  • Onions or garlic, using powders as a backstop
  • Cooking oil
  • Vinegar

Couscous and beans

  • Couscous (the add-hot-water kind)
  • Raisins
  • Canned lentils
  • Salt and some spices
  • Onions or garlic, using powders as a backstop
  • Cooking oil
  • Vinegar

Kasha with Mushrooms and Beans

  • Kasha
  • Canned mushrooms
  • Canned white beans
  • Salt and some spices
  • Onions or garlic, using powders as a backstop
  • Cooking oil
  • Vinegar

Pasta with Green Beans and Canned Fish

  • Pasta
  • Canned green beans
  • Canned salmon
  • Salt and some spices
  • Onions or garlic, using powders as a backstop
  • Cooking oil
  • Vinegar

Again, if you can, I encourage expanding from these bases. But keep basic ingredients for a basic meal on hand. Again, this does not even necessarily have to involve cooking.

Five brown bouillon cubes in open wrappers.
Bouillon cubes – just as Jewish as homemade stock. (Photo Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

Beyond the Basics

Once you have the very basics, here are some things that you could consider placing in your pantry, based on your diet, your space, what you can do, what you cannot do, what you can afford, and what you can realistically keep.

I don’t even have all of these things in my pantry. You do not need all of these things at once! This list is suggestive, not prescriptive.

Note: some things are listed twice, because you can store them in either place.

Things That You Store in Cupboards

    No or little preparation required:

  • Bread (I tend to freeze bread.)
  • Add hot-water or microwaveable rice
  • Add hot-water or microwaveable pasta
  • Add hot-water or microwaveable mashed potatoes
  • Add hot-water oatmeal or Cream of wheat
  • Canned baked beans
  • Canned sardines
  • Canned peas
  • Canned corn
  • Canned vegetables
  • Canned mushrooms
  • Canned carrots
  • Canned fruit
  • Nutritional shakes or protein bars
  • Canned soup
  • Breakfast cereal
  • Add hot water soups
  • Corn tortillas
  • Instant noodles
  • Snacking nuts
  • Potato chips
  • Apple sauce (can also go in fridge)
  • Rice cakes
  • Coffee
  • Tea
  • Long-life milk or plant milk

    Some preparation required:

  • Pasta
  • Noodles
  • Rice
  • Potatoes (can also go in fridge)
  • Onions (can also go in fridge)
  • Garlic (can also go in fridge)
  • Rolled oats
  • Buckwheat groats
  • Canned beans
  • Dried beans (Though I strongly prefer canned.)

    Things you add to other food:

  • Salt – people will tell you to have multiple types of salt, but having basic salt that you can shake or grind is honestly manageable enough.
  • Vinegars – I recommend rice wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar to start for food, and white vinegar for cleaning. Red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, and malt vinegars are nice to have if you can.
  • Oils – I recommend canola or vegetable oil to start. Sesame oil, olive oil, and sunflower oil are nice to have.
  • Spices – see the section below.
  • Sugar – I recommend white sugar to start, brown sugar or confectioners’ sugar as needed. I personally store sugar in the fridge, since I find it keeps bugs away.
  • Flour – I usually recommend all-purpose flour to start, unless you cannot have gluten, in which case, an all-purpose gluten-free blend. Keep it sealed!
  • Cornstarch – for thickening foods.
  • Onion powder and garlic powder (even if you have onions and garlic)
  • Stock cubes or soup powder.
  • Syrup or honey, if you prefer that to sugar.
  • Yeast, if you bake breads.
  • Baking soda or baking powder for baking – I find baking soda and vinegar is great for cleaning too!
  • Soy sauce.
  • Peanut butter.
  • Ketchup – this can also go in the fridge, but it is fine if not.
  • Worcestershire sauce – do keep in mind that some folks have kashrut issues around this.
  • Hot sauce – check which kind, since some types do need to be refrigerated.

Things That You Store in the Fridge

    No preparation required:

  • Pickles
  • Yoghurt
  • Applesauce
  • Cheese

(Most ready-made stuff that is kept in the fridge does not keep for very long – so I would not rely on always having that specific type of thing on hand.)

