Stocking Your Kitchen
I was asked to prepare a roast chicken dinner at a friend’s house recently. Ingredient after ingredient, tool after tool, I was denied the means available to ply my hobby and feed our gathering. I heard things like, “Oh, I wasn’t going to make any dishes that require olive oil this week, so I didn’t buy any olive oil.” and “I wasn’t planning on to baking anything, so no, there’s no flour. You need flour to make gravy? Really?”  Argh. Rather than lecture my friend, I did what I could.
But now, I’ve determined to put together a list of things that every kitchen should have in stock at all times so none of you, Dear Readers, will ever be in that situation. Even if you’re just starting out setting up your first household from literally nothing, with this list you can have a functional kitchen up and running in which most kinds of food can be prepared and, with a little bit of experience, prepared to the point that they can be actively enjoyed, an
Your mission is to gather the following items and never again be without them:
- Salt. Preferably kosher salt or sea salt. The finely-granulated stuff that you get for cheap often has iodine added — which you need a little bit of in your body, but it gives the salt a metallic taste.
- Black pepper. I prefer it in whole peppercorns, which I then grind down to size. Failing that, get it in a coarse grind. Much more flavor this way.
- Garlic. Keep at least a bulb on hand at all times. Break away the cloves from the bulb as needed, and peel by pressing down on the clove with the flat of a broad knife. The paper skin pops off and you’ve got yourself some flavor, right there.
- Onions. Red  tend to have the most flavor, but brown are cheapest and most plentiful and white tend to interfere with the color of your food least. Also, learn how to chop these so you don’t release the acidic vapors that are the bulb’s natural defense mechanism against being eaten before it can sprout and reproduce.
- Celery and carrots. To eat, and to put in garden salads, of course. But I’m mainly concerned with chopping these up finely, and adding in chopped onion, to make mirepoix, the essential vegetable foundation to pretty much every sort of reasonably complex dish to come from pretty much every European-style cuisine there is. 
- Milk. Really, any kind, but if you’re going to be using milk for a sauce, the stuff with at least some fat in it is way better than the fat-free stuff. If you’re a vegan, you’re in luck, because most “milks” made from straining water through various kinds of nuts bring some of the nut fat and proteins in with them so the thin, tasteless, and probably sweetened liquid does minimally function as milk. Ideally, you non-vegans will also have some heavy cream, or at least half-and-half, on hand too for sauce and soup use, but at least have some milk around.
- Butter. All manner of European cooking styles use butter as a fat, to both provide flavor and a binding agent for other ingredients. You may not need as much butter as a recipe calls for, but you need some. And joke about the health effects of butter all you want, what you should stay the hell away from is margarine. Way worse for your heart than butter (it’s, like, 100% trans fats) and it tastes like crap to boot. If you’re SuperVegan then use olive oil instead of margarine as your basic fat. Seriously, margarine is a sin against nature.
- Olive oil. If you’re only going to get one kind of olive oil, get extra-virgin. The greener the oil, the better. Take care when buying to distinguish the color of the oil from the color of the bottle it’s in. As you advance in ability, you’ll expand into different grades and colors of oils. You use this as a primer for browning meat or vegetables when you roast them, to lubricate pots and pans so your food doesn’t stick to it, and because it tastes good.
- Eggs. Turns out, you don’t really need to refrigerate these, you silly Americans. And, the interior of the egg, with all the stuff you want, is typically sterile. The contamination danger of eggs is on the outside of the shell. Used to bind together liquid ingredients, as in a batter, and of course eaten directly as protein.
- Wheat flour. Some people are sensitive to the gluten here, and will need to educate themselves about what can substitute for this. But you need to have flour around if you’re going to do cooking more serious than warming up a can of soup. You dredge proteins in it to keep them moist while they cook. You make sauces from it because it captures fats and thickens liquids.
- Cayenne pepper. Don’t be afraid of it, except in ridiculously excessive quantities. A dash of it wakes up the food without burning anyone’s tongue. Also, it looks pretty.
- Sugar. Not to make everything super-sweet, but either to take the edge off of something very bitter or sour, or to catalyze a transformation in something you’re making. For instance, I will sometimes put a bit of sugar in soy sauce as a glaze for a steak — the sugar in the sauce makes the soy sauce caramelize and helps get that nice charred crust you want on that steak.
