Unpacking and organizing all your belongings in a new apartment is pretty stressful, but for those who aren't yet proficient in the kitchen, filling up the pantry and cabinets can be the hardest task of all. If you have found yourself starting from scratch in your brand new pantry, Chef Palak Patel at the Institute of Culinary Education says versatility is vital. "Especially for people that don't really cook, it's important that you are able to utilize your ingredients in multiple ways, not just one way," she tells Refinery29. With that key ingredient of versatility in mind, the chef, writer, and TV personality broke down the recipe for a well-stocked pantry that even the most novice home cooks can follow.
Oils, vinegar, and sauces
"The first three things that everybody should have are an olive oil, a regular cooking oil, and a good quality vinegar," Patel explains. When it comes to olive oils, she recommends opting for extra-virgin because it can be used to make dressings and vinaigrettes. The regular cooking oil can be a vegetable oil, canola oil, or something similarly practical. Just one type of vinegar can be used for multiple different things, so you can choose between apple cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, and others based on personal taste.
When it comes to soy sauce, Patel advises opting for a gluten-free option so it can be enjoyed by all types of eaters. "Not all soy sauces are gluten-free, so this is a big distinction for using soy sauce in your cooking." She recommends Tamari or Liquid Amino, which can purpose as soy sauce and is easy to find at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's.
Finally, for condiments, Patel recommends having handy a bottle of Sriracha and a bottle of Dijon mustard. "Those are just basic things I think you can do a lot of different variations on," she shares.
Herbs, spices, and seasonings
"For spices, I only really have a handful that I would recommend for somebody that maybe doesn't know how to cook," Patel tells us. "I try to think about what's going to get you the most bang for your buck." Spices that do just that, according to the chef, are an Italian seasoning, crushed red pepper, garam masala, cinnamon, turmeric, and cumin. "Italian seasoning usually has three to four different dried herbs so that covers your bases for any recipe that might call for like thyme or rosemary." The same thing is true of garam masala. "You buy one thing of this spice mix, and you're going to pick up a lot of different flavor notes from nutmeg, clove, cardamom. You don't need to buy these specific things, especially if you don't know how to cook." Red pepper, turmeric, and cumin are useful too because they can be used in many different kinds of cuisine, and cinnamon can go savory or sweet.
A staple of any dinner table, salt and pepper are, of course, necessary to have on hand at all times, but Patel suggests specific types for those who haven't been cooking long. "I really always tell people to learn how to start cooking with kosher salt. It's milder and easier to learn how to season your food with kosher salt as opposed to table salt, which is very, very salty. It's really easy to over-salt with iodized salt," the celebrity chef says. "You also want to get whole black peppercorns with a grinder. Not the powdered stuff."
Lentils, grains, and legumes
In order to make any meal feel more substantive, the chef says to stock lentils, canned chickpeas, canned black beans, quinoa, couscous, and a rice of your choice. "Red or green lentils are so inexpensive, and they're packed with protein," Patel explains. "They're also versatile because they can be in a soup or made into a patty." One more item she recommends that may seem a bit more specialty but is actually easy to find these days is an alternate pasta. "It's always nice to have a chickpea pasta or a pasta made with brown rice in lieu of regular pasta so it's not white-flour."
Some type of seasoned nut is also a great item to keep around. "I recommend always having seasoned nuts — cashews, walnuts, sesame — just because I love that anything you make, you can almost always sprinkle some nuts on top, and that gives it extra crunch and protein for an inexpensive amount," says Patel.
Of all the things that don't fit so neatly into any one pantry category, Chef Patel points out curry paste, coconut milk, chia seeds, maple syrup, vegetable stock, and canned tomatoes as items you should have readily available. According to her, curry paste is better than curry powder because, "it has a longer shelf life, more flavor, and is made with fresher ingredients." She also mentions that she's coming out with her own version of the curry bouillon cube, which she thinks is a good option for those who aren't yet confident in the kitchen. "I’ve noticed that a lot of millennials gravitate toward bouillon cubes because all you have to do is drop that in hot water, and it serves as your salt and your spice." The Food Network star explains that she prefers maple syrup to honey because it's vegan-friendly and richer in flavor.
As for fresh ingredients that might be stored among pantry goods, Patel says she always has onions, garlic, and ginger on hand.
Though it's not technically part of the pantry, the freezer can store important staples that will round out any meal. "There are a lot of easy frozen veggies that are ready to go that could be worthwhile for people to consider." Chef Patel says. "A classic veggie mix, cauliflower, these are things that breath really well and can be added last minute into a stir-fry or served as a side, so I would encourage people to have a couple of those baggies on hand to pull a full meal together. "
Building a well-stocked pantry can be a process and certainly doesn't have to be completed in one extremely stressful post-unpacking grocery trip. Once you do have your staples purchased, however, you should approach pantry organization with cooking inspiration in mind. "Set up the pantry the way you cook," Chef Patel explains. "It's all about being able to find themes. If you see your pasta next to canned sauce or rice noodles next to a can of coconut milk, they will trigger a recipe. Make sure that the organization is set up so that every time you open the pantry, you're inspired and you see all the possibilities."