Every kitchen must have a good set of staples on hand. These are items that you always have in the kitchen and can be combined in a variety of ways to make a meal almost anytime out of (nearly) thin air. You will be surprised how much you can do with a few simple ingredients on short notice.
I am partial to kosher salt or sea salt. Regular table salt is fine, however you should be aware that most table salt is “iodized,” which means that iodine has been added to the salt. Iodine is an important micronutriant that our bodies need. Years ago, people suffered from iodine deficiency and the U.S. Federal government intervened by adding iodine to something that nearly everyone eats (salt). The problem is that most people (in the U.S. anyway) get plenty of iodine in their diets today and some people say that iodine can adversely affect flavor. Salt can be stored at room temperature.
There is no substitute for good pepper. Freshly ground pepper is the best because it packs the most punch. Also, you can adjust the grinder to create anything from a fine mist of pepper to coarse ground chunks. There are a variety of pepper corns on the market, including black pepper, white pepper and red pepper corns. As a staple item, I always have black pepper on hand. Pepper can be stored at room temperature.
Many people will scoff at my suggestion to keep garlic powder on hand because they will tell you that fresh garlic tastes better. It does. However, garlic powder packs a great deal of flavor into a small serving and is a good substitute in rubs and in sauces when you want the garlic to disappear into the food. Garlic powder can be stored at room temperature.
I could not live without oregano. It is probably my favorite flavoring. There are a number of varieties including greek oregano and mexican oregano (two of my favorites). I use oregano liberally in my cooking. Oregano can be stored at room temperature.
Thyme packs a nice peppery flavor punch. It goes well with rosemary and garlic. I use it liberally on potatoes. Fresh thyme should be stored in the refrigerator. Dried thyme can be stored at room temperature.
Rosemary is another herb that I would find it difficult to live without. It is fragrant and somewhat earthy. It reminds me of fall. I grow rosemary in the yard (it is difficult to kill) and sometimes throw it right into the fire on the grill to produce a fragrant smoke flavor on my grilled meats. Fresh rosemary should be stored in the refrigerator. Dried rosemary can be stored at room temperature.
Basil comes in many varieties. All varieties are highly fragrant and tend to be sweet. Thai basil has a very interesting licorice flavor. Fresh basil should be stored in the refrigerator. Dried basil can be stored at room temperature.
Cumin is the seed of the a plant in the parsley family. It is dried and usually ground into a fine powder. It has a somewhat smokey flavor and is intensely fragrant. Don’t be put off by the fragrance (which some say smells like body oder), cumin is a great spice and useful in many different dishes. Cumin can be stored at room temperature.
Chili powder is made from dried chilis. It ranges from mild to intensely spicy. Chili powder adds a great deal of color to a dish. Chili powder can be stored at room temperature.
Good old pasta. Pasta is (usually) a wheat product. Dried pasta has a long shelf life and can be prepared quickly. This is an ideal go to meal when you are short on time and want to make something quick and easy. Pasta comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Cooking times vary according to thickness of the pasta. Dry pasta can be stored at room temperature.
Rice is also a good go to item for a quick and easy meal. There are a number of varieties of rice. I recommend keeping white rice and brown rice on hand. White rice cooks up quickly (usually in under 30 minutes) while brown rice takes longer. Brown rice is white rice with the germ intact, which means that it is subject to spoilage more quickly, but that it is also generally more healthy for you because it is a whole grain. Dried rice can be stored at room temperature.
Bread crumbs are useful for coating things that you want to bake or fry. I keep a package of flavored bread crumbs in the house nearly all the time. Since they are already dried out, they have a very long shelf life. Bread crumbs can be stored at room temperature.
Dried beans are economical, taste good, and are good for you. You can get a pound of dried beans for under a dollar at most grocery stores. It is a myth that you need to soak dried beans over night in order for them to become tender. But if you don’t do that your cooking time will likely double. Dried beans can be stored at room temperature.
Dairy (if you’re lactose intolerant, skip this section)
Milk is useful in cooking in many ways. It can be combined with a starch to create a thickening agent and you need it for mashed potatoes (well, for regular mashed potatoes anyway). It also goes well with cereal and with coffee (if you are so inclined). Milk should be stored in the refrigerator.
Who could live without butter? (Not me, that’s for sure.) Butter may be frozen for up to six months. It keeps in the fridge for as long as six months as well. Contrary to popular opinion, butter can be kept at room temperature if it is covered with an opaque cover. That being said, it should be used quickly because room temperature butter will oxidize and go rancid given enough time.
Oils and Condiments
Olive oil is my fat of choice. It is monounsaturated which means it is relatively healthy in moderation. It has wonderful flavor ranging from delicate to intense. One disadvantage of olive oil is that it has a low smoke point, that is it burns easily. For high heat cooking, you will want to use a vegetable oil, like Canola oil. Look for first cold pressed olive oil, which means that no heat or chemicals were used to extract the oil. Olive oil can be stored at room temperature.
Canola oil is a vegetable oil extracted from the canola plant. It has a high smoke point (meaning it doesn’t burn quickly) but it lacks intense flavor. I use this oil whenever a recipe calls for vegetable oil. Canola oil is also one of the more healthy vegetable oils. Look for expeller pressed oil, which means that no heat or chemicals were used to extract the oil. Canola oil can be stored at room temperature if you use it quickly. If you use it occasionally it is best to keep it in the refrigerator after opening.
Vinegar is an acidic concoction which may be made from many different substances. Common types of vinegar include apple cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, and balsamic vinegar. Balsamic vinegar is very sweet and is used in many vinaigrette dressings for salad. It ranges in grades and prices. Vinegar can be stored at room temperature.
Worcestershire sauce is a brown sauce with a slightly peppery taste. It is a great addition to meat dishes (especially beef) and is also handy in many sauces and dressings. Worcestershire sauce should be stored in the refrigerator after opening.
Mayonnaise is an all around condiment that can be used alone or in combination with other items to create sauces. It should be stored in the refrigerator after opening.
Mustard comes in many varieties from plain old yellow mustard to coarse Dijon mustard. It is useful for adding tang and zest to dishes. It should be stored in the refrigerator after opening.
Horseradish (or cream of horseradish) is made from grated horseradish and vinegar. It can be highly potent and very spicy. It may clear out your sinuses on a bad day. It should be kept in the refrigerator after opening.
Other Wet Goods
Stock or Broth
While there is a lot to be said about making stock from scratch, lets face it, most of us don’t have time to do that. Additionally, homemade stock takes up a lot of space in the refrigerator or freezer. So, I normally buy my broth or stock in cartons at the store. I look for lower sodium organic stock whenever I can. If you get it in the foil lined cartons, it can be stored in the refrigerator after opening. (Do not store anything in a tin can in the refrigerator after opening.) Prior to opening it can be stored at room temperature.
Lets face it, nothing beats a fresh tomato in the peak of summer. Corollary: Store bought tomatoes in any other season taste like cardboard. Thus, I recommend keeping canned tomatoes around the house. They are useful in all sorts of recipes.