All–purpose bleached or unbleached is the most versatile to have on hand, if you only buy one type. You may also want to invest in a shaker of Wondra or other “instant” flour. These are low–protein, processed wheat flours, formulated to dissolve quickly in either hot or cold liquids. Wondra is great for thickening gravies and sauces without clumping, and adds a little extra crispness to breading and batters.
White and brown (either light or dark) will probably take care of 90 percent of your savory cooking needs. Brown sugar has a slight molasses overtone; dark more so than light. If you prefer the taste of honey to sugar, that can be useful as well (honey is a little sweeter by volume, so taste and adjust accordingly). Confectioner’s (powdered) sugar—extra fine sugar with a little cornstarch mixed in—is probably necessary only if you plan to make and frost cakes and cookies.
Let’s divide these into three categories: kosher salts, table salt, and finishing salts. (There are more, but they don’t concern most home cooks.)
Kosher salt is most useful for the cook. Its large crystals mitigate the possibility of oversalting, its lower weight–to–volume ratio (compared to table salt) does the same. Kosher salt is easier to pinch between fingers, and stands out on the surface of food, so you can see what you’ve seasoned. Two brands share the kosher salt market: Morton and Diamond Crystal. If you’re just using it for seasoning, the difference between the two isn’t important. But if you get into brines and cures, you should know that Diamond Crystal is lighter by volume than Morton. When making brines or cures, measure by weight, not volume.
Table salt is for, well, the table—sprinkling on food. It’s also the standard salt in baking recipes. Buy iodized or, if your diet is varied and includes lots of seafood, uniodized.
Finishing salts are prized for their texture, color and unique flavors. The textures are the result of harvesting techniques, leaving the crystals large and, in some cases, moist. Color and flavor come from residual chemicals and minerals that have been presumably compounded naturally with the salt. When all is said and done, salt is just sodium chloride. Repeated tests have shown that trace minerals and such are often, though not always, irrelevant to taste. Finishing salts are pretty, and they can add texture when added just before eating (don’t put them through a grinder, or you’ll ruin the effects).
It sometimes seems that there are as many pasta shapes as there are cooks in Italy. You can probably get by with two or three—one long, relatively thin shape like spaghetti or linguine, one short and rounded shape like penne, shells or farfalle (bowties), and lasagna noodles, if you like lasagna. But if you have room, buy as many as you like; they’re dried, so they will last virtually forever.
We prefer long– or medium–grain white rice for most uses. Brown rice can often be substituted if you like, but the texture will be denser and less fluffy, and it will take longer to cook. Jasmine and basmati rice are fragrant and tasty, but usually more expensive than long–grain. Some dishes jut won’t work without specialty rices: sushi, paella and risotto, for example.
Fine ground can be useful in batters, coating for deep fried foods and, of course, cornbread. Coarse ground corn (grits or polenta) makes an easy and quick side dish.
Commercially prepared dried breadcrumbs can be a nice thing to have on hand (plain are more versatile than seasoned), but they’re also very easy to make if you have a blender or food processor and dried bread lying around. However, if you plan to deep-fry anything, you should try “panko” or Japanese breadcrumbs. They’re designed for coating foods to be fried, and make for a great crisp crust. You really can’t make anything comparable.
Spices and herbs
Herbs and ground spices are full of volatile oils that oxidize quickly, pretty much no matter how you care for them. Buy whole spices whenever possible—they do keep for a long time. When it’s not possible, buy small amounts and replace them often. Herbs, with a few exceptions, are better fresh, but unless you have an herb garden, they’re expensive. So buy small amounts of dried herbs if you must, and splurge occasionally on fresh, using twice the amount of fresh as you would dried. There are a couple of exceptions to the “dried herbs are trash” rule: dried thyme is an excellent seasoning, even if it’s not the same as fresh. Granulated garlic and onion, while totally unsuitable as substitutes for the real thing, nevertheless have appropriate uses, especially in dry rubs and Louisiana cooking.
There is no substitute for fresh, in–season tomatoes, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up on them from October until June. Farmers all over the world work hard to make sure you have access to decent fruit year–round. Buy canned (tomatoes don’t freeze well) name brands with as little adulteration as possible: no salt, no herbs, no garlic (you can add that stuff yourself, if you want). Unless you’ve got an old family recipe that uses them, avoid sauces and purees and stick to diced, strained or whole tomatoes. Tomato paste, which is reduced puree, is useful for some things (adding depth to stocks, gravies and sauces, mainly), but it’s so concentrated that it’s almost not tomato anymore.
