The Cheap-Ass Pantry
This past October I launched the Cheap-Ass Gourmet series, which CC added to with his most awesome homemade yogurt post. The purpose of the series was to provide a starting point for readers who were on a very tight budget, wanted to eat healthy, and were a little intimidated about stepping foot into their own kitchen. The posts included recipes for an entire healthy meal, the approximate cost per dinner, how much time you should budget to make it, and instructions on how to use every last bit of whatever you bought to stretch your food dollar as far as it can go.
Last month Reformed Republican asked what were the basic food items he should keep on hand in his pantry. It was a really great question. Having an unprepared pantry usually leads to it being filled with crappy, unhealthy food. If you’re on a budget, this can turn into a never-ending cycle; every time you think you might want to try out cooking on your own, you realize you have to buy every single ingredient including the staples, and the cost feels prohibitive. But if you can build a good, simple pantry over time then eating well can actually be as cheap (or cheaper) than eating crap. (Added bonus: You’ll live longer.)
I had meant to post this answer sooner, but the holidays being the holidays it lingered on my hard drive until this week when John Cole kicked my cheap ass into gear with this post. (It turns out his brain has been kicking around the same thoughts over at BJ.) For those of you who already have a stocked pantry, please add your own recommendations in the comments section.
And so with that meandering introduction, my Cheap-Ass Ordinary Pantry recommendations can be found after the jump.
A Few First Rules on Building a Well-Stocked Pantry
Rule #1: First off, you need to know this – my pantry would totally suck in your kitchen. (Unless, of course, you have my exact same tastes – in which case, let me just take a quick moment to praise you for your most amazing and refined taste.) You want to make sure that you’re stocking for the kinds of meals you actually want to eat. This means you need to take my actual, individual recommendations with a grain of salt… preferably kosher or sea salt, as I will explain in Rule #2.
For example, I don’t really bake and so you’ll notice that flour isn’t part of my basic pantry. What you will find, however are items that can help you prepare basic cheap Italian, Greek, Chinese, Thai and Mexican dishes, which are the ones I most love to cook when I’m on a budget.
Rule #2: With food, cheaper does not necessarily mean less expensive. Most of the time, food actually adheres to a watered down version of the Sam Vimes Theory of Social Injustice. So if there are particular flavors you like, don’t automatically purchase the thing with the lowest price tag; they are oft times far more expensive.
For example, I happen to like cheddar cheese. When I was young, I avoided buying extra-sharp (which has a more pronounced cheddar flavor) because a brick of it cost $2.50, whereas plain cheddar was only $2.00; I thought I was saving money getting the plain. What I leaned over time was that while I needed to put half a cup of regular cheddar on my enchiladas to get them to taste somewhat cheesy, I only needed a few ounces to get the same cheese kick with extra sharp. So the $2.00 brick would give me five meals worth or cheese, but the $2.50 brick might well give me a dozen. Plus, it actually tastes better.
Similarly, I usually cook most things with the cheapest olive oil I can find; but if olive oil is actually one of the main things I’m using to flavor a dish (a salad, for example, or risotto) I use a very small amount of a higher quality, and it actually saves money (and again, tastes better). Salt is another good example: kosher or sea salt tastes than regular Morton’s Iodized, and you need far, far less of it. (Just don’t buy it from someplace like William Sonoma that will charge you an outrageous price and then send you $0.70 worth of salt in a $5.00 decorative container.)
Rule #3: Buy as sparingly as you can. Jars and bottles of spices can be ridiculously and prohibitively expensive, so get them in small amounts at a store that has a bulk food section. You can even get things like olive oil, peanut butter, and dish soap bulk these days. And if you’re on a budget, this rule should be extended to non-pantry foods as well. If you’re going to buy produce or meat, don’t buy so much that it goes bad before you can eat it. I’ve wasted a lot of money in my life on groceries that have grown self-aware in the back of the fridge before I got brave enough to excavate them. I like the convenience of shopping for two or three nights, but unless you live far away from a grocery store shopping for a week always seems to lead to buying food you throw away later.
Rule #4: Think: whole foods. It sounds cliché, but the fewer ingredients on anything you buy for your pantry the better. If you do need to buy a processed food product, always take note of the order in which the ingredients are listed; they are ordered by quantity. If your orange juice’s first ingredient is not oranges, you should be very, very frightened.
Also, if I may be allowed to sound like your mother for just a moment: Please consider buying brown rice and whole wheat pasta. If you’ve never had them before, they’ll initially taste a little different – because unlike white rice and regular pasta, they actually taste like something. I promise you after a couple of weeks you’ll never go back, which is good; making the switch makes a meal go from being pretty unhealthy to being very healthy.