    Things you add to other food:

  • Butter
  • Vegan butter substitutes
  • Milk
  • Plant milk
  • Lemon juice
  • Eggs – admittedly all three, but so versatile!
  • Applesauce – admittedly, the same as eggs.
  • Onions – can be stored outside, but keep longer in the fridge. If space allows,keep at some distance from potatoes.
  • Garlic – can be stored outside, but keep longer in fridge.
  • Pasta sauces (as needed)
  • Ketchup – this does not need to be in the fridge, but I do find that it is less messy

when it is refrigerated.

  • Miso paste – if you cook things that require it. If you seal it well, it actually keeps equally well in the freezer.
  • Mustard
  • Jams – they can be kept, if not yet opened, on a shelf.
  • Chutneys – same rules as jams.

Things That You Store in the Freezer

    Little preparation required:

  • Microwave meals/frozen meals, for backup situations
  • Frozen snacks
  • Frozen breakfast foods (frozen waffles, frozen patties)
  • Frozen prepared foods (I am a fan of frozen kugels and frozen dumplings)

    Some preparation required:

  • Frozen meat (I’m a fan especially of freezing mincemeats)
  • Frozen meat substitutes (Frozen tofu has a tradition of several hundred years)
  • Frozen beans
  • Frozen fish
  • Frozen bread
  • Frozen vegetables – including: frozen peas, frozen corn, frozen spinach, frozen okra, frozen broccoli. Note: some frozen vegetables have more nutrients than their average fresh equivalents.
  • Frozen fruit, including: frozen berries, frozen mango

    Things you add to other food:

  • Frozen stock – which is especially useful for soups and rice.
  • Frozen garlic or frozen crushed garlic – a lifesaver.
  • Frozen animal fats, if you use them – I particularly like frozen schmaltz.
  • Frozen sauces, if you use them.

cabinet of spices
A cabinet of spices. (Photo public domain)

Spices

Let me be clear about one thing first: getting a spice or ingredient stockpile together is not easy. Spices are expensive, need to be stored properly, and can easily be “lost” in a pile of bottles. Organization helps, but so does a bit of advanced knowledge.

Some people go off generic lists or kits, but I do not advise that. Instead, I suggest that before going out and buying spices you never use, get a sense of what you like to eat. Do you like spicy foods, bland foods, sweet foods, or savory foods? Look up a few recipes for things you like to eat often and note down the spices that you see. Buy those spices first, and make sure you know which ones you have. Then, only buy other spices as you need them. Over time, you will build a stockpile. Properly stored ground, dried spices can be stored for years.

I put together a joint list for spices based on the frequency I use them in Ashkenazi and Middle Eastern cuisines. I’m Lithuanian and German by heritage, so I tend to skew more seasoned than Polish or Russian Jews. I cook quite a bit of Middle Eastern food at home, and Mexican food.

Spices to start:

  • Black pepper
  • Cinnamon
  • Cumin
  • Dill
  • Garlic powder (alongside fresh garlic)
  • Ginger
  • Oregano
  • Parsley
  • Red pepper (flakes or powder)
  • Salt (iodized or sea)
  • Thyme

More spices:

  • Allspice
  • Basil
  • Bay leaves
  • Cardamom
  • Caraway seed
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Chili powder
  • Cilantro
  • Cloves
  • Coriander seed
  • Mustard seed
  • Nutmeg
  • Paprika
  • Poppy seed (for baking)
  • Rosemary
  • Turmeric
  • Vanilla extract (for baking)

Even more spices:

  • Asafoedita
  • Celery seed
  • Fennel seed (Anise)
  • Fenugreek (extremely needed for some cuisines)
  • Juniper berries (I personally am not a fan)
  • Mace
  • Marjoram
  • Nigella seeds
  • Saffron (very expensive, only buy if absolutely needed)
  • Savory
  • Sesame seeds
  • Star Anise
  • Sumac (but if you frequently cook Levantine food, get this)
  • Tarragon

If you want to experiment with several spices at a time, I highly recommend buying spice mixes. Some of these are quite beloved by their users, and are “standard” for many cuisines. I keep a very large amount of South African spice blends for cooking meat and pickling things on hand at all time. You can get some of these mixes very cheaply at the supermarket – for example, Pumpkin Pie Spice. There is no shame in using these!

