I was just reading an old cookbook for campers. It shocked me. They recommended so much basic foodstuff, I have no idea how they found room for extra underwear or spare shoelaces to carry. When I camp, I really do rough it. The last time I camped I was astounded by the number of fellow campers who required electrical and water hookups, who purchased firewood, who brought hairdryers and irons with them, TVs and radios. My vice is an air mattress. I can go without it, but if there’s room it’s coming.
Gazing through the list of basic camping essentials recommended for the lumberjack, weekend outdoorsman, or foot soldier made me realize I’ve never given you guys a basic pantry list. Keeping a few different items on hand at all times opens up a wide variety of dishes you can create from the fresh meats, vegetables and dairy you may procure whilst grocery shopping. This is not a camper’s list. That article would be too short. I think last time I camped I brought homemade Chinese dried beef, crackers, and instant tea mix. No, this will be a very basic list of items for your home pantry with a few tips on storage and ways you can use them. I hope you find it useful.
I prefer mine whole so I can cut or tear off my own chunks. The Detetcheverrie household usually possesses a loaf of sourdough, potato bread, Hawai’ian bread, pumpernickel, large wrap-style tortillas, or small corn tortillas. When I make bread, it’s sourdough based onion bread, seed bread, or oatmeal bread. A local cookie factory has a small shop on site that sells deeply discounted breads, rolls, bagels, cookies, and assorted wraps. I pay 75 cents for what you pay three or more dollars for and it couldn’t be any fresher. Call or visit local food processing facilities and see if they do any sales directly to the public. Saves a lot on grocery bills. Use stale bread for bread puddings. Fry corn tortillas and season to make tostadas.
I keep sourdough starter on hand for bread, rolls, pizza crust, sweet breads, pretzels and pancakes. I keep self-rising flour in an airtight container in the refrigerator and may at any given time also have rice flour, buckwheat, cornmeal, and frybread mix which also makes wonderful pancakes and pizza crust. We usually have either or both cornstarch and arrowroot powder on hand for thickening soups, stews and sauces, for making tempura batter, and as a delightful body powder for chafing or heat rash. All of these items are kept in the refrigerator, freezer, or at least in airtight containers to prevent bug infestation. Hushpuppy mix makes an outstanding breading for southern fried chicken.
Hot Cereal Grains.
I love a blend of steel-cut oats, brown rice flakes, quinoa, barley and coarse ground cornmeal, and I like to keep it pre-mixed in a gallon-sized bag in the freezer. Everyone I know eats their hot cereal with sweetener and maybe fruit. I like mine doused with hot sauce and sometimes top it with cheese and eat it using tortilla chips instead of a spoon. It’s also great fried in butter alongside other hot breakfast items, stirred into broth-based soups, or as a base for another dish to be served on top of instead of rice or pasta. Of course you can also use any of these grains on their own in many recipes.
The brown stuff’s better they tell me, but I dislike the texture. There’s always rice here whether jasmine, basmati, wild, saffron or plain long-grain white. My training in Chinese cooking taught me it’s better to run out of meat or vegetables at mealtime than rice.
I have a wheat allergy, so we enjoy rice pasta first and foremost, followed by quinoa pasta, then bean threads. Gnocchi is a potato-based product I can tolerate that is wonderful with numerous types of sauces.
You’ll want baking soda, too. Baking soda is a good household cleaner and helps deodorize cat litter boxes.
I prefer to cook with bacon fat for flavor, and olive oil for health. We also keep on hand peanut oil for baking and frying and hot pepper oil. Olive oil is a good skin-care product and hair treatment. We can’t seem to keep enough good extra-virgin olive oil around here. It’s also good when melting chocolate to keep it from drying out and to add an extra gloss.
At any given time we may have sliced, slab, or Canadian bacon on hand. I like to slow-smoke a slab slathered in pure maple syrup and cracked black pepper.
From Summer to Braunshweiger, bratwurst to wieners, chorizo to scrapple, or savory Italian meats, sausage is great alone or in Cajun cooking, hidden in a frittata, folded up in an omelette, drowning in a savory sauce in the crockpot, or presented on a bun.
Quality makes a huge difference. Make your own dried soup mixes, or use it for instant broth if you don’t have better. A bouillon cube tossed in a pan of simmering sausages really punches up the flavor.
Well, they’re replacing cans with foil packets in some cases. We keep albacore on hand to satisfy occasional cravings. I’m rather fond of devilled ham, but only as a treat. Canned chicken can be used in recipes if you simply can’t acquire fresh, but you can tell the difference. We keep sardines and Vienna sausages on hand for the raccoon. Every five to ten years I will actually eat a little SPAM.
