Good, basic cooking ingredients, please!
December 27, 2006 12:55 PM   Subscribe

AlwaysPreparedFilter: What are ten (give or take a few) ingredients that are handy to always have on hand to cook a good meal?

I love to cook, but I just don't have the time to sit down every week to plan meals in advance. I try to make a big grocery shopping trip every couple of weeks or so. What are some ingredients (both perishable and non-perishable) that tend to show up in a lot of recipes or can be adapted to make simple meals?

Some more information: I eat meat, but don't require it in every meal. I love all different types of foods, and suggestions specific to certain types of cooking would be appreciated.
posted by elquien to Food & Drink (33 answers total) 125 users marked this as a favorite
Here are 15 I think are good to have on hand:

1. Whole grain pasta
2. Brown rice
3. Vegetable or chicken broth
4. Frozen mixed vegetables
5. Black beans
6. Fresh onions & Garlic
7. Tortillas (keep them in the freezer)
8. Salsa
9. Black Olives
10. Boneless skinless chicken breasts (in the freezer)
11. Olive oil
12. Balsamic vinegar
13. Sun-dried tomatoes
14. Spaghetti sauce
15. Shredded cheese & grated cheese

These ingredients can make a number of easy, tasty meals and are easy to store. From the above you can make:

1. Burritos (bean/cheese/rice, chicken/bean/rice, veggie/bean/rice, whatever)
2. Pasta with ... [sauce / sauteed onions & garlic with olive oil / olive oil, garlic & black olives / frozen veggies that are sauteed with garlic / sun-dried tomatoes, olive oil, garlic & grated cheese ]
3. Chicken marinated in balsamic cooked with sauteed onions & olives and served over brown rice
4. Tortilla pizzas 8-)
5. A low-effort rice bowl (brown rice topped with black beans, frozen veggies, and salsa, cheese is optional)

A number of other things, and you'll find that these ingredients turn up in lots of great meal ideas.
posted by tastybrains at 1:04 PM on December 27, 2006 [3 favorites]

a few basics I try to keep on hand:

- frozen chicken breasts (can be defrosted either overnight in the fridge, in ~2 hours in a bowl of warm water or in a few minutes in a microwave)

- pasta/ noodles (I'm going through an udon phase)

- tinned tomatoes

- canned tuna

- veggies (onions, carrots, tomatoes as staples, plus whatever happens to take your fancy at the store - aubergines, butternut squash, bean sprouts- mix it up so you don't get too bored)

- cheese

- stock cubes (add to pasta sauce for interest)

- eggs (omlettes, also good for carbonara sauce and adding to udon soup)
posted by netsirk at 1:07 PM on December 27, 2006

Chicken parts
Ground Beef
Dried Lentils
Canned Beans
Rice / Pasta / Noodles
Tomato Sauce / Paste
Meat or Veg. Stock
posted by grateful at 1:07 PM on December 27, 2006

Dried pasta
Good canned crushed tomatoes (we like Pastene)
Thick-cut bacon
Boneless chicken breasts
Sweet or spicy Italian sausage
Fresh garlic
Fresh parsley

These things go on my normal "milk, bread and eggs" shopping list. The tomatoes we buy 24 cans at a time at Claudio's in the Italian market in Philly, 'cause I'll be damned if I can find them in a plain old grocery store in the MD/DC/VA area. If I have this stuff in the house, I can make pasta alla amtriciana (certainly I spelled that wrong), a sausage ragu, pasta with sweet sausage and broccoli ("sauce-less" and quite savory), chicken scampi (I use the Barefoot Contessa recipe but don't like shrimp), grilled chicken with lemon and parsley with a side of broccoli, a really good red sauce with chicken and rosemary (from our back yard), and probably 4 other things we make regularly that I can't think of right now. Keep eggs and good cheese and you can make spaghetti carbonara, too.