People will tell you that you have to make your own stock before you can call yourself a serious cook. They’re wrong. A serious cook cares about depth, flavor, color, texture and balance, and there’s nothing in a canned stock that alters that formula. Homemade stock will change it, and maybe make solving it easier; it will probably make your food better. But you can cook great food with canned broths, jarred stock bases, and even water, as long as you keep your eye (and your tongue and nose) on the essentials. Buy low–sodium/low–fat broths, and high–quality (you’ll know they’re good because they’re really expensive) bases. Watch the salt, acid and sugar in your finished dishes, and don’t rely on reductions for body. Canned broths are better used in roux–thickened sauces; stews and braises; and with long–simmered carbohydrates like dried beans.
Two belong in your pantry: tuna and anchovies.
Tuna comes in two versions: the domestic canned type from which we make salad and tuna–noodle casserole (neither to be scoffed at), and the bottled, imported version from Spain and Italy, which might as well be another species (a few of these come in cans as well). The latter is great in Salade Nicoise, as an antipasti, and well, just fished (sorry) out of the jar and eaten as is.
Anchovies are an underrated ingredient. Forget pizza—mash anchovies into vinaigrettes, mash and mix (they dissolve, bones and all) into oil for croutons, add a couple whenever Tabasco or Worcestershire sauce is called for. They’re rich in umami, the component identified as the fifth taste, along with salt, sour, sweet and bitter. As such, they add an incomparable flavor to almost any savory dish. Think of them as little scaly mushrooms, rather than fish, and you’ll be on your way. You can also buy anchovy paste in a tube, which has the advantage of already being mashed and easy to use without getting anchovy goo all over. Paste lacks the punch of the actual fish, but if you’re shy about anchovies, all the more reason to start with it.
This category also includes dried peas. They can be divided into two groups: slow cooking and even slower cooking. The swiftest of them, lentils and split peas, are done in about 20 minutes. The rest (navy, lima, northern, pinto, kidney, red, pink, cranberry) take a couple of hours, but canned beans are inexpensive and good. If you cook your own, the folk wisdom about salt and dried legumes has been researched and discredited. Feel free to salt at will—your beans will be better for early salting, and won’t slow down a bit. Do be careful about acids (molasses, vinegar and wine)—wait for an hour or so before adding them. But the most important thing about these wonderful starch–and–protein capsules is freshness. Buy them where lots of beans get sold. An old bean rarely cooks well, no matter how you treat it.
You need at least two, if you’re going to be serious about this cooking thing. You need a cooking oil for well, cooking, and a flavored oil for finishing dishes and for vinaigrettes. As your taste and skill develops, you’ll probably branch out, but to start, use peanut, canola or (if you’ve got the bucks) grapeseed oil for cooking. Get a decent extra–virgin olive oil for taste—you’ll pay about ten bucks a pint, but it’s a good way to start exploring a subset of ingredients that’s often thought to be as dependent on origin and processing methods as wine. If you plan to cook Asian dishes, toasted sesame oil will be a good thing to invest in—keep it in the refrigerator unless you use it quickly.
There are people who feel about vinegars the way other people feel about wines, olive oils and vintage Ferraris. And like oils, pursuing that path can be an interesting diversion. For the time being, though, find a red wine vinegar you like (they’re cheap, so taste a few), and a sherry vinegar for fancy occasions, when the extra depth and sweetness of sherry can make a difference. Rice vinegar is not only essential for Asian dishes, but because it’s usually milder than wine vinegar, it’s useful when you want less acid (look for unseasoned versions). As for balsamics, they can be revelations or insipid syrups. A good example is expensive, so pay attention when you’re at a restaurant or a rich, tasteful friend’s house. Get the brand name, and be prepared to pay for the pleasure.
Wine, sherry, brandy
That rule about not cooking with anything you wouldn’t drink is a wise one. It doesn’t mean you need to go overboard, though. With few exceptions, the subtleties of that $30 Bordeaux or $75 XO cognac will be obliterated by the harshness of the cooking process. Buy decent stuff for cooking, and avoid any bottle labeled “cooking wine”—blended reds ($10 a bottle, tops); unoaked whites (a California Sauvignon Blanc is fine); VS cognacs (we recommend Meukow or Courvosier VS); mid–market ($9–12) dry sherry. Anything more than that is showing off. You wouldn’t want to do that.