The finest and most versatile soups I have ever enjoyed come from Chalet Suzanne. Every time we’re in the area, we drop by the cannery for free samples, delightful conversation, and boxes of soup. After them, I prefer my own homemade soups. After that I like the occasional can of Progresso or Campbell’s. We try to have on hand varieties that can be worked into other recipes as well as stuff that’s great right from the can. When I noticed that eating gelatin seemed to significantly relieve joint aches, I began brewing stocks for use in soups and stews, braising, and replacing some of the water when cooking hot grains. I don’t have joint problems anymore.
Brown eggs are better, or there’s really no difference? All I can tell you is no substitute comes close to genuine eggs. We always have chicken eggs on hand but have also had turkey eggs, guineafowl, and quail eggs. Submerge in cold water to check freshness. The freshest stay on the bottom, older ones that are still good will stand at attention, and bad eggs float. Thoroughly wash farm eggs in cold running water before use.
Salted and no-salt are not interchangeable, but I only have unsalted on hand for special recipes. Ghee will knock your socks off if you’re not used to it.
Right now I think we have brie, a sharp cheddar, Romano, muenster, Monterey jack, and Neufchatel. Neufchatel is a grand substitute for cream cheese and has 1/3 the fat and calories. The flavor is different, and for some may be an acquired taste. I have received rave reviews for my Neufchatel cheesecakes. Good grated Italian cheeses can firm up an omelette or scrambled eggs instead of milk and add flavor to rice or popcorn instead of salt.
Not a favorite product in our household, we keep canned evaporated milk on hand for recipes. I have put coconut milk to great use in many sweet recipes, powdered milk for making my own drinking cocoa blend, and soy milk for meal replacements.
Potatoes are versatile, and carrots can go in so many dishes themselves or are great as a light snack. I like to use turnips in place of some of the potatoes in any given recipe. Root vegetables are easy to store and generally long-lived.
Sweet, red, green, boiling or leeks may all be on hand here at any given time. We grow chives and garlic chives near the kitchen. I personally dislike the texture of onions unless they are finely minced, but cannot deny the enhancement they add to many recipes. We also always store dried minced onion, onion salt and onion powder. Garlic fresh, powdered and dried is a staple in this household.
Above ground vegetables.
Whatever’s fresh, on sale, or in season. Some people prefer frozen, some canned. We try to always have leafy greens on hand and salad greens.
Beans, legumes and lentils.
At any time we may have one sort or another, but overall it’s rare…aside from both creamy and chunky forms of peanut butter. Some of the pulses from India make nice substitutes for beans in many recipes.
Whatever’s fresh, on sale, or in season. We also store a variety of dried fruits for salads, desserts and breads, and canned tomatoes in one form or another.
In the shell, they are a favorite treat of mine, but don’t purchase them from an outdoor market unless you like finding insects amongst them. We always have nuts and seeds here for snacking, salads, breads, desserts, and toppings for some entrees. Right now I think we have sunflower seeds, poppy seeds, flax, sesame seeds, cashews, mixed nut blends, sugered nuts, smoked nuts and chia. Chia seeds help some people find natural relief from acid reflux. Flax seeds are best eaten ground, and sesame seeds freshly toasted release a delightful smoky, nutty flavor.
We have white, brown, powdered and cube form, maple, and colored sugar for decorating sweetgoods. I prefer to use honey whenever possible. Honey cooks so hot, it can melt microwave-safe containers and cremate meats on the grill. I enjoy storing my crystallized honey separately for use in hot tea. Brown sugar helps bring out the flavor of red meat and pork and is not disagreeable in iced tea. Powdered or confectioner’s sugar is not always an acceptable substitute for granulated sugar because it may contain a certain percentage of cornstarch to help keep it free-flowing. We also have stevia in dried leaf form, but I have yet to try it outside of tea blends.
If it’s maple, I want 100% or none at all. It’s great on hot breakfast foods like pancakes, waffles and bacon, but also useful in barbecue sauces. A splash in cold milk makes a pleasing holiday beverage. Some people prefer molasses, cane syrup or corn syrup. Whatever you use, just make sure it’s always on hand.
We keep coffee for use in desserts or for guests. We have a huge assortment of tea blends and herb blends, some medicinal. Tea is also good for marinades or dishes like tea smoked wings or tea spiced eggs. A good iced tea blend is half black dragon and half burgundy dragon. We also have green tea, white, and blooming teas. I have only recently tasted a red tea that I liked. In winter months I keep hot chocolate and cocoa blends on hand. I also enjoy adding cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, and star anise to jugs of apple cider or juice, straining each time I take some and adding the spices back into the jug, then enjoying iced or hot.
As candy, baking morsels, or powder, we always have chocolate on hand for desserts, little treats, making candy, or adding to cocoa. We even have a cocoa/hot pepper blend on hand for punching up some Mexican dishes.