Plainly, pasta is the "carb of choice" in our house. I'm happy to share any of these recipes.
posted by ersatzkat at 1:11 PM on December 27, 2006

Assuming you have spices in the house already, this is one pantry list. I picked things that do a good job of sitting around and staying nice to eat until you're ready to eat them, and which leave you a lot of options for spur-of-the-moment cooking in several different cuisines:
  • Onions and garlic
  • Canned chickpeas and/or black beans -- good in stew, curry, as dips, soup, rice and beans, refritos, etc., etc.
  • Dried lentils, red and brown -- very quick to cook up, nice for soup, Indian dals, Middle Eastern rice and lentils (mujaddarah)
  • Rice (I actually like quinoa even better, often, but rice is more traditional)
  • Eggs
  • Cheese: something like cheddar and/or gruyere for snacking and making cheesy baked whatever, and did you know that queso blanco also works in recipes calling for paneer?
  • High quality frozen vegetables: the more separate and whole each vegetable remains in the bag, the better. I like fancy organic frozen spinach, and good frozen green beans. Trader Joe's is a great source for this.
  • A pack of flour tortillas, which are also nice with Indian food
  • Good quality canned chopped or whole (not pureed) tomatoes
  • Pasta

posted by redfoxtail at 1:17 PM on December 27, 2006

Oh, and olive oil, in vast quantities.
posted by redfoxtail at 1:17 PM on December 27, 2006

Olive Oil
Peanut Oil
Rice Noodles
Soy Sauce
Fish Sauce
Frozen Chicken
Frozen Pork Loins (sliced)
Peanut Butter
Chili Garlic Sauce
posted by miss tea at 1:21 PM on December 27, 2006

Here's what I keep around:

Olive oil
Hard cheese (parm or romano)
Tortillas (flour or corn)

With these, you can make soup, burritos, rice & beans, omelettes, pasta dishes (pasta with nothing but olive oil and fried garlic is excellent), casseroles, and more. If you have some meat to go with them, these ingredients will open up even more options.

If you ask me, the key to variety is spices, not ingredients. If you have different spices, you can make the same ingredients taste American (salt, pepper, rosemary), Indian (coriander, turmeric, cayenne), Italian (red pepper flakes, oregano), Mexican (oregano, cumin, cayenne), Chinese (soy sauce, rice vinegar, dried black beans), etc. As long as you have a well-stocked spice cabinet, you'll never get bored.
posted by vorfeed at 1:32 PM on December 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

The only addition to the above, if you're not regular wine drinkers, is to keep some single-serve wine bottles around. Very handy to add some to a pan sauce, risotto, etc. without opening a big bottle. Plus you're more likely to try new recipes that call for wine.

I've suggested it in other threads, I think, but this book has a very good list of pantry items and plenty of throw-it-together recipes.
posted by cabingirl at 1:35 PM on December 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

As a man who has only recently learned to cook basics, I agree most with vorfeed's list. If you throw soy sauce in there (and it sounds like you might have a couple packets laying around because of your schedule), you can always make fried rice with leftover spoilables.

Fish and meat will keep in the freezer for awhile. Brown rice is not such a good idea if you tend not to have time to make it.
posted by rhizome at 1:37 PM on December 27, 2006

vinegars, cider, malt, rice, sherry, wine
cheeses, second that gruyere suggestion
basic red and white wine
seseme oil along with all the others
some shrimp in the freezer -always handy
rice, basamati, jasmine, arborio, wild etc.
second the limes/lemons
onions, shallots, garlic, leeks, scallions

the prepared list is endless; lots of nice stuff in the lists though
posted by Max Power at 1:45 PM on December 27, 2006

Basmati rice
all purpose seasoning
olive oil
soy sauce
red wine
posted by mycapaciousbottega at 1:46 PM on December 27, 2006