- Herbs. The dried herb sampler kit that the store sells or that your friend gave you for a gift is not ideal, but it’s likely enough to get you through most stuff. As you progress from beginning kitchen to more intermediate levels, you’ll find you prefer fresh herbs to dried and a greater variety than this, but if all you’ve got is the eight-pack of dried oregano, basil, thyme, rosemary, celery seed, sage, bay leaf, and parsley, that’s enough to get you going.
- Lemons. OMG you can’t not have lemons on hand. Lemon juice is sweet (yes, it is, it’s high in fructose) and dense in ascorbic acid, otherwise known as vitamin C. That preserves the color of things like apples and potatoes that otherwise turn icky brown when left out for a while. It acidifies a sauce and fixes proteins (indeed, some seafood dishes are not cooked with heat at all but instead cured with lemon or lime juice). Lemon zest (the very outside parts of the peel) wakes up all sorts of food with the lemony flavor without adding the highly-acidic juice. You can dress a salad in nothing but lemon juice and some kosher salt crystals in a pinch.
Just have this stuff on hand at all times. Replace it when you use it; don’t buy it only when you’re planning on making something specific with it. And once you have it all, it should only cost you a few dollars a week to replace what you use. Now, without these base ingredients available, your kitchen is a pretty room with an oven in it, not a place where food can be created. My kitchen is also bare to the point of lacking any useful function without cheese and so I consider cheese a staple like the above, but I must recognize that there are those out there who do not eat cheese just as there are those who do not eat meat.
You’re also going to need some equipment. Presuming you have at least a basic range with a burner or two on top and an oven below it for baking/roasting, a refrigerator, and a sink that reliably provides potable water, you’re on your way for the minimally-necessary fixtures. Get at least this stuff:
- Saute pan. These days, such pans are typically made from aluminum, and come in six- eight- and ten- inch diameter sizes. If you’re on a limited budget, the eight-inch diameter pan will get you started. Particularly good for things like eggs and vegetables since it absorbs and transfers heat from your burners quickly.
- Cast iron skillet. Use this for browning meats, frying bacon — this is going to be heavier, and therefore store more heat, than the aluminum saute pan.
- 4 gallon quart Dutch oven. This looks like a big pot. It’s what you’ll use for soups and stocks and, if you’ve no other pots or pans to use for this purpose, boiling pasta and rice. (Note that you need to cover the top for rice, so be sure to get a lid.)
- Sauce pan. This is a smaller (1-2 quart) pot with a handle. Intended for making sauces, also good for boiling your oatmeal since with all this cool kitchen stuff you’ll be able to graduate out of the microwave method of cooking it.
- Cookie sheet. This can double as a roasting pan in a pinch, although its low walls will play you false if you wanted to make something that gives off a lot of fluid. But you absolutely need something to hold prepared food in the oven with while you bake or roast it.
- Casserole. A vessel, typically glass or ceramic with a lid, which will retain liquid and not fracture under heat. Used for baking things that give off lots of liquid, like vegetables or potatoes or cheese.
- Strainer. A big metal bowl, sometimes with small holes drilled in it, sometimes made out of a metal mesh. It’s how you separate boiled food from the water it was boiled in — like when you drain pasta.
- Pyrex measuring cup. You want the one made out of the heat-resistant glass, because this bad boy is going to hold stuff that gets hot, or go in a microwave for things like melting butter.
- Mixing bowl. This should be a bigger affair, for putting in stuff during the preparation process.
- Cutting board. If you’re just starting out, get the plastic one, not the bamboo or wooden one. Much harder to accidentally contaminate.
- Knives. Professional chefs fetishize their knives, and with good reason. The bulk of their craft involves cutting and slicing raw stuff so it gets cooked right. If you actually need this column you probably don’t need super-awesome knives just yet. But you do need more than one. Get a butcher’s knife (the big scary looking one), a bread knife (it’ll be long and serrated) a paring knife (the cute short one, for fruits and vegetables) and a standard chef knife (there’s a variety of shapes within this broad category, what you want is about eight inches in length and a medium width to the blade). Department stores sell knife kits with these and a set of steak knives; that’s a fine way to go.