Vinegar has so many uses, it’s silly not to keep some at all times. Good in marinades, dressings, sour dishes, and pickling. Also a good “green” cleaner. Everyone seems so enamored of balsamic vinegar, it’s being over-used. Rice wine vinegar is clean and light tasting. Lemon juice will offer many of the same recipes a slightly different, fresher taste, and of course is good to keep around for beverages. Lime juice adds a nice sparkle to many Latin dishes, Caribbean, Arabic or Indian fare.
For health reasons, I rarely eat mayonnaise anymore, but it is always on hand for recipes, sandwiches, fresh tartar sauce, and removing moisture rings from wooden tabletops. We currently own around forty different hot sauces, assorted barbecue sauces, and steak sauces. We have two kinds of ketchup, about half a dozen mustards. We have two different sandwich sauces, hoisin sauce, duck sauce, soy sauce and Thai peanut sauce. There is a difference between light soy sauce and “lite” soy sauce, the latter being formulated to have less sodium or something and the former’s preparation giving it a lighter color and cleaner taste that’s delicious swigged straight from the bottle. I love to keep pesto on hand and we usually have several different salsas around. We have bitters, cooking wines, and a host of rums, brandies, Triple Sec, port, sherry, liquours, vodka, and extracts for flavoring, desserts and marinades. Beer is excellent for steaming chicken, simmering sausages, adding to breads, or in stews and chili. Good bottled wines and sherry make better tasting dishes than cooking wines that have salt added to them, but of course cooking wines are cheaper. I prefer homemade salad dressings to the bottled kind. We also keep a variety of dips and dip mixes. Jellies, jams, and preserves are great as spreads, with desserts, or for making meat sauces.
There’s no way I could tell you what to keep on hand since we have so many dried herbs and seasonings they’re kept in three separate areas of the property! We have seven different salts and four different peppers right now only because I’m having difficulty finding more Szechuan pepper. An electric spice grinder will help you discover the difference in flavor between freshly ground whole spices and packaged ground spices as well as allow you to control texture. I own and use spices that are older than I am, convinced the push to replace them every three months or so is just a means for selling more spices. Obviously, you should discard anything that’s molded, become caked with humidity, or changed color or aroma significantly. MSG or no MSG? We keep some on hand. It’s naturally occurring in mushrooms anyhow. If you’re not one of the small percentage of people who get headaches from consuming MSG, don’t fear it, but the addition of it as a flavor enhancer is generally subtle. We keep a large jar of Indian spice blends traditionally found near the exits of Indian restaurants used as both breath freshener and digestive aid. A good pinch to savor, then chew when acid reflux strikes will not only quell the initial symptoms, but almost completely cured me of this ailment. I enjoy tomatoes and late-night meals again, experiencing issues maybe once or twice an entire year! Aside from this…your choice of spices to keep on hand is entirely up to you. I think we must have…about eighty little bottles and tins of different spices floating around here. Emma likes to sweep the outdoor kitchen after first sprinkling the floor with cinnamon and thyme. We grow Greek oregano, rosemary, parsley, spearmint, mojito mint, Vietnamese mint, lemongrass, chocolate mint, thyme, oregano, wood sorrel, catmint, lime basil, black pearl peppers, turmeric, ginger and cardamom in our Florida backyard and I’m probably forgetting an herb or two. Fresh herbs make for a nice presentation, but for general everyday cooking I just toss in the dried stuff.
Maybe you like the taste of your tap water, maybe you don’t. Maybe you have a well. The farther from the equator you are, the fresher the water. Why? Because everything that enters the water upstream ends up downstream including pollutants. If you ever get to watch your local utility company replace your water meter, you may forgo tap water altogether. Boiled, it’s fine. For the best tasting tea, I prefer spring water, so we keep several jugs on hand at all times. I was recently alerted to the fact that filling a pot or kettle with hot tap water to speed up cooking time just adds elements of rust and slime to your recipe from the bottom of your hot water heater, so always choose cold unless you own a tankless water heater. If you like your water from the tap built into the refrigerator, keep in mind the works can acquire mold or other impurities if you suffer a lengthy power failure. Try to save the drained liquids from canned goods or items from jars for beverages, stocks, or other recipe use. I keep strained pineapple liquid on hand for refreshing my sourdough starter supply.
Okay…with these basics on hand at all times, you should be ready to cook up just about anything. I buy meats and vegetables on sale with no clue as to what’s to become of them until I get them home. Then I zip through my mental inventory and start matching up stuff on hand with what I’ve bought to replicate old favorites or experiment with something new. Once you begin to recognize patterns in your favorite dishes and get used to what ingredients go well with others, you’ll seldom have use for cookbooks or Internet recipes anymore. Quality cooking results from lots of practice. Get all the experience you can!