So you've finally decided to get off your ass and try your hand at cooking — but what the hell do you stock your kitchen with? What ingredients are awesome to have around? Which bits and pieces can be used in everything, bought cheaply, and last well? These 18 ingredients are key to a well-stocked kitchen.
Wait, you don’t have bacon anywhere in your house right now? Why the hell not? It’s a key ingredient that can be added to almost any meal. Bacon and pancakes. Eggs and bacon. BLTs. Soups, stews, anything else savory. If you’re keen, you can candy your bacon. I have a tendency to dice it up, cook it until the fat renders a bit, and then toss in some leafy greens and get them all delicious and shit. Despite the internet going all retarded over the stuff, bacon is still remarkably useful, multipurpose, and decidedly delicious. If you’re hardcore, save the bacon fat for other cooking later.
Sriracha, also known as rooster or cock sauce, is a variation of a traditional Thai hot sauce, which has enjoyed a massive amount of popularity in the Americas. Why? Because it not only adds heat, it also adds flavor. Many hot sauces are extremely spicy, but bland. They’re boring and hot, and don’t add much to the complexity and interest of the dish. Sriracha (and others similar sauces) add a garlic blast in addition to the heat, making them far more versatile and fun to use. It’s also great on just about anything, and you can add it to mayo for instant spicy mayo fun times. Put it on your pizza, in your sauces, in your soup, and on your veges. The stuff’s delicious.
16. Worcestershire Sauce
Despite being impossible to pronounce, Worcestershire sauce deserves a place in any basic kitchen setup. Be warned, it’s not vegetarian friendly (has anchovies in it), but that flavor it brings can’t be replicated. It’s a stunning mixture of ingredients and tastes, and kicks the umami factor of anything it touches up a notch. If you’re struggling to add that unknown quality to some of your dishes, try throwing in a couple of dashes of this stuff. It won’t overpower it, and will give your food some zing. A lot of that I attribute to the sauce containing so many basic tastes: it has vinegar for tartness, sugar and caramel for sweet, onions and garlic for savory, and fish for umami.
15. Real Maple Syrup
If you’re a person who purchases “maple flavored syrup”, or any syrup that fucks around with its pure maple nature, you deserve no better than a bloody execution in front of your friends and family. You’re a monster. That Aunt Jemimah stuff is hideous and nothing but flavored corn syrup. Go, get a real fucking jar of the stuff, your tastebuds will thank you, and you’d be surprised what you can do with it. Remember what I said before about candied bacon? Oh yeah. Here’s a protip: buy grade B rather than grade A stuff. Why? Because it’s darker, more caramelly, and more mapley. That’s right, it tastes even more like maple syrup than grade A.
Flour is your ally, but don’t confuse that with it being your friend. Absolutely essential in more dishes than I can think of, it can be surprisingly difficult to use properly. The world of baking is a complex one, but worth the effort. Without flour, there’s no pizza dough, no biscuits, no cookies, cakes, pancakes, dumplings, spaetzl or a whole bunch of other things. You need flour to dust baking dishes to stop things sticking, to cover surfaces for working dough. You can use it to thicken sauces, to bread meat and fish, and for a million other uses. Learn how to use it, you’ll need it.
Vinegar is bewildering in its variety, there are a thousand different types you can buy. Luckily, you can ignore almost all of them. What you really need is two or three types: white, cider, and balsamic (or something else vaguely fancy). The latter two you use for their flavor, and what they bring to the culinary table. Tartness is good, and salad dressings are easy as all fuck to make. Oil and vinegar, oh shit it’s a vinaigrette! If anything’s tasting too salty or sugary, put in a bit of vinegar to cut it. Also, if your food tastes bland, vinegar can be used to lift it, and make it taste fresher and lighter. So, why the white vinegar? It does all of the above without imparting too much outside flavor, and it’s also one of the best cleaning ingredients known to man. I won’t list what it can do here, there are whole websites devoted to that, but that stuff will clean anything on the planet.
Mustard, in all its brilliant and infinite variation, is one of the most useful condiments to have on hand. Yellow or grainy. Spicy or mild. Hell, even just in powder form. It’s absolutely fantastic to have around, and if used judiciously can add a certain kick to your food that you won’t normally see. I’m a huge fan of Silver Spring mustard, which is made in Wisconsin, and absolutely kicks ass. Some of it is crazy potent. Also try and find some proper spicy English mustard. Anyone who thinks British food is bland has obviously never had an encounter with this stuff. It blows wasabi out of the water, and will strip your sinuses clear in no time.
11. Herbs and Spices
Starting a herb and spice collection is one of the hardest, but most rewarding, tasks a cook can do. Where do you start? Well, first, ditch all those mixed herb collections you have in the drawer. They’re worthless. If you really like one, read what’s in it, and go buy some of those nice and lose. Don’t buy them from your local grocery store, because that’s crazy expensive — go ethnic. Mexican and Indian grocers tend to have really, really good herb and spice selections dirt cheap, and they’re the same stuff as Whole Foods charges an arm and a leg for, just in simpler packaging. International grocery stores are your friend.
