These Are the Foods You Should Always Keep in Your Pantry

Stumped every time you want to ~*~whip something up~*~? Here's what you need to get started as a functional adult home cook.
September 12, 2018, 3:30pm
Composite image; original image via Getty Images, illustrations by Lia Kantrowitz.

Welcome to the VICE Guide to Life, our imperfect advice on becoming an adult.

Living on your own for the first time—not in a dorm context where you presumably have a dining hall nearby, but rather in your very first and likely very terrible apartment—comes with a lot of adjustments. Things like hand soap and toilet paper? Those things didn’t just magically appear in the bathroom when the bottle or roll was empty. Someone had to be monitoring the quantity of said products in stock and remembering to buy more. Huh. Weird. Sounds fake, right?


Now you have even more to worry about than just your bathroom medicine cabinet going bare. You’ve got a whole fridge and pantry to keep stocked because transitioning to adulthood usually means you’ve gotta start cooking for yourself more often than ever before. Being aware of how much salt, or butter, or hot sauce, or whatever else you can’t live without in the kitchen is your responsibility now. Mom’s not keeping the household grocery list anymore, kiddo. But that’s cool too! Because you are your own person, and you can decide what constitutes a kitchen staple in your house.

Building a pantry can feel daunting when you first move into a new place and are staring at bare cupboards and empty shelves, and filling them up with boxes of microwave popcorn and Fruit Loops is very tempting. (Don’t do that.) It doesn’t have to be such a monumental task, though. Have some fun with it! There are a few things we think you should keep in mind, and a few must-haves you shouldn’t forget about, when you’re stocking a pantry for the very first time.

1. Rice

One of the most versatile and inexpensive dry goods you can choose to stock up on, and something you will always be grateful for having on hand and in abundance. It may be a pain in the butt to have to haul home a 10-pound bag of white rice from the grocery store, but it’s worth it for all of those last-minute, can’t-think-of-anything-else-to-make situations you’re about to find yourself in. Store it in a big airtight container, because as much as you may think it's fine to roll the top down on the bag and secure it with a piece of tape, you will eventually find yourself with a rice explosion on the kitchen floor, and you will question your life choices.

2. Other Grains—Quinoa, Barley, etc.

Once you’ve gotten the hang of making your own rice from scratch, other grains won’t be far behind. Buy these in smaller quantities, since they’re more expensive and you’ll probably use them less frequently. Unless you’re a quinoa fanatic, in which case—buy in bulk from Costco, because it can get pricey. If you’re storing these in separate containers, like mason jars or quart containers, keep the plastic bag they came in folded up inside on top so that you can reference the manufacturer’s cooking instructions later.

3. Kosher Salt + Whole Black Peppercorns

Kosher salt is a supremely inexpensive item to buy in almost-bulk, like the two-pound boxes that are usually on the bottom shelf in the grocery store. Keep a little pinch bowl of it near your stove or on your countertop where you do your cooking prep and refill from the big box as needed. Invest in even the crappiest pepper mill and get a small container of whole peppercorns—just a few ounces will do!—and you’ll never go back to the pre-ground stuff.

4. Extra Virgin Olive Oil

You can find a passably decent olive oil in your regular grocery store, or you could spring for the fancy stuff from a specialty grocer, up to you. For your everyday cooking, though, you want an olive oil that’s kind of neutral in flavor and, frankly, not super pricey. Buy it in the size that makes the most sense for you. Are you cooking almost every day, sometimes more than once a day? Go for the big, several-liter tin that’s usually on the bottom shelf in the grocery store, and fill up a smaller squeeze bottle of it to use on the day-to-day. Probably cooking only two or three times a week? Go for a smaller bottle and restock regularly. Nothing is worse than getting surprised by old, rancid olive oil that’s been hanging around too long. And don’t store it on the counter near your stove! It gets too hot there. Keep it in a cooler, darker cabinet when you’re not using it.

5. Vinegars—Red and White Wine, Balsamic, Apple Cider

You’ll come to find that a splash of acid is exactly what a lot of recipes need to really round out the flavors and make the whole thing sing. Unless you’re regularly making your own salad dressings or pickling things at home, a small to medium sized bottle will suffice for a few months.

6. Veggie Stock

It’s really easy to make veggie (or chicken, or fish) stock on your own from scraps, if you’re feeling industrious. But there’s no shame in buying the boxed stuff from the store, either. Keep one or two of the quart-size terra packs for making rice or quinoa with a little extra flavor, and then freeze any unused liquid in Tupperware. If you find you usually can’t get through a whole quart-sized box at once, buy the eight-ounce cans, instead.

