When it comes to your own pantry, try to be ruthless.
For many cooks, the new year brings new resolve to an eternal goal: having a well-stocked pantry. You may crave shelf systems and bulk ingredients, and sparkling new containers to keep them in. But look more closely at those catalogues and Instagram posts, and ask yourself: will my spice jars ever truly match? Do I really need to store apples in a hanging basket? Often, the ideas are about decorating, not cooking.
A truly functional pantry may not look flawless. But it can be the key to more and better cooking—as long as the contents fit your real-world cooking style and skills, so that you actually use what’s in it.
So we redefined the word to include the fresh and frozen staples that can make cooking easier and more productive. Now, we know that no two people will agree on a list of staples, just as they will never agree on a perfect recipe for macaroni and cheese. The list is a proposal, not a prescription.
Whether overhauling or starting a pantry, you don’t need vats of homemade stock and a dedicated room: just free some space in the freezer, refrigerator and cupboards. So, clear the decks: take everything out, give it a hard look and decide what you can get rid of.
Carla Lalli Music, author of the forthcoming book Where Cooking Begins, is the food director at Bon Appétit, where the test kitchen is enormous and overflowing. But at home, she has been paring down her pantry for years. “I used to keep ingredients forever, even though they made me feel guilt and anxiety,” she said, like a decade-old spice mix that her husband brought her from Paris, and honey mustard that a friend contributed to a dinner party. “I don’t like honey mustard; I have never liked honey mustard,” she said. “Why did I have to have this complicated relationship with it in my refrigerator door?”
When it comes to your own pantry, try to be ruthless. If you haven’t used it in a year, get rid of it. Then restock with an eye to the things you’re confident using, and what you love to eat.
Music recommends the restaurant rule of ingredients: FIFO, or first-in, first-out. In other words, cook what you have in order of freshness, and don’t let things linger. If that cauliflower you bought a week ago is beginning to wilt, cook it—even if you’re not sure how you’ll use it. Cooked ingredients are much easier to use up than fresh ones. If you use only the new ingredients, pushing the older ones to the back, they will disappear and then deteriorate.
Used this way, pantry ingredients build a healthy ecosystem in your kitchen. When bacon, eggs and Parmesan are defined as pantry ingredients, you already have the makings of multiple dishes: a big breakfast, a frittata for lunch, a dinner-worthy pile of fried rice. (If you keep packs of ramen on hand, you can even make a quick, one-pot pasta carbonara that is surprisingly close to the Roman original.) Add frozen spinach, lemons, and potatoes—all of which can be stored for many weeks—and another dimension opens up.
Finally, accept that your pantry will never be fully stocked and organised. Cooking creates change and disorder. Cans of tomatoes may never stack perfectly, spices may never live in matching containers, and your sauce collection may always be attempting a takeover of the shelf.
Think of it all as signs of life. And then, next January, start the process all over again.
(Julia Moskin, NYT)