Cooking is simpler and faster when you already have the ingredients. We’ve identified three levels of pantries among our readers — essential, expanded and expert — so whether you’re beginning to cook, stretching toward new flavors or an old hand with wide-ranging tastes, you’ll be prepared. Our definition of pantry encompasses refrigerator, freezer and cupboard, so you can make entire meals with “pantry” items. We know that no two people will agree on a list of staples — one cook’s go-to ingredient may be new ground for another — but this is the stuff we believe you should keep on hand. For the most part, they’re ingredients that last. When you run low on potatoes or lemons, don’t wait to restock. Instead, put them on the shopping list so they’re always at the ready.
Getting Started: Clear the decks. Take everything out of your pantry, give it a hard look and decide what you can get rid of. Be ruthless. If you haven’t used it in a year, get rid of it.
Keep what looks and smells good. “Expiration,” “sell by,” and “best by” dates are not good guidelines. Some are determined by regulators, others by manufacturers, and almost all are arbitrary. Properly stored, some (unopened) ingredients, like canned fish, can last for years; others, like dried herbs, start declining in quality the moment they are sealed in a container.
Assess what remains. Then organize it according to the logic that makes sense to you: There’s no single best system. Your nut butters might be with the condiments, or the breakfast items, or the baking supplies.
Fill in the blanks with food that will make you a better cook. Each of the pantry lists below is a proposal, not a prescription. There’s no reason to stock black beans if you only like red. There’s no need to have everything here available at all times. You’ll know your pantry is well stocked for your purposes when most of the time, you need only add one or two fresh ingredients to cook one of our recipes from scratch. Or even better, none.
The Essential Pantry: The foundation layer for all three pantries, this is where everyone should start. There’s so much to be done with these basics. The rule here is stock your pantry mostly with what you’re confident using, and what you love to eat. You’ll turn to it again and again.
Oils and vinegars: Extra-virgin olive oil, neutral cooking oil (such as canola or grapeseed), red-wine vinegar, white vinegar or white-wine vinegar.
Cans and jars: Tuna in olive oil, tomato paste, diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, chicken stock or vegetable stock (box-packed tastes better than canned). A good-tasting, simple tomato sauce can become a soup or a stew, or make a quick dinner with pasta or polenta.
Spices and dried herbs: Kosher salt, red-pepper flakes, ground cayenne, curry powder, bay leaves, black peppercorns, sweet paprika, ground cinnamon, ground cumin, garlic powder or granulated garlic, dried thyme and dried oregano. This selection will take you through everything from a basic beef stew to Saturday morning pancakes to Thanksgiving dinner.
Grains and starches: Long-grain white rice, one or two other grains (such as quinoa or farro), dry pasta (one long, one short and chunky), plain bread crumbs, crackers, canned beans (white beans, black beans and-or chickpeas), dry lentils.
Nuts and nut butters: Walnuts, almonds, roasted peanuts, peanut butter (smooth and crunchy).
Sweeteners: Honey, maple syrup, granulated sugar.
Preserves and pickles: Fruit jams and preserves, anchovies.
Condiments and sauces: Basic vinaigrette, mustard (yellow or Dijon), mayonnaise, ketchup, hot sauce, salsa, soy sauce.
Produce: Garlic, onions, all-purpose potatoes (such as Yukon Gold), lemons, shelf-stable tofu (Essential for vegetarians, Expanded for others).
Dairy: Eggs, unsalted butter, cheeses (Cheddar, Jack or Colby, Parmesan), milk or cream for cooking (not skim).
Freezer: Chicken parts, sausages, thick fish fillets, shrimp, thick-sliced bread (for toast), spinach (and other vegetables such as corn and peas), berries (and other fruit such as peaches and mango). Some fruits and vegetables take particularly well to freezing — and in most growing seasons, the quality is better than fresh. Frozen fruit is useful for baking and smoothies.