  1. Wasa Fiber Rye Cripsbread
  2. Cottage Cheese (Plain)
  3. Yogurt (Plain)
  4. Hummus
  5. Olive Oil
  6. Salt/Pepper (but of course!)
  7. Potatoes
  8. Wheat bran
  9. Wheat Germ
  10. Flavored Protein Powder (I use the cinnamon bun flavor from All The Whey)
I'm basically the laziest yet overly-concerned-with-good-nutrition person around, so here is a few things I whip up when I'm too lazy to make a fancy (fancy being, requiring the use of the stove or oven) meal:
  • 1 cup of plain yogurt (protein, calcium)
  • 1/4 cup wheat bran (fiber, complex carbohydrates)
  • 2 Tablespoons wheat germ (vitamin e, folic acid, protein and other goodness along with adding a nice crunch)
  • 2 Tablespoons of cinnamon bum protein powder (protein, duh, and yummy flavor)
  • Basically mix everything together in a bowl except the wheat germ. Once everything is mixed together sprinkle the wheat germ on top. A delicious nutritious meal to eat any time of the day. I also add things like flax oil (or flax meal) and unsweetened shredded coconut, or a 1/4 cup of canned pumpkin that I leave in my fridge for some good old vitamin A.
My next super lazy meal idea is:
  • 3 or 4 (or hell, sometimes like, 10) wasa crispbreads (fiber, complex carbohydrates)
  • 1 cup cottage cheese (protein)
  • a spoonful of hummus (I like Tribe brand garlic hummus, this is added for flavor. Sometimes I'll just use something like a spoonful of sun dried tomato flavor bruschetta from Trader Joes)
  • Mix cottage cheese and hummus (or whatever you'd like to use for flavor) in a bowl. Eat on top of crispbread.
If that doesn't seem like enough, sometimes I'll microwave a potato and eat it with olive oil and a dash of salt and pepper.

This is basically what I eat the majority of the time because I hate cooking.
posted by zippity at 1:52 PM on December 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

You've got a pantry full of ingredient ideas up there, and they're all good. What's missing is a low-effort way to make them all taste different. For me, that's where sauces come in.

We always have a variety of store-bought sauces in the fridge. Our staples include: mustard-based, lemon-based, balsamic-based, asian black bean sauce, jerk sauce, terayaki, pesto, salsa, bbq, etc. We "doctor" the sauces to keep the flavors interesting and fresh by keeping jars of ginger, garlic, sundried tomatoes, and capers in the fridge. And we happen to like gardening we grow some fresh herbs, but I'm sure we could get along just fine without them too.

The general idea is improvisational cooking. You can take almost any combination of veggies + protein you have laying around (chicken, tofu, fish, beef, whatever), add a sauce to the protein to quickly marinate while you're chopping your veggies or preparing your starch (rice, noodles, bread), then cook on the stovetop or in the oven.

About 30 minutes from beginning to end for healthy, interesting food.

We're also known to cook a big bird on a Sunday night and use it until it runs out, in sandwiches, salads, casseroles, pizzas....
posted by nadise at 2:22 PM on December 27, 2006 [2 favorites]

Try to develop a couple of good recipes you can make with low effort and easy ingredients. Right now, for me, it's peanut sauce over rice noodles. I usually have potatoes and/or sweet potatoes and can make buffalo potato wedges for home or a potluck.

Peanut sauce = peanut butter, rice wine vinegar, brown sugar, soy sauce, sesame oil, chili sauce.

Buffalo potato wedges are oven roasted potatoes with - potatoes, oil, tabasco sauce.

I always have pesto and whole wheat pasta, which is a meal I love.
posted by theora55 at 2:22 PM on December 27, 2006

1. salt
2. butter
3. pepper
4. vermouth (keeps open longer than wine)
5. chicken stock

oooh, I get five more?!

6. ($meat)
7. ($vegetable)
8. thyme
9. flour
10. TIE: bacon / lemon

With that, you can rock just about anything. Add eggs and spaghetti and you'll never be more than ten minutes from awesome.
posted by mimi at 2:27 PM on December 27, 2006

Second the shrimp in the freezer.
Also good quality fish and lamb in the freezer.
Cans of coconut milk.
Cans of garbanzo and red kidney beans.
Sour cream.
Onions, ginger, garlic, tomatoes.
And for emergencies: granola.
posted by Arthur Dent at 2:36 PM on December 27, 2006

I think Nadise is on to something; I'd like to add that Goya-brand Sofrito is a marvelously versatile base for sauces and fillings, has practically no calories, and is about two bucks a jar.
Joe Perry's Mango Peach Tango hot sauce makes any egg dish stand up and salute.
Banana Ketchup (I forgot the brand) is also delicious.
posted by Dizzy at 3:38 PM on December 27, 2006

A chicken breast with three or four vegetables, simmered in a stock is a real staple for me. It's surprising the number of ways you can prepare this with different sauces, spices, a bit of rice etc. One or two cooking pans, about 10 minutes of preparation, and while I don't eat the same meal nightly, it's a healthy and tasty meal.
posted by tomble at 4:14 PM on December 27, 2006

Heh -- banana ketchup. Is that being marketed as a gourmet food now? I bought it once in Chinatown because it was intriguing... and only 59 cents for a pint.