The Basic Cheap-Ass Pantry
If you’re just starting out, there are a few staples that I would recommend you have ready. Obviously, you can buy these at one time of over the course of a few months.
Oils & Vinegars
- Cheap Vegetable Oil – I recommend canola oil, just because it tends to be healthier than a lot of other oils.
- Cheap Olive Oil – You’ll need this for vegetables, pastas, and a million other things.
- Cheap Cider Vinegar – A surprising amount of things you make from scratch will have vinegar as an ingredient. If you only have one kind, cider isn’t a bad way to go – though white wine vinegar might be a close second for me.
Whole Grain & Protein Staples
- Rice – Buy it brown for health, buy it in the bulk section for price. My staple rice is brown basmati.
- Whole Wheat Pasta – I prefer either linguini or penne, which are little tubes that work especially well for puttanesca.
- Dried Beans – Far cheaper and better tasting than canned beans; my preference is for black beans.
- Whole Grain Bread – Your choice as to which kind to get, but I love rye.
Spices & Flavorings
- Kosher Salt – Less expensive in the long run and better tasting that iodized salt.
- Ground Pepper – I actually use pepper far more than I use salt.
- Fresh Garlic – If you’ve never cooked before, you’ll go through this quicker than you’d imagine.
- Basic Meat Spices: Rosemary, Thyme, Sage, Mint – As I say, buy these in small amounts from the bulk section. As your pantry becomes more complete, getting the rosemary and mint fresh is much more preferable. In fact, if you have a yard or a place to put a pot, you can grow these two with about zero effort.
- Basic Italian Spices: Oregano, Basil – Fresh basil is always preferable when possible and the budget allows, but having dried is good for all the times they don’t.
- Basic Mexican Seasoning: Cumin, Coriander, Chile Powder or Flakes – The oregano goes here as well, really.
Condiments & Various Other Goods
- Mustard – I prefer a spicier version to the standard French’s Yellow, but mustard can help all kind of cheap cuts of meat taste delicious, especially when they’re being served as cold leftovers.
- Ketchup – Actually, I never really use the stuff – for burgers I’d rather have A-1 or BBQ sauce, and I just like mustard on dogs and sausages – but so many people do it’s always been part of what’s in my pantry.
- Soy Sauce – Preferably, the low-sodium type.
- Chicken or Vegetable Broth – Even if you don’t like chicken or vegetable soup, you’ll use these in all kids of cooking.
The Second Stage Cheap-Ass Pantry
Here are the things I would start adding over time once your basic pantry is complete. For young people in school, some of these things are the kinds of things you can always ask your parents to add to your stockings when you go home for Christmas.
Oils & Vinegars
- Nice Olive Oil – For things like salads and risottos (which, by the way, are deceptively easy and cheap to make).
- Balsamic Vinegar – Be careful here; some balsamic can be outrageously expensive; you don’t need to spend a fortune.
Whole Grain & Protein Staples
- Quinoa – A little trendy these days, but the highest in protein of all the grains.
- Whole Grain Couscous – Actually, quicker and easier to make than rice.
- Whole Wheat Pita – A really under-used bread.
Spices & Flavorings
- Peppercorns – This assumes that you’ve been able to get your hands on a pepper mill by this time, of course. Like salt and olive oil, you’ll use less pepper and save money in the long run.
- Thai Spices: Kaffir Leaves, Thai Dried Chilies, Lemongrass – Just typing those three things made me hungry.
- Curry Making Spices: Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Paprika, Turmeric, Mustard Seed – These can be used for many other things as well; also, if you are going to make curries you’ll be using some of the spices you have already accumulated in your basic pantry as well.
Condiments & Various Other Goods
- Fish Sauce – If you aren’t familiar with fish sauce, believe me when I say that you eat it all the time in just about every dish served in every Thai restaurant you’ve ever been.
- Coconut Milk – I prefer light.
- Ginger Root – Like the garlic, you’ll use this a lot more than you think you will.
- Capers – I use these whenever I make puttanesca, which is perhaps the ultimate cheap-ass homemade dinner.
- Olives – Great snacks, but I use them a lot in both Italian and Greek cooking; I suggest using the kalamata variety.
- Canned Tomatoes – Be sure to get some kind that doesn’t use sugar or high-fructose corn syrup; it should just have tomatoes, citric acid (which keeps the tomatoes from going brown), and perhaps some sodium. I prefer the ones that are fire roasted.
- Almonds – Okay, okay, I rarely use them for cooking – but always having almonds on hand ensures I’ll never be wanting for a healthy snack.
And there you have my cheap-ass pantry. I’m probably forgetting a million things, but I could use the above to keep myself happy and on budget for quite a while.
Feel free to let me know what items you couldn’t live without in the threads below.