- Long-handled wooden spoon. For stirring stuff up.
- Whisk. For mixing things together.
- Rubberized plastic spatula scraper. For getting stuff out of your pots and pans.
- Flipper. For flipping things. Sometimes also confusingly called a “spatula.”
- Tongs. For picking up stuff too hot to hold with your hands.
- Soap. You’re going to be washing your hands a lot if you want to prepare all of this food safely.
Of course, as you learn new techniques and as you acquire things, you’ll want more tools. Power mixers, blenders, microwaves, toaster ovens, crock pots, griddle pans … all of these accrete as one accumulates possessions over the course of a lifetime and become part of the arsenal.
Finally, you need to know how to make stock. Think of stock as “thin broth that you cook with instead of eat directly.” You can reconstitute stock from a bouillon cube or a condensed concentrate. Those work, but usually come out pretty salty. You can buy stock in liquid form, in a can or a box. I’ve actually had good luck with that when I’ve needed to supplement my own creations, although some brands are still pretty salty.
But if you’re cooking with meats on the bone, and you’ve stocked your kitchen as I’ve described here, just make your own stock, and stretch your food dollar out a whole lot farther and get better product. Take your meat bones  and throw them in a pot with some water. Put in the leavings of your onions, carrots, and celery  or some big hunks of these if you haven’t any leavings from other cooking. Pinch of salt, pinch of pepper; the seasonings on and in your meat will generally suffice to flavor the stock. Low boil, until about a third of the liquid reduces out. Strain out the big hunks. Store in the refrigerator. As it cools down, a layer of fat will rise to the top and congeal; skim that off as best you can (it can be delicate and it’ll melt back into the solution if you handle it with your fingers). Now you’ve got stock to use in a future recipe as a base for sauce or soup.
Make a point of keeping some of this on hand too. With this as your base, you can go out and get a meat (if you’re a meat-eater), a starch (rice, potatoes, pasta, bread), and some vegetables, and have a nice dinner. In fact, even if this is were all that you’ve got, you could still make yourself a decent (and even flavorful) vegetable soup, an omelet for protein, and some popover rolls or biscuits to keep you feeling full. In this manner, you could keep yourself fed nearly indefinitely until you gather enough money to get other kinds of food.
 Yeah. Yeah, you do. You deglaze the drippings out of the roasting pan with some stock of the same sort of meat as your roast, and then you slowly whisk in roux, which is just flour folded in to melted butter, over low heat, until you get that nice creamy consistency. That’s what gravy is. I thought everyone knew that but I guess not.
 Why do people insist on calling them “red” onions? They’re purple. Want proof? Look at them!
 I once had an eviction in which the landlord showed up with pictures of the kitchen. The tenant had used the “throw the pasta against the wall to see if it sticks” method of checking for doneness, but had never scraped the pasta off later, which then adhered to the wall, strand by spaghetti strand, until the resulting piece looked like a heater vent air filter, only… more disgusting.
 Generally, we’re talking poultry or beef bones here, often with bits of meat and fat still on them. Pork lends a nice flavor to stock, too, and fish stock is pretty much the only way to go as a base for a sauce to use on future seafood dishes because a sauce made from even a chicken stock will overpower the flavor of most kinds of fish. And if you’re vegetarian or vegan, you can make stock just out of vegetables and skip the animal product altogether.
 Chopped onions, carrots, and celery are called mirepoix in French cuisine and this is the foundation of most kinds of sauces, flavorings, braising, and soups. This vegetable base has been exported from France to the rest of the world: variations on French mirepoix show up in all sorts of cooking: swap out the carrot for a green pepper and you’re cooking Cajun; throw in a tomato and you’re in Spain or Italy, etc. If you’ve got mirepoix, chances are you’re off to a strong start.
Image source: Wikimedia commons.
Burt Likko is the pseudonym of an attorney in Southern California. His interests include Constitutional law with a special interest in law relating to the concept of separation of church and state, cooking, good wine, and bad science fiction movies. Follow his sporadic Tweets at @burtlikko, and his Flipboard at Burt Likko.