Condiments and sauces
Condiments are far too numerous to list separately, but a few stand out for flavor, versatility and usefulness:
Dijon–style mustard (Maille or Grey Poupon are good brands) adds a bite and depth to all kinds of sauces and helps emulsify vinaigrettes.
Worcestershire sauce is a complex mixture of sugar, anchovies, molasses, vinegar, and a whole bunch of other ingredients. It’s a “magic” ingredient that can lift a flat–tasting sauce, make meat meatier tasting, and add a layer of flavor to scores of savory dishes. Especially if you don’t keep anchovies on hand, you should have a bottle of this. Lea and Perrins is the standard; Tabasco makes a spicier version.
You might think that soy sauce is only for Asian food, but it finds its way into marinades, sauces and gravy regularly. Combining the tastes of salt and umami, it can perk up flavors with just a splash.
Hot pepper sauces can be an obsession for some people. It’s a relatively inexpensive habit to acquire, but for now, you’ll be fine with Tabasco, Crystal or another of the vinegar-based Louisiana style sauces, and an Asian chile paste or sauce of some kind—Sriracha is one that comes in big bottles and will last forever.
Milk and cream
Skim, 1% and 2% might be okay for drinking, but not for cooking. You want full–fat milk—whole milk. Buy it in pints, paying attention to the expiration date (the newest milk is often at the back of the cooler, so explore).
Buttermilk used to be the liquid left after churning butter, but that day passed when we were children. These days, milk is cultured with the bacteria that used to grow naturally in buttermilk. Low–fat is best for marinating; for breads (including cornbread), full–fat is richer and has a more appealing taste.
Whole milk is less than 4% fat. When you step up to half–and–half, cream and such, you’re doing heavy lifting. Heavy cream can be as much as 40% fat. Half–and–half is half milk and half cream, so we’re talking about something in the range of 20% fat (“coffee cream” is lower—more like 12–15%). Cream is a great ingredient. It reduces flawlessly; it adds richness and an incomparable smoothness to sauces. Still, you won’t use it that often. Luckily, its fat content gives it great staying power. Buy heavy whipping cream in half–pints and keep it in the coldest part of your fridge, and it will keep for weeks.
Sour cream, like buttermilk, is cultured. It has a nice tang, but it’s unstable. You can’t heat it without mixing in some sort of starch (cornstarch is usual; about one teaspoon per cup), or it will separate into an ugly mess.
A couple of years ago, we wouldn’t have included crème fraiche. Although it’s easy to make at home, most cooks don’t have the time, patience or counter space. These days, though, you can buy crème fraiche in small containers at the grocery store. It has less tang than sour cream, but it has subtle fruity notes, and doesn’t collapse under pressure (you can heat it and it won’t separate).
Most cooks use unsalted, 93–score AA butter. But even within that designation there are variations in water content. Butter freezes with grace, so buy name brands when they’re on sale (pay attention over holidays), wrap them well, and thaw as necessary.
Salted butters can be divided between cultured and uncultured. There’s nothing wrong with salted butter at the table, but if you have a chance to try cultured butter (most of it is made in Europe, though there are small–scale producers in the US), try it. It’s butter like you’ve never had before.
When it comes to eggs, fresh beats anything else—organic production, shell color, free ranging. Look at the expiration date on the end of the carton, and buy the ones with the longest life. If you’re committed to non–factory farms, don’t despair. First, look for places that move a lot of eggs (when it comes to organic, that’s not necessarily the big–box grocery). Second, keep in mind that eggs are surprisingly durable. Three or four days’ difference in expiration dates isn’t going to matter that much, unless you’re planning to poach them.
If you only keep one cheese on hand, it should be Parmagiano or another hard, aged grating cheese (Grana Padrano is a less expensive, though less tasty, substitute). It’s an ingredient in many European and American recipes and can add a layer of flavor to any number of dishes. Because it’s aged, it keeps well for several months in the refrigerator, so there’s no reason not to keep a chunk on hand. Other common cheeses in cooking are Cheddar and a Swiss type (Emmenthal and Gruyere are names you might see). Dave might suggest a blue type, but Janet finds blue cheese vile.