10. Fish Sauce
Remember how I talked about Worcestershire Sauce being made of fermented fish? Here’s the big boy version. Fish sauce smells absolutely horrible when you sniff it — for fairly obvious reasons. It’s fermented fish juice. But, as rancid as it may sound or smell, it’s a key ingredient in Southeast Asian cooking. It just takes a little squirt, and you won’t even taste it, all that you’ll notice is a sudden massive boost in the savory flavor of the dish. The stuff’s pure umami, and is to be handled with a light touch. Too much, and your food will be inedible. A dash or two? Perfect.
Stock. Powdered or liquid. Homemade or from a jar. It’s an absolutely crucial ingredient for anything that braises, for soups and stews, for sauces. Pretty much anything that’s savory and with a liquid base. You can make it at home insanely easy — just boil meat bones and veges for hours, then reduce and freeze whatever’s left. If you can’t be arsed doing it yourself, then look for “Better Than Bouillon,” which is the unparalleled king of powdered stock, and makes an absolutely killer soup even on its own.
8. Kosher Salt, Whole Pepper
I’m going to argue that the basis of flavoring food for western cooking resolves around two basic ingredients: salt and pepper. But what many people don’t realize is that paying just a *tiny* bit extra can lead to a much, much higher quality ingredient for these two. You don’t need to go crazy and by Himalayan rocksalt harvested by vestal virgins or anything. Kosher salt. It comes in huge boxes, it’s super affordable, and you require less of it for a better flavor. Don’t get pre-ground pepper. Buy a pepper mill, and freshly crack it. Between the two, everything tastes much better.
7. Real Fucking Cheese
No, not American cheese. Not Velveeta, Kraft, anything that comes in individual slices or is bright orange. Cheese. From milk. From a cow, goat or sheep. Everyone gives America crap for having shitty cheese, which isn’t quite right. There are some really, really good ones around. Wisconsin and Vermont both make cheese which are balling. Experiment a little. Gouda is fucking delicious. Try something soft. Try something hard. Try something smelly. Get good, aged, sharp cheddar that is so strong it turns your toes. Use leftover cheese rinds in your stews and sauces. Grate it over your food. Sample it with dried or fresh fruit. Expand your horizons, motherfuckers! Damn, now I need some pecorino.
6. Garlic and Onions
For some reason, garlic and onions are the starting ingredients to just about every thing I make. Dice some onions, get them into some hot oil in the pan, while those are softening dice up the garlic and throw those in a little later — they’ll burn if you add them too early. Onions can be cooked to just about a million different levels. You can have them crunchy, soft, browned, caramelized, or if you’re crazy, a little bit burned. The garlic can be whole, sliced, diced, minced, or crushed. The two just together insanely well, and I swear that half the recipes you’ll find in any decent recipe book will begin with this pair — and if they don’t, they should. Keep stocked in both, you’ll use them constantly.
5. Frozen Shrimp
Frozen, uncooked, tails-on. Them’s the rules. Anything else is up for debate — deveined, deshelled, individually or mass frozen. Whatever. But decent frozen shrimp can be added to just about anything to give it a bit of flair. Dice them up in your scrambled eggs or omelets — aren’t you fucking fancy? Into the red sauce they go for some flair. Make a basic soup. Figure out how to make your own cocktail sauce, and impress the living hell out of everyone. Yes, fresh is better. But keeping these guys in your freezer is incredibly easy, and they can be busted out at just about any point in order to kick things up a notch.
4. Canned Beans
Another staple for starving bachelors. Cheap as all hell, tasty, and endlessly useful. Rice and beans, anyone? Don’t get any of the weird flavored ones, just plain black or red. Go to your Mexican grocer to get them on the cheap. Some people swear by buying dried and then soaking them over night, which works perfectly well but requires more planning than I’m capable off. Having a half dozen cans in the cupboard is much, much easier. It won’t take long before beans become a staple in your diet, because damn if they aren’t delicious.
3. Frozen Veggies
Frozen vegetables get a bad rap, they’re often better than the fresh ones from the produce section. Well, the “fresh” ones. See, they’re frozen as soon as humanly possible, rather than being sent half-way across the world, going off as they travel, or the store ones have have to be picked green in order to get to you when ripe. Frozen ones, on the other hand, are picked at the perfect point, then snap frozen, so they’re as fresh as possible. If handled right, they’re just as tasty and useful as the freshest you can get in the store, they last forever, and they’re incredibly easy. Why wouldn’t you?
2. Canned Tomatoes
I swear, I’m addicted to canned tomatoes. They’re completely and utterly a staple for me, mostly because I make bolognese constantly. But it’s also the basis for dozens of different pasta sauces, for home made pizza topping, it goes in soups and stews, you can use it to help braise meat. As a big, big fan of one-pot cooking, a lot of my dishes end up getting a tin of tomatoes and a half-can’s worth of red wine. That’ll make just about anything taste good, after a half hour or so of delicious, delicious simmering.
Insanely fucking cheap, low calorie, and delicious. Eggs can be used in so many different ways that my mind is constantly blown. There’s the whole thing of scrambled, fried, poached, boiled (hard or soft). Then french toast. Omelettes. Pancakes. Cakes. Most baking, eggs in purgatory, egg sandwiches, heuvos rancheros. And every one of those dishes allows for infinite variation in and of itself. Eggs can do almost anything, and are stupidly cheap for what they are. You can just about survive on the things. Your kitchen needs them. And nothing impresses the ladies more than a well made egg.