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Cooking is very personal. Everyone has their favorite foods, favorite recipes and even favorite ingredients. Added to that, many of us were raised on the cuisine and recipes of our parents and our extended family. So when asked my advice on what pantry essentials everyone should have in their kitchen, it’s almost an impossible request considering I have to take into account their budget, perhaps a restricted diet, allergies, their own cooking abilities, how much time they actually HAVE to cook, and if they even ENJOY cooking.
In essence, giving anyone a personal pantry makeover prescription is pretty specific because it has to be tailored to one’s personal preferences, likes and dislikes. Unfortunately, no one at any party that I’ve ever attended has had the time to fill out an in-depth questionnaire, let alone the time for my tailored suggestions.

In cooking, as in life, one size does not fit all.

Those items are not on this list.

Cooking is a lot like that.

For discussion purposes, I think most people who read my blogs are probably culinary craft persons, and as such, these suggestions are for them, and perhaps for you.

I’ll divide my Pantry Makeover suggestions into 3 sections:
• Dry Pantry
• Refrigerated Goods
• The Freezer

I’ve also added a small Dry Produce section.

Each has its own separate list of essential items. Some are ingredients, and some are prepared items that you’ll make and use as ingredients afterwards. In the end, I’m approaching this exercise like I’m in charge of packing the last spaceship off the planet with all the essential cooking supplies.

To make it even MORE challenging, there’s a weight restriction, meaning just pack the essentials.

First, there are a few things that will make your life in the kitchen just a little easier when you actually do start cooking. Many of these items have been mentioned in my following Culinary Gifts for the Holidays blogs:

Culinary Gifts and Stocking Stuffers for 2013

Kitchen Gadgets and Gifts for 2014

Kitchen Gadget Gifts: 2015

• Oils in clear glass bottles with pourers
• A salt pig
• Small 10” x 10” foil squares
• 18” Plastic film & foil
• A BIG wood cutting board
• Sharp knives that you really like
• A magnetic knife bar
• A handheld immersion blender
• Non-stick fry pans of various sizes
• Sil-Pat baking mats
• A GREAT potato peeler
• A half-dozen good spatulas
• A few whisks of various sizes
• A cheap Japanese mandolin
• Lots of 1 pint & 1 quart storage containers

And now, a word about perishables…

For the most part, I haven’t included highly perishables on this list. I’m talking about items like fresh produce, fresh meats, poultry and seafood that need refrigeration but have a short shelf life. If it can’t last 2 weeks in the refrigerator, it’s likely not on my staples list. Going back to the woodworking analogy, I keep the tools, the nails and the screws in my inventory. I shop weekly for the wood. The items normally considered perishable under refrigeration, I DO keep handy among my frozen inventory. And I keep them only as backups in the event I have to prepare an unexpected meal, have last-minute company or just run out of time to shop. So, I have it covered both ways.

DRY PANTRY (Any item listed as an *alternative is a choice if you have space.)


Olive (extra-virgin) Colavita is a good choice.
Vegetable spray (non-stick)
Hydrogenated shortening a.k.a. Crisco (only if you bake a lot)


Both all-purpose and whole wheat (I prefer King Arthur Brand.)
*1st Alternative (yellow cornmeal or polenta)

Sugars & Sweeteners

Granulated (If you bake a lot, choose cane sugar.)
Light brown
Un-sulfured molasses
*1st Alternative 10X or powdered sugar

Seasonings (Get a GOOD peppermill.)

