Home pantries are tricky; even chefs have to work at it. But a well-stocked pantry can mean the difference between a quick and inexpensive weeknight dinner and just ordering takeout. Again.
"If you could see the inside of my kitchen — it's hysterical," says Jim Blevins, executive chef of the eagerly anticipated Butcher and the Brewer. "It's mostly instant ramen."
Blevins doesn't get the opportunity to cook much at home. "When I do, it's nice to be able to go into the pantry and have things on hand that are ready to go," he says. No quick trips to the grocery store required.
That's precisely the point: Take care of your cupboard and it will take care of you at mealtime. Exactly which items to stock and in what quantity will vary based on what you and your family like to eat. But there are a few strategies to setting up an efficient pantry that will never change.
Waste Not, Want Not
Take the time to educate yourself on the foods you eat regularly, which will help with food safety considerations as well as shopping decisions. Know that a chicken breast will go bad in a few days, while an unopened package of hot dogs can last months, and that both require refrigeration. (Note: A refrigerator is part of your pantry.)
North Union Farmers Market executive director Donita Anderson is a seasoned pro when it comes to keeping her home pantry adequately stocked. She knows, for example, how to freeze and preserve her favorites, and she doesn't let good food go to waste.
"I like buying olive oil in bulk," she explains, "but I know that I have to refrigerate it, because I know that once it comes into contact with air it starts to turn rancid." Alternatively, buy smaller bottles — it's more expensive, but so is throwing away large cans of spoiled goods.
Variety Is the Spice of Life
When you have multiple options available, it's harder to run out of choices while allowing you to be more creative in the kitchen. A few lessons on common substitutions might come in handy.
Take that olive oil, for instance. "It's kind of a misnomer that olive oil is the healthy choice for pan frying or stir-frying," cautions Jenny Kelley, director of Market Connect, which stocks certain farmers market staples when the regular vendors can't make it. At high temperatures, olive oil becomes hydrogenated, making grapeseed or canola oil — even butter — the smarter choice.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Keep everything in your line of sight to prevent waste. Between the fridge, freezer and dry goods area, it's next to impossible to keep a mental inventory of every food. "I find that the more visible it is, the easier it is to remember that you've got it to use," Kelley says.
Restaurant chefs like Blevins use a common-sense acronym to prevent waste: FIFO, or First In, First Out. As you replenish items, take the time to put the freshest stuff underneath or behind the older goods. That way you won't be surprised by a moldy onion or laughably out of date can of tomatoes.
"I store everything in glass jars," says Robert Stockham, Fresh Fork Market's marketing and communications manager and avid home canner and cook.
Stockham lines up similar ingredients so he'll know with a glance if he has an excess of any one ingredient. "It hasn't happened yet, but that's the idea."
There Is a Season
Even if you're starting from scratch, don't stuff your pantry full all at once. You'll end up spending a fortune, wasting perishable items and missing out on the best products. Instead, pick up your favorite fruits and vegetables at the peak of the season when produce is most nutritious, flavorful and inexpensive, then freeze extras to use throughout the season.
"The nutrients in fresh, local food are the highest of any produce you can buy, because everything else is shipped in and picked unripe," Anderson explains.
Dry goods — things like wheat flour, spices and vinegars — don't often go on sale, so it's best to buy in bulk when possible. Take a tip from Anderson and check out Amish country stores for great deals and high-quality ingredients.
Progress Makes Perfect
Once you've mastered the basics, take your pantry to the next level with these market mavens' favorite ingredients:
"I like nutmeg," Anderson says. "People aren't aware that's one of the secrets to Italian cooking. It's added depth." Skip the ground stuff and invest in a microplane to shave off a little at a time.
"Sorghum to me is one of the most underutilized, underappreciated ingredients on the planet," says Stockham. This sugar alternative tastes similar to molasses and is high in protein.
"I use a lot of fish sauce," Blevins says. "People don't really notice it, but it adds a lot of depth. [And] I always have bacon in my fridge."
If you keep track of what and how much you eat, store and rotate foods properly, and learn how to get the best ingredients at the best prices, cooking will become both more appealing and more convenient than the alternatives.
"So far over the last year I think I've been to a grocery store maybe three times," Stockham says. "And I probably could have cut one of them out if I didn't have to have toilet paper."
Laura Adiletta is co-owner at EatLoCLE, a subscription meal service for Clevelanders. You can follow it on Twitter, @EatLoCLE.