Baking: All-purpose flour, cornmeal, rolled oats, cornstarch, baking soda, baking powder, pure vanilla extract, light brown sugar, dark brown sugar, confectioners’ sugar, bittersweet baking chocolate, semisweet chocolate chips, raisins or another dried fruit, cocoa powder. With these ingredients on hand, thousands of cookies, brownies, cakes, muffins, quick breads and other sweets can be produced without a trip to the store.
The Expanded Pantry: For the cook who has a grasp of the basics, but wants to be able to stretch toward new options and flavors. Here, long-lasting, punchy ingredients like tahini, hoisin sauce, coconut milk, sherry vinegar and capers are stocked alongside classics: limes with lemons, jasmine rice as well as long-grain, almond butter in addition to peanut butter.
Oils and vinegars: Peanut oil, coconut oil, sesame oil, sherry or balsamic vinegar, apple-cider vinegar.
Cans and jars: Sardines, unsweetened coconut milk, whole Italian plum tomatoes, beef stock (box-packed tastes better than canned). Whole plum tomatoes are rarely called for in recipes, but they tend to be the ripest and best-quality fruit. They can be diced or crushed to use in a recipe — or drained and slow-roasted for an intense topping on omelets, salads, grain bowls or pizza.
Spices: Flaky salt, single-chile powders (such as ancho and pasilla), ground coriander, turmeric, smoked paprika, cardamom, za’atar, allspice, fennel seeds, dry mustard, garam masala (a basic Indian mix of warm spices), five-spice powder (a basic Chinese mix of spices), whole nutmegs.
Grains and starches: Rice noodles, basmati or jasmine rice, brown rice, panko bread crumbs, dry beans.
Nuts and nut butters: Almond butter, tahini, pecans.
Preserves and pickles: Olives (oil-cured and-or in brine), capers in brine. These ingredients, served with good bread and butter, make an elegant appetizer with wine, or everyday snack.
Condiments and sauces: Worcestershire sauce, hoisin, Thai red curry paste, fish sauce, anchovy paste, harissa.
Produce: Russet potatoes, carrots, celery, limes, ginger, avocados, parsley, cilantro, scallions, jalapeños. Keeping chiles, aromatics and herbs on hand gives you instant access to intensely fresh flavors, even for — maybe especially for — the simplest dishes you cook.
Dairy: Plain full-fat yogurt, more intense cheeses (pecorino, feta), salted butter.
Freezer: Pancetta, artichoke hearts, homemade stock, homemade bread crumbs, fresh pasta, vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, cut and peeled winter squash, chopped onions), cooked grains. Prepared ingredients like chopped onions and cooked grains speed your route to dinner.
Baking: Cake flour, whole-wheat flour, dark baking chocolate, vanilla beans, almond extract, powdered gelatin, molasses, light corn syrup, buttermilk powder, active dry yeast.
The Expert Pantry
For the cook who likes taking global flavors, new methods and viral recipes for a spin. Here, the chiles get hotter, the chocolates darker and the cheeses funkier. These ingredients are just a fraction of what’s out there, but by stocking them, you will be able to cook almost any recipe you come across and experiment with creating your own.
Oils and vinegars: Walnut oil, avocado oil, roasted sesame oil, pumpkin-seed oil, olio santo (Italian chile-infused oil), rice vinegar, mirin (sweetened Japanese rice wine), verjus (the juice of sour fruit like green apples or grapes), raspberry vinegar, tarragon vinegar. These ingredients add subtle flavor variations on the themes of rich oil and tart vinegar: herbal and floral, sweet and fruity, smoky and earthy. Most are used for dressing or dipping, not for cooking.
Spices: Hot smoked paprika (pimentón), sumac, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, flaky dried chiles (such as Aleppo, Urfa or Maras), dried whole chiles (like ancho and arból), marjoram, dukkah, baharat, shichimi. Whether you stock spice mixes like baharat (a mix of warm spices used in the Middle East) or shichimi (a Japanese blend of ground chiles and sesame seeds) will depend on the global flavors that most appeal to you.
