April – The Basic 20 for a Complete Pantry

April – The Basic 20 for a Complete Pantry

This post is one of a series on setting up a “Basic” kitchen, this time I am concentrating on the pantry. Future posts will feature equipment and other supplies. Over two years ago, I made suggestions for the items I consider necessary for a complete pantry. Keep in mind that these are the very basics, just the basics. At that time I had several young adult friends who were setting up housekeeping for themselves. They wanted to know where they should concentrate first.

You can view this as a minimalist wardrobe for the kitchen, your capsule kitchen.

You can find the original here if you are interested in reading it. However, I would like to make some updates and alterations. If you are just starting out on your own, you really only need these 20 basic pantry items to start preparing delicious meals. These are the items I always have on hand. It is also helpful to have the list if you are renting a holiday house and want to know what to take with you.

We recently returned from Paris where the apartment we rented did not contain any staples, not even salt and pepper. I’ve bolded the ones we rushed out to buy immediately, just in case you find yourself in a similar situation.

It is amazing how many meals you can create if you have the following 20 pantry items on hand. Wonderful cooks have been producing four-star “every day” meals with just these staples. If you add good bread, and a few fresh ingredients from the garden (see my post on the 10 plants to grow in pots) you have a feast. Simplify your kitchen and therefore your life.

All of the following 20 will keep well in the pantry or refrigerator. Use them to make quick delicious meals for your family, or guests.

  1. Salt – I like grey salt and sea salt for finishing, most of my recipes use kosher for cooking and flavoring water for pasta (keep it close to your stove in a jar or salt cellar). Regular table salt has additional additives and is not recommended.
  2. Pepper – a good black pepper (use a grinder not pre-ground, you can find peppercorns already in grinders in the spice section if needed.
  3. Olive oil – extra virgin
  4. Wine vinegar – red
  5. Dijon mustard
  6. Neutral oil such as canola or sunflower or coconut or grape seed
  7. Rice wine vinegar – this is on my list because it is a mild and wonderful with tender salad greens, it does not have a strong flavor
  8. Soy sauce
  9. Parmesan cheese (whole piece, not pre-grated, best you can afford)
  10. Onions – brown or white, plus red for salads
  11. Garlic
  12. Fresh ginger
  13. Lemons
  14. Butter – unsalted
  15. Coconut milk – canned
  16. Sesame oil
  17. Dried pasta
  18. Dried rice
  19. Canned tomatoes
  20. Canned beans of your choice, I love chick peas and use them often

I consider the 5 pantry items bolded are the only ones required to cook a simple meal. Really, only those 5. You don’t need to run out and restock an entire kitchen if you find yourself in a situation similar to the one we found in Paris. Think roast chicken brushed with Dijon mustard, roast vegetables dressed with olive oil and good salt, crisp bread, and a salad.

You will notice a few changes from last time, and what is not on the list…sugar and flour. I don’t use much sugar, in fact there are very few recipes on my blog for desserts. I admire bakers but I am not one of them. Flour and sugar might be part of your own personal list. You don’t really need to confine it to 20. Chocolate would be number 21 on my list (you can make your own judgement about it being essential). A quick dessert consists of good quality chocolate and a few slices of candied ginger (both of those are in my “not-so-basic” kitchen). That simple dessert, with a cup of herb tea or coffee, would complete a meal and put me in my happy place.

Also not on the list are herbs and spices. Flavoring choices are very personal but look for another post listing those I think should be your starting point. Good ingredients often don’t need much more than salt and pepper to shine, maybe with a slick of excellent olive oil.

Yes, coffee is not on the list or tea, also not milk. Add to this list those pantry items if they are required for your own happiness.

Picture these two scenarios…you just got home from work, it was a long day with no time to go to the grocery store. The train or bus was late, and traffic was bad. Your family is grouchy and hungry (and you aren’t far behind).

Or, maybe you get a call from an old friend who is in town for just one night. They want to meet your family. There is no time to do anything elaborate and besides, again, you haven’t had time to go grocery shopping. You want to make something delicious and classy but don’t want to spend hours in the kitchen.

If you have a well stocked pantry (plus some herbs and greens in pots on the deck, and bread in the freezer) you are all set.

Relax; pour yourself (and your guests) a glass of wine.


Buttered (or olive oil) pasta with parmesan. 

As a child in Rome I lived on simple pasta with butter or olive oil and parmesan cheese. I didn’t like all that other Italian stuff.

Got some fresh herbs in the garden, or some parsley in the fridge? Even fancier.

Pasta with olive oil, parmesan and fresh herbs

Toss a salad and you are done.

If you happen to have some type of vegetable in the back of the vegetable drawer, you can do something even more colorful.

3 Pepper Pasta

Or what about a handful of frozen peas? The peas shoots are nice but not necessary.

Pasta with peas and pea shoots

Pasta with canned chick peas and parmesan is delicious as well. Fresh herbs would brighten it but are not required. Make it Mexican with black beans and a can of chopped tomatoes. The possibilities are endless.