Special thanks to the dozens of readers who told me what they keep in their pantries.

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Pumpkin Spice, But Jewish

Pumpkins on wooden shelves arranged in rows
(Photo Petr Kratochvil – Public Domain)

Here is a historical oddity for you: “pumpkin spice” is sometimes Jewish.

“What?” you might say. “Isn’t pumpkin spice a thing for ‘basic bitches’? Isn’t that, like, so late-capitalism-2017?” In fact, pumpkins served sweet with spices have a long history.

The oddly metallic and rather lackluster syrup at Starbucks – and the much better versions at bakeries across North America – is simply a mass-market rendition of a long American and European tradition. This spicing is a hangover from a medieval trend of heavily spicing sweet goods with cinnamon, cloves, and other seasonings from afar. This practice was still normal in the 17th and 18th century, when Old World seasoning met the New World pumpkin, which melded in the desserts and stews of Colonial America. It certainly helps that Massachusetts and New York a major shipment center for spices, fish, and sugar – and thus exposed to all sorts of spicing. From the dessert tradition of New England – which gave us both well-spiced pumpkin pie and apple cider doughnuts – we can then go forwards, to the pumpkin spice lattes of today, and backwards, to the Jewish and indigenous influences that are melded in pumpkin spice – and reflected elsewhere. Pumpkin desserts were popular beyond American shores as well.

Challah with black sesame seeds, between my etrog and a pumpkin
Pumpkin, next to some older Jewish foods – challah and etrog (Photo mine, October 2016.)

When the squash arrived from Mexico in the Mediterranean on Spanish ships in the late 16th century, it was a hit among Jews and non-Jews alike. Pumpkins and zucchini – which are both types of squash – were delicious, easy to grow in a Mediterranean climate, and lower-maintenance than other vegetables. The starchiness of the fruit stretched grains that were often too thin, while the elegance of squash fruit and flowers found its way onto the tables of the wealthy. Squash spread across the Mediterranean, including to Jewish communities, which hitherto had been using bottle gourds (dela’at in the Talmud) and muskmelons. The squash largely replaced those melons – though the related cucumber remained popular. As zucchini, squash found itself on Sephardic Shabbat tables in fried rounds, stuffed, or cooked with eggs in quajadas and frittatas. As pumpkin, squash found itself in tagines, stewed with meat, and sweets. Among these was a preparation of pumpkin that imitated the other ways of preparing quinces, apples, and nuts: in dulces, or thick and syrup-laden preserves. Dulce de calabasa, or candied pumpkin, became a venerable tradition for Rosh HaShanah and Hanukkah – and blended Old World preparation with New World crops.

Candied pumpkin, served with slivered almonds in the Sephardic style
Candied pumpkin, served with slivered almonds in the Sephardic style. (Photo mine, November 2017)

The methods used to candy pumpkins, quinces, and other fruits in pastes and purées probably came from Spain, where they were introduced with sugar cane by the Almoravids by the 11th century. From Spain, Sephardim took this method wherever they went – to the Netherlands, where it was new, or to the Ottoman Empire, which already employed similar methods. So too other “Spanish” but Moorish methods travelled, such as pickling in vinegar, salted fish, and the use of lemons. These Sephardic cooking methods influenced Dutch cooking (link in Dutch), which itself influenced the cooking of the Puritans and New Amsterdam. Though the cooking of the Netherlands in the 17th century was heavily influenced by the spice trade, many of the methods and flavors that became and remain common in Dutch cooking: the cloves, the cinnamon, and the sweet-savory combinations. The wealth and power of the Netherlands made it influential in Northern Europe – and especially for the Puritans who came to the Netherlands en route to America. The culinary influence they picked up there, and also gained from nearby New Netherland, influenced the sweets and cooking of Colonial America. And there, pumpkin was preponderant too. Thus Sephardim in Turkey and Pilgrims in Taunton both candied their pumpkin.