Grains and starches: Short-grain rice, dried pastas (bucatini, mezzi rigatoni or farfalle), spelt, pearl barley.
Nuts and nut butters: Pine nuts, hazelnuts, pumpkin seeds (pepitas), pistachios. Toasted nuts like these (not as everyday as almond and peanuts) are good in salads and granola, on roasted fish, or just with olives for a classic pre-dinner snack.
Preserves and pickles: Pickled hot peppers, cornichons, kimchi, preserved lemons, roasted chiles, horseradish, caperberries, dried sausages such as saucisson sec and chorizo. The intense flavors of pickled and salted ingredients can be a great pick-me-up for mild dishes. In cooking, you can often substitute a bit of preserved lemon for regular lemon, or use the brine from cornichons as part of the liquid in a recipe.
Condiments and sauces: Gochujang, mango chutney, miso, wasabi, dark soy sauce, Chinese oyster sauce, Asian chili bean pastes.
Produce: Shallots, fresh mint, fresh rosemary, lemongrass, fresh Serrano and Thai bird chiles, fresh bay leaves.
Dairy: Ghee, crème fraîche, aged cheeses (Gruyère, blue cheese). Ghee (Indian-style clarified butter) and crème fraîche can reach much higher temperatures than butter, yogurt and sour cream without burning or breaking, so they are useful in cooking.
Freezer: Edamame, curry leaves, makrut lime leaves, merguez (spicy lamb sausages from North Africa). Fragrant leaves like makrut lime and curry (not the spice mix, but an Indian tree with scented leaves) are much more powerful in frozen form than dried.
Baking: Bread flour, pectin, almond flour, tapioca pearls, rose and orange flower waters, gelatin sheets, black cocoa, currants, fresh yeast, sparkling sugar, pearl sugar, candied citrus rinds
Best Practices: Once you have your ingredients, remember that cooking will always create change and disorder. Cans of tomatoes may never match, spices may never live in matching containers, and your hot sauce collection may always try to take over the condiment shelf. But here are a few final thoughts on how to keep your pantry well stocked and well organized enough to be truly useful.
Organizing Tips: Cooks with different styles need different systems. Some people store the jam with the dried fruits and maple syrup; others associate it with peanut butter, mustard and mayonnaise. The best logic is your own, and it may take some time to figure that out.
If you can’t see it, you’re probably not going to use it. A storage space with more shelving is the most efficient configuration for ingredients. Drawers or slide-out shelves also help tremendously with visibility.
Store everything you can in clear containers. Airtight plastic ones are best, and available in many shapes, sizes, and systems. Rectangular shapes make the best use of space.
Keep a roll of painter’s tape and some permanent markers in a kitchen drawer. It’ll help you make quick labels.
Be realistic about your habits. It’s great to clean and trim a week’s worth of vegetables at once — but if you’re not going to do that, buy smaller quantities.
Buy ground spices in the smallest quantities you can find (except for spices you use regularly). Specialty companies will ship as little as an ounce, about 3 tablespoons. You’ll save space and produce better, brighter flavors in your food.
Buy fresh herbs. Dried herbs used to be a pantry essential, but most start out with very little flavor and lose it quickly in storage. (A couple of exceptions are dried oregano and dried thyme.) Pick up fresh herbs when you need them for a particular recipe; it’s a better investment of money and storage space.
Buy heavy, shelf-stable ingredients like boxed broth and canned tomatoes in bulk; better yet, order them online to save time and irritation. Almost any delivery service or website will offer a better price on these items than a brick-and-mortar store.
Cooked ingredients are much easier to use up than raw ones. Whether you steam, boil, pan-fry or roast, cook anything in your refrigerator that looks tired. You can always use it in a salad, a grain bowl or a pasta.