KITCHEN PANTRY 101
Spring cleaning was always more of a psychological endeavor when we were growing up, a chance to clear minds and face new starts as our moms made us go purge our closets and our art-class wall hangings.
As we get older, we realize spring cleaning has benefits beyond mere tidiness, especially in the kitchen. The annual pure of drawers, cupboards, and pantry is the one time of the year we assess the quality of our provisions: spices that have gone stale, half-opened boxes of cavatelli we shouldn’t let molder on the shelf, that three-year-old can of pork rillettes you picked up in Paris and know, realistically, you’ll never open.
Consider this primer on freshening up your pantry a twofer. First, we’ll explain what to stock your shelves with if you’re starting from scratch, all the baseline essentials you’ll need to be a good and versatile cook. Second, we’ll suggest the things you should take a good look at in the first few weeks of spring to hit the reset button for the warm-weather season ahead.
BASELINE PANTRY ITEMS
Chocolate: semisweet chips, bittersweet bar, unsweetened cocoa powder
Extracts: almond, pure vanilla
Flour: all-purpose, cake, whole wheat
Sugar: granulated, light brown, dark brown, powdered
Yeast: active dry
Asian fish sauce
Chinese rice wine
Hot sauces: Sriracha, Tabasco, and a Mexican table salsa, such as El Yucateca Salsa Picante de Chile Habanero
Olives: kalamata, green
Vinegars: balsamic, red wine, champagne, cider, unseasoned rice wine
Wine: dry red, dry white
Beans: black, cannellini, garbanzos
Broth: low-sodium chicken, vegetable
Tomatoes: whole peeled, fire-roasted diced
Beans/Legumes: black turtle, navy, cannellini, pinto, garbanzo, lentils, French lentils
Fruit: apricots, figs, dates, raisins
Pasta: fettuccine, spaghetti, penne
Rice: basmati, brown, jasmine
Mustard: Dijon, yellow, whole grain
Olive: pure, extra virgin
Nonstick baking spray
SPICES & HERBS
Cinnamon: ground, stick
Paprika: sweet, smoked (pimentón)
How long does dried pasta last?
Will that year-old box of linguine go stale? How about that open package of orzo? “Generally, old pasta has a gummy flavor when cooked,” writes Michele Foley, “and may show signs of discoloration. Dried egg pasta also starts to smell because the small amount of fat in it is going rancid.” Turns out most pasta packaging has a stamped-on expiration date of two years. Use your judgment, though. “Because dried pasta has little to no fat or moisture content, it resists spoiling easily, and has a shelf life that is pretty remarkable.’” Read more.
Should you purge your dried herbs and spices every year?
Spices that are past their prime won’t make you sick, but they won’t have much flavor either, says Patty Erd, the owner of the Spice House, a small chain of specialty spice stores in Illinois and Wisconsin. To get the most from what you’ve got, she suggests keeping whole spices for three years and ground spices for just a year. So as painful as it might be to toss a jar of ground cinnamon you only used a tablespoon from, there’s no arguing with flavor degradation. To avoid the yearly tossing ritual, consider buying dried herbs and spices in bulk, to you can bring home realistically small amounts. And if possible, buy whole spices and grind them yourself in a coffee mill kept expressly for the purpose. Read more.
SPRING PANTRY DO-OVERS
It’s absurd (not to mention wasteful) to think you have to do a major pantry re-stock every spring. But you should check what you have, use the opportunity to clean and reorganize, and take a hard look at pantry items that do fade over the course of a year.
You know the drill for cleaning: use warm soapy water to wash those bottles of olive oil, jars of honey, and spice containers—anywhere dust, airborne grease, or sticky hands have done their worst. Also, spring’s the time to clear out drawers, shelves, and racks, washing with warm soapy water, and considering whether it’s time to refresh liners.
So, here are things you’ll probably want to think about purging from the pantry on a yearly basis:
Baking soda (transfer it the cleaning supplies shelf and use in cleaning, as a mild abrasive)
Watch: Why It’s Important to Test Your Baking Powder
Do you know how long your baking powder has been on your shelf? Suzy Brannon demonstrates a simple test to use on baking powder to avoid any kind of disaster while making baked treats!
Oils (make sure these haven’t gone rancid, especially relatively unprocessed oils like extra-virgin olive)
Brown rice (another candidate for rancidity—smell to make sure it has no off aromas)
Pastas (dried pastas that contain eggs can go rancid, too—smell to make sure they still seem fresh)
And, of course, anything you haven’t used in the past two years. Assuming it’s still in good condition, consider donating to a friend, a neighbor, or your local food bank
HOW DO YOU GET STARTED?