Herb basics (oregano, sweet basil, thyme, parsley, sage, rosemary, tarragon)
Spice basics (ground cinnamon, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, black peppercorns, cumin, chili powder, ginger, saffron threads, fennel seed or anise seed)
Other (granulated garlic, granulated onion)
Rubs (char-crust hickory)
Blends (Cajun/blackening seasoning)
Salts (Have a salt pig.)
Kosher/or sea
A prepared seasoning salt (personalized)

Canned & jarred goods

Crushed tomatoes in juice
Tomato paste (in small 6 oz. cans)
Salvaggio’s Marinara Sauce of course!
Beans (black or northern)
*1st Alternative kidney

Panko & Italian bread crumbs (pick one)

Sweet stuff

Semi-sweet chocolate
Cocoa as 1st Alternative

Pure vanilla


Penne or farfalle
*1st Alternative (couscous)


*1st Alternative (pearl or jasmine if you like Asian, basmati or Arborio if you like Italian)


Baking powder
Baking soda
Dry yeast (keep in your fridge)


*1st choice of alternative….Arrowroot (Bob’s Red Mill)
Unsweetened gelatin


Balsamic (My favorite is Academia Barilla.)
Alternates rice wine, sherry or tarragon
Lemon juice
Honey (buy local honey)
Prepared horseradish
Maple syrup (Michigan pure)
Peanut butter (smooth)
Coconut, shredded, sweetened
Barbecue sauce (Sweet Baby Ray’s)
Raisins (dark)
Cheap unsalted
Premium butter, my favorite is Presidente (salted) (Another favorite is Plugra.)


Mustards (smooth Dijon & yellow salad)
*1st alternative whole grain Dijon
*1st Alternative salad dressing
Liquid smoke (hickory)
Worcestershire sauce
Tabasco (Cayenne in spices can be a substitute.)
Kitchen Bouquet (Breaks my rules, but use it for color not flavor.)
Red currant jelly &/or orange marmalade
Pickles (whole) choose either dill or sweet (Capers are optional.)
Olives (Kalamata or Spanish), pitted
Maraschino cherries (as much for the juice as the cherries)
Sweet chili or chili garlic sauce (especially if you enjoy Asian cuisine)
*1st Alternative fish sauce

Sauce Bases

Minor’s Brand (low sodium)
Beef, chicken, lobster
*1st Alternative (Kitchen Basics, all flavors)


White (Un-Oaked Chardonnay or Dry Riesling) & Red (Merlot or Zinfandel)
Marsala/Sherry/Port or Madeira

Soy sauce/teriyaki sauce (Soy Vay, Veri-Veri)

Basic produce

Sweet onions
Bell peppers
Red skin or Idaho potatoes
Fresh garlic (or frozen)


Milk (any fat content)
Eggs (ex. large)
Half & half (ultra-pasteurized)
*1st Alternative heavy cream
*2nd Alternative sour cream
Grated or shredded parmesan (the good stuff)
*1st Alternative (Monterey jack blend)
Cream cheese/ricotta (depending if you like to bake)


• Almond slivers
• Sun-dried tomatoes
• Cut sweet corn
• Green peas
• Peeled & deveined shrimp, 21/25 ct. minimum
• Sea scallops
• Cod fillets (IQF portions)
• Sautéed onion & pepper mixture
• Braised pork
• Braised beef (short ribs)
• Bacon (Nino’s maple or peppered)
• Chicken breasts
• Pork baby back ribs
• Pork tenderloins
• Beef tenderloin
• NY strip steaks
• Concentrated OJ


• Sweet onions
• Bulb garlic

Before you embark on any pantry makeover, I’d also recommend you edit what you already have. Here are some suggestions:

• Look at your herbs and spices. Generally, even in the best of storage conditions, they have about 6 to 12 months of potency. If you’ve got oregano that’s more than a year old, it might be time to buy a new (smaller) container.
• Chemical leaveners (baking powder) also have a shelf life once opened. Again, that’s about a year before it starts to loose its ability to efficiently create the carbon dioxide needed to leaven your bakery recipes.
• Ingredients like Bisquick® once opened (because they also have a leavener in them and have a fat blended in) can either become rancid tasting or lose their ability to rise (leaven) over time (about a year)
• Look at the expiration dates of all the canned and jarred goods in your pantry. Nothing lasts forever. When in doubt, throw it out.

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