My top two ingredients are walnuts and sweet potatoes. Neither is all that common in recipes, but they are both extraordinarily versatile for the creative cook, and they have enough substance to carry a meal.

Things to do with walnuts:
  • Toast them before storing -- they'll taste better in everything
  • Grind up with bread crumbs and use as batter for fish, meat, or veggies
  • Mix with bread crumbs and oil and use as a base for sauces such as pesto and muhammara
  • Add to rice pilaf or most pasta dishes
  • Include in salads
  • Use when baking breads, cakes, chocolate chip cookies, etc.
  • A favorite dish of mine: Chop beets into large chunks, add walnuts, cover with a mixture of orange/lemon/lime juice and honey and simmer until liquid is reduced to a glaze. Serve with greens and any tangy cheese.
Things to do with sweet potatoes:
  • Bake whole with skin
  • Mash with regular potatoes and/or winter squash
  • Use spiced mashed sweet potatoes as a pizza sauce
  • Fry as strips or chips; serve with any tangy sauce
  • Make sweet potato pancakes: grate your sweet potatoes, add beaten egg, flour, pepper, and nutmeg, and fry in a half-inch of hot oil
  • Cut into cubes, roast until black at the edges (mmm, caramelized), and serve on skewers with meat or other veggies
  • Mix with leeks and cream for an excellent pie/strudel/dumpling filling
  • Use like apples in some desserts
  • Try this, really: miso soup with cubes of sweet potato and broccoli in it. Don't overcook the broccoli. Bon appetit!

posted by aws17576 at 5:03 PM on December 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

Ten things I could live on indefinitely:

-olive oil
-parmesan cheese
-spaghetti/elbow mac
-canned plain tomato sauce

Ten more I keep on hand whenever possible:

-frozen Italian bread
-frozen ravioli/tortellini
-bell peppers
-sesame oil/wok oil
-sliced lunch meat and provolone cheese
-canned diet caffeine-free soda
-shredded mozzarella/provel
-flour tortillas
-frozen pre-cooked shrimp

Allow for some vodka and/or white zinfandel from time to time, and you've pretty much got my entire diet.
posted by limeonaire at 5:57 PM on December 27, 2006 [2 favorites]

And yeah, the above lists are largely non-perishable—I go shopping every two weeks, and find that maybe a third to a half of these items need replenishment at the end of any given two-week period.
posted by limeonaire at 6:02 PM on December 27, 2006

Chicken breasts (in freezer)
Pasta of choice (rice for me)
Onions & garlic
Canned tomatoes
Green vegetable of choice (broccoli, leeks or asparagus for me)

Fav meals from these:
Scrambled eggs on toast (eggs, milk, butter, bread)
Grilled/broiled chicken breasts with boiled potatoes and green vegetable (I like leeks fried in butter, marinate the chicken in some spices and oil beforehand)
Vegetable fried rice (rice from last night's meal, saute with vegetables and eggs)
Pasta with chicken, tomatoes and green vegetable (chicken and broccoli is good)
Pasta with chicken, green vegetable and white sauce (assuming you have flour in the pantry too)
posted by Joh at 7:23 PM on December 27, 2006

My ten-ish must-have quick-eats staples:
1. Olive Oil
2. Garlic/Onions
3. Canned beans (pinto/black/lentils/garbanzo)
4. Rice (basmati seems to be the most versatile I've found)
5. Tortillas (corn/flour)
6. Canned whole tomatoes
7. Frozen broccoli
8. Eggs
9. Nutritional yeast
10. Pasta

As you can tell I'm pretty much a beans-and-rice vegetarian. With these few ingredients I can whip up a wide variety of Mexican, Indian, Italian, Asian, and Breakfast dishes. I didn't include spices or fresh veggies, which are key to the variation available in these staples, and should be picked up daily and in-season when possible.
posted by maniactown at 8:44 PM on December 27, 2006

My 19 year old son moved in with 2 other male friends about a month ago. They were moaning at Christmas that they were tired of ramin noodles. One of them was so pitiful, he laid his head on my shoulder and said his only wish for Christmas was a homemade meal.

