Great dinners do not always require advanced planning. Sometimes, you just have to wing it with what you have on hand. If you keep your pantry and refrigerator stocked with some basic supplies – and a few surprises – you will never be at a loss when you have to whip up something great for dinner with very little notice. Here is a list of baking supplies to keep on hand at all times so that you will never be caught by surprise without something to cook for dinner.
In the Pantry
At a minimum, you should have unbleached white flour, whole wheat flour and cake flour stocked in your pantry. In addition to being the base for breads and cakes, flour can be used to whip up a batch of fresh pasta, spaetzle or dumplings in no time at all. Use it to make gravies and sauces that can transform a meal from commonplace to sublime.
Cornstarch makes smooth gravies and is an ideal thickener for sauces, stews and stir fries. In addition, when you need an emergency dessert, cornstarch, milk, vanilla and sugar or sweetener make a quick, impressive “from-scratch” vanilla pudding.
Sugar substitutes are convenient to have on hand, especially if you are trying to cut down on sugar in your meals. They are ideal for use in sweet and sour sauces, desserts, drinks and other recipes that call for sugar.
Flavored oils have been popular in gourmet circles for years, and they have finally made their way to the supermarket shelves. Chili, lemon, pepper, orange and basil are just a few of the flavored oils you can tuck into your cupboard to add flavor to simple dishes. Try using them in stir fries and salad dressings, or as a base for marinade. Also consider olive oil, almond oil, walnut oil and grapeseed oil.
Flavored vinegars, including balsamic vinegar, red and white wine vinegar, herb or fruit infused vinegars and cider vinegar are all great additions to the well-stocked pantry. Pick up one or two each week when you do the grocery shopping, and you will soon have a full selection of vinegars to experiment with.
Other baking ingredients to keep in your pantry include canned unsweetened juices, unsweetened fruit spreads, raisins, dried fruits, sunflower seeds, sliced almonds, cocoa powder, salt, kosher salt and sea salt, whole peppercorns (so much better freshly ground than pre-ground), cream of tartar, baking soda, vanilla and other flavored extracts as well as cooking sprays. Canned tomato paste is incredibly versatile and can be used in a huge variety of recipes from soup to dessert.
Dried beans, especially lentils, cook up quickly with brown rice and vegetables. A variety of grains like couscous, quinoa, cornmeal, rolled oats and kasha make delicious sides or alternatives to rice and potatoes.
Pasta in a variety of shapes – bow-ties, angel hair, linguine, shells and elbows may all be pasta, but they each show off the flavor of different dishes best.
Rice is another ‘bland’ ingredient that has a lot of character, especially if you branch out to some of the more exotic varieties. Basmati and jasmine rice are just two varieties of rice that can elevate a rice dish to new heights. Of course, plain white rice is great as a side dish, under a stir fry, tossed into a soup or simmered into a delicious dessert.
In the Refrigerator
Eggs and egg substitutes are a must to have on hand at all times. They are one of the most versatile and useful ingredients in your kitchen.
Important dairy products to stock in your refrigerator include margarine, low fat or fat free sour cream and fat free plain yogurt. Low fat, skim or 1% milk is another ingredient that is important to have on hand.
A fresh lemon and a fresh lime, orange juice, applesauce and apple juice can be used to enhance flavor or sweetness.
Carrots and bagged salads are the two packaged convenience foods that can be worth the extra cost. Whole peeled baby carrots and matchstick carrots cost a little more than buying them and cutting them yourself, but you will save time and perhaps eat more carrots. You will always have them ready to be tossed into a simmering dish to add color and flavor.
Bagged salad is another convenience that is worth paying for – but skip the ones that come with prepared dressings. When all you have to do to make a salad is pull a handful out of the bag and add embellishments, the whole family will be far more likely to eat their greens more often.
In the Freezer
Stick with frozen fruits and vegetables with no sauces or seasonings. They make quick work of stir fries, can be added by the handful to rice dishes or quickly steamed in the microwave as side dishes.
Individually frozen chicken breasts and thighs, and individually frozen, unbreaded fish fillets are great for quick, delicious dinners.
Keep these baking supplies and basic food stocks on hand at all times, and chances are you will never be trapped without something to cook for dinner. Who knows, you might expand your diet and taste palette at the same time.