7. Beans (Canned and Dry)

Dry beans—of whatever variety you’re likely to actually make—are one of the cheapest ways to make sure that you always have something to make for dinner in a pinch, or during a week when you’ve overspent on Seamless. Don’t let dry beans hang around for too long, though, because super old beans will either take forever to cook, or just never cook all the way through. They’ll be toothsome, and not in a good way, no matter how long you boil them. Canned beans are a little more expensive, but they’re a lifesaver more often than not and cut down on your cooking time even further.

8. Canned Fish—Tuna, Anchovies, Sardines

Keeping a few cans of tuna hanging around is ideal for being able to throw together a tuna salad sandwich, or tossing some in your salad or grain bowl, when other proteins are too expensive or, frankly, are just going to take too long to cook. Anchovies are a sneaky, inexpensive way to infuse a variety of dishes, from salads to sauces, with a punch of umami—or just pop ‘em on a cracker as a snack. (Get the re-sealable jars you can keep in the fridge if you don’t think you’ll use a whole tin at once.) Sardines function the same. Throw ‘em on some toast with pickled onions for a simple sandwich, or into a salad for a quick work lunch.

9. Briny Things—Capers, Olives, Pickles

Kosher dill pickle spears are, on their own, excellent snacks. Other briny, savory things—like capers and olives and cornichons—can be bought in small quantities in re-sealable jars you can keep in the fridge for any number of applications—in salads, sauces to put on your protein of choice, or throwing on a cheese plate if you’re having friends over for an appetizer that doesn’t need a whole lot of thought.

10. Hot Sauce

Whatever your hot sauce/chili paste of choice is—Tabasco? Sriracha? Tapatío? Gochujang?—always make sure you stay stocked up. Sure, every hot sauce has its own flavor and use and they’re certainly not interchangeable by any means, but this is your pantry. If you know you’re never going to touch a bottle of Frank’s Red Hot, but you quite literally keep a bottle of Cholula in your bag, make sure you never run out.

11. Spices

Do not go out and buy a full spice rack set with dozens of little vials of spices you will never use, pleasedearsweetbabyJesusdon’tdoit. Start with a few staples—cinnamon, cumin, red pepper flakes, bay leaves, and a reliable blend of some kind (chili powder, curry powder, za'atar) make up a solid, versatile lineup. Throw them out after a year if you haven’t finished them. (And if you find you’re throwing out a lot of unused something-or-other, buy a smaller jar of it next time. Dry spices have much more flavor if they aren’t old as sin.)

12. Canned Tomatoes

At any time of year, it is wise to have a can of tomatoes on hand. With an onion, some garlic, and a little butter, you can turn a 28-ounce can of whole peeled tomatoes into a passable pasta sauce in less than a half hour. If you feel like it, having a can of pureed tomato on your shelf can come in handy, too, but most other varieties of canned tomatoes you’ll see in the grocery store are really just there for convenience. You can always chop or dice a can of whole peeled tomatoes yourself and save a few pennies.

13. Pasta + Noodles

Having a few boxes of basic dried pasta—egg noodles, rice noodles, wheat pasta, whatever—hanging around means the foundation for any number of meals is always waiting for you.

14. Baking Essentials—Flour, Sugar, Baking Powder, Baking Soda, Vegetable Oil

Even if you don’t plan on doing a whole lot of from-scratch baking, a well-stocked pantry ought to have at least a small amount of all-purpose flour, white granulated sugar, baking powder and baking soda. Brown sugar ends up in a lot of savory dishes, too, like barbecue sauces, and you can find them in one-pound boxes. (That baking soda will come in handy for any number of other DIY kitchen cleaning solutions, too, so spring for the bigger box.) Vegetable oil is handy, too, and can be used for more than just making brownies, like shallow-frying chicken on the stove.

15. Zip-top Bags, Plastic Wrap, Tin Foil, Parchment Paper

Not food items, technically, no. But necessary for a well-stocked pantry for someone who wants to be able to make just about any recipe with as few trips to the grocery store as possible. (When you’re on step seven out of 10 in a recipe and suddenly realize your roll of tin foil is empty, you’ll kick your own ass.) There are more sustainably-minded versions of these products, too—like reusable nylon storage bags and silicone baking mats—if you don’t like the single-use lifestyle.