After scoping out their kitchen, it was very bare, I took pity on them.

First to the Dollar Store:

Equiptment: 6 qt crock pot, rice steamer, non-stick 11 in skillet, large plastic turner, large silicone spoon, plastic strainer, can opener, Campbells soup recipe book from used book store ($4).

Garlic powder
Zatarines roux and brown gravey mix (local brand, powder)
powdered taco seasoning
Chicken soup base
beef soup base

4 cans diced tomatoes
2 cans corn
3 cans pinto beans
3 cans redbeans
2 cans black beans
1 can mushrooms
2 can cream of chicken soup
2 cans cream of mushroom soup
2 cans tomato soup
2 cans crushed pinapple
1 can cherry pie filling

Fresh carrots
frozen peas

sour cream
Med chedder cheese block
Co-Jack cheese block
Stew meat
ground sirloin
Pork sausage
ham seasoning meat

Large bag of rice
Pearl Barley

Yellow cake mix

Hunter's Beef Stew
Taco Soup
Red Beans and Rice
Dump cake (baked in pan, 9x13)

Each dish is cooked in crock pot, minium of 6 quarts of food.
This will make them 54 meals, not counting 15 servings of dessert.

Total cost with equiptment, $75.00.

Aroma in their kitchen...priceless

e-mail me for recipes
posted by JujuB at 9:41 PM on December 27, 2006 [3 favorites]

One item I always keep around is chutney -- well, chutneys, actually. One Major Grey's, one slightly sweeter like peach chutney. It's amazing how many things it can brighten up. Chutney added to chicken salad, with or without curry, makes it taste like you worked a lot harder than you did. :-)

I second those individual-size bottles of wine, too. And btw, hard cheeses like cheddar freeze pretty well, too (although I don't think you'd want to throw $30-a-pound specialty cheeses in there.)
posted by citysquirrel at 11:26 PM on December 27, 2006

posted by Colloquial Collision at 4:49 AM on December 28, 2006

My top ten kitchen items:

Olive Oil
posted by iurodivii at 4:55 AM on December 28, 2006

Marigold Swiss Vegetable Bouillon Powder. Really handy when modern recipe wranglers drop the "add fresh stock" bomb shell in the final stretch of what seemed a pretty easy recipe at the start. Despite what you may believe Messrs Oliver, Slater et al, I don't actually have a whole morning spare to boil a chicken carcass and clarify the resultant juices for a dinner my three year old will either spit on the floor or demolish in 35 seconds...

Most stock cubes cubes are shite as they either contain about 90% salt, or, if they are lo-salt, taste like boiled shoes. Marigold is teh bomb (although I tend to use half the stock powder-to-water ratio recommended on the box).

Other advice, start yourself a condiment collection. Even the dullest crap you can throw together can be enlivened by the right pickle/chutney/sauce whatever. I'm never without the following:

Whole Grain Mustard (Maille)
Dijon Mustard (Maille)
Chili Sauce (any Thai dipping variety)
Soy Sauce (Kikkoman)
Tomato Sauce (Daddies)
Brown Sauce (Daddies)
Branston Pickle (Crosse & Blackwell)
Lime Pickle (as a hard and fast rule, the less English on the label, the better the pickle)
Worcester Sauce (Lea & Perrins)

And my personal favourite, Lea & Perrins Chilli and Garlic Sauce - great on delivery pizza!
posted by davehat at 7:48 AM on December 28, 2006

canned tomatoes
dried herbs
posted by sporky at 7:50 AM on December 28, 2006

soy sauce (Yamasa - the most widely available actually-made-in-Japan brand)
canned tuna
canned tomatoes
olive oil
bonus: sesame oil, red pepper flakes, a hunk of parmesano reggiano or grana padano, eggs, miso

With these we can survive pretty well, cooking Italian and Japanese, the two favorite cuisines in our house, with forays into Chinese.
posted by derMax at 10:55 AM on December 28, 2006

Olive Oil
Chicken Thighs
AP Flour
posted by Nothing at 3:56 PM on December 29, 2006

Here are 2 nice lists of basic stockage:

The Essentials of a Japanese Pantry and The well stocked pantry
posted by growabrain at 8:05 PM on December 29, 2006

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