Other fruits are more common now among many Sephardic communities, but candied pumpkin remains popular in Turkey. There, you can find kabak tatlısı served with the clotted cream kaymak and a variety of nut-based pastries. Turkish and Greek Jewish communities still serve dulce de calabasa in Israel. I have also seen Israeli recipes that add tehina to the candied pumpkin. In Mexico, similar preserves are also prepared.

And, of course, the heritage is alive here in the United States, in pumpkin spice.


I made this rendition of dulce de calabasa on the request of my friend Jay, who asked for it in advance during a stay in the hospital, during which he could not eat and resultantly seemed to fantasize about food! I kept it on my mind until the pumpkins and squashes here in New York were at their best, and then made it from cobbling three recipes together. Jay was pleased with the result, and I hope you are too.

Candied Pumpkin (Dulce de Calabasa/Kabak Tatlısı)

Based on the recipes by Claudia Roden, Elia Tabuenca (in Spanish) and Hamarat Abla (in Turkish)

Note: The amounts per ingredient vary by the quantity of pumpkin you cook. The number of servings also varies. For one pound/500 g of pumpkin flesh, you get about 10 servings.

Fresh pie pumpkin, kabocha, acorn squash, or other winter squash

White sugar

Water

Ground cinnamon

Ground nutmeg

Cloves

Star anise

  1. Cut the top and bottom off the pumpkin, then cut into quarters. Peel each quarter, and remove the seeds and stringy stuff around the seeds. Discard the tops, bottoms, peels, and seeds. (You can save the seeds for roasting.)
  2. Cut the pieces of pumpkin flesh into chunks. Then, weigh the chunks if you have a scale. If you do not have a scale, then you can make a calculation. Take the weight of the pumpkin you started with and divide by five, then multiply by four. (The peels and seeds account for about 20% of a pumpkin’s weight.)
  3. Put the pumpkin chunks into a large bowl.
  4. Over the pumpkin, pour an amount of white sugar that is half of the weight of the pumpkin flesh. One cup of white sugar weighs 200g or 7oz. So, for 1lb/500g of pumpkin flesh, you would pour over 250g of sugar, or 1¼ cups. Mix the sugar between the pumpkin flesh.
  5. Cover the bowl and let sit for an hour. During this time, the sugar will draw the juice out of the pumpkin flesh and will become somewhat wet.
  6. After an hour, pour the pumpkin-sugar mixture into a pot, and add water to just cover the pumpkin. For each pound/500g of pumpkin, add: 1 teaspoon cinnamon, ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg, 4 dried cloves. You only need one star anise for anything less than 3kg/7lb.
  7. Put the pot on a high flame and bring to a boil. Then, reduce to a simmer and cook for 30 to 40 minutes, uncovered, or until the pumpkin is very soft to the spoon. Stir every few minutes.
  8. Remove the star anise from the pot. Then, use a potato masher or another implement to mash the pumpkin in the pot until the pumpkin is thoroughly puréed under the “sauce.”
  9. Simmer for another 10 minutes, or until the mixture is thicker. It should be sweet and pumpkin-y to the taste.
  10. Remove from the heat. Serve hot, warm, or cold with soft, sweet cheese, pancakes, custard, ice cream, or rice pudding. It is traditional in many communities to mix in roasted walnuts, hazelnuts, or slivered almonds. Some also add pistachios. Keep refrigerated for up to ten days, or frozen for up to four months.

Thank you to Jay Stanton, Naomi Barnett, Sara Liss, Robbie Berg, Kate Herzlin, and Ben Wohl for conducting User Acceptance Testing on this recipe. Thank you to my fellow group members on Writing the Kitchen for spicing suggestions. Thank you to Amram Altzman and Tory Cross for encouraging me in all things pumpkin.