Materials you need to organize your pantry
Shelves: make sure they’re easy to clean—metal, laminated, or wire—or, if wooden, line with scrubbable shelf liners
Spice rack: Probably everyone’s mom had one of these, sometimes useful, other times an ancient piece of wall with containers of dusty spices collected in the last decade; a useful spice rack—whether that’s a wall mount, drawer rack, or a series of shelves affixed to the back of the pantry door—above all gives you accessibility
Containers: Small glass spice jars with tight-fitting lids: Clear glass is essential since it’s nonporous, so volatile aromas won’t leach out through the material; it doesn’t absorb flavors easily; and, being clear, you can see the spices without slowing down to read labels
Tall glass pasta holders: Sometimes we use a whole pound of pasta in one meal, but when cooking for two we don’t; it’s handy to have a place for leftovers that’ll help keep the contents from degrading
AN EXPERT GOES DEEP
Watch: The Proper Way to Store Food in Your Fridge
Putting away the groceries may seem like a no-brainer, but storing everything correctly in the fridge can help your food stay fresher. For example, did you know that some veggies won't last long stored next to some fruits? Suzy Brannon gives you the lowdown on what to put where so that your provisions don't spoil.
PANTRY RECIPE ROUNDUP
The best stuff you can make after shopping your pantry, cupboards, and fridge.
An aseptic box of low-sodium chicken broth, four cans of white beans, an onion, and garlic are the pantry staples that form the base of this nourishing side that can easily stand in as the center of a meal. All you need from the fridge: some Swiss chard and a bunch of parsley. Get our Braised White Beans with Chard recipe.
The ultimate Italian summer salad goes cool weather-y with the help of a couple of crucial pantry staples. This rustic bread salad incorporates canned white beans and dried cranberries, not to mention olive oil and Dijon mustard. Allied with kale, feta, and imagination, you get an entrée-scale salad that’s good for you. Get our Panzanella with Kale, White Beans, and Cranberries salad.
With a couple of cans of chickpeas, plus olive oil, salt, and spices, you can bake up this delicious and addictive snack. They’re great tossed in a salad, and they make a surprising soup garnish, wherever you want an extra boost of spicy, nutty flavor and a bit of crunch. And it all came from the pantry. Get our Spicy Oven-Roasted Chickpeas recipe.
French green lentils are small and firm. They don’t fall apart in the cooking water as readily as regular brown lentils do, so they’re ideal for salads. This one has French country flair—you dice onion and carrot, and dress it with a mix of extra-virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar. Get our Lentil Salad recipe.
Dried orzo pasta joins its pantry mates canned chickpeas and picholine olives in this perfect picnic salad (it keeps its texture and bright flavors, even as it sits). Make this when you need a reliable side dish, or pile it on lettuce leaves for a tasty lunch. Get our Celery and Olive Orzo Salad recipe.
This is basically the poster recipe for pantry cooking—canned tuna and long-grain rice, green olives, and sun-dried tomatoes. Make it when you’re working from home and you don’t have time to run out for lunch, or for a night when the weather’s keeping you slippers-bound. Be sure to use the best tuna you can find. Get our Italian Tuna-and-Rice Salad recipe.
A big can of tomatoes and a couple of cans of chickpeas are the heart of this versatile vegetarian dish from India. It’s a great canvas on which to stretch lots of aromatic spices (fresh ones, of course, toasted and ground just before you need them). Serve with basmati rice to make a complete protein. Get our Chole (Chana) Masala recipe.
Is it classical carbonara? Admittedly, no, but it’s photographer Chris Rochelle’s go-to when it’s late and going out isn’t an option—in other words, desperation’s setting in. But with a couple of eggs from the fridge, that hunk of Parmesan in the cold cuts drawer, butter, garlic, and a package of spaghetti, and after 20 minutes, you’ve got something quietly delicious to console you. Get our Desperation Spaghetti Carbonara recipe.
Small-pearl tapioca and a few cans of coconut milk turn golden after a couple of hours in the crockpot. This beloved comfort pudding gets its body from an egg, beaten and stirred in 30 minutes before it’s ready. And the final touch is some chopped pineapple stirred in—if you want to go total pantry, make it canned. Get our Slow Cooker Mango Tapioca Pudding recipe.
IN THE NEWS
Houzz contributor Becky Harris offers tips on cleaning and organizing a kitchen pantry in 1 to 3 hours, including tips on resources (what jars to buy), and how to end up with a pantry you’d be proud enough not to have to close the door on when company comes over. Read more.
Header photo: homemadeserenity.blogspot.com