The Vegan Experience: How to Stock a Vegan Pantry
Note: For the 32 days between February 1st and March 4th, I'm adopting a completely vegan lifestyle. Every weekday I'll be updating my progress with a diary entry and a recipe. For past posts, check here!
It's day five of this year's vegan experience (in accordance with Jewish customs, this year's Experience began at sundown on Friday evening, February 1st), and already things are going far more smoothly than last year. The biggest hurdle I faced back then was opening my refrigerator and realizing that there was almost nothing I could eat. Animal-based products are so pervasive—sometimes even hiding in plain sight in products you least expect to find them—that my refrigerator needed a near-complete overhaul.
But that was then and this is now. Upon completing my month of veganism last year, I mentioned that there were a few permanent changes in my diet that it would effect, even when I switched back to basic omnivorism. One of those changes is my basic pantry. The simple fact is that it's expanded. Greatly. I now regularly keep a stock of various canned and dried beans, nuts of all types, a collection of great olive oils and vinegars, flours and grains both for baking and for using in savory dishes, and vegan-friendly condiments and pickles.
Indeed, my first few thoughts over the weekend this time around were not, "uh oh, what can I cook," but rather, "I have so many options I don't even know where to start!"
If there was one single thing I could have handed myself last year before I started with my Vegan Experience, it would have been a list of pantry staples. The things I should have to help me create an easy, filling, and tasty meal with little to no extra ingredients.
I know that everybody's tastes are different—you may prefer black beans to chickpeas or wheat berries to barley—and this list doesn't account for that. But I've tried to make the categories as broad as possible so that you can always find something you like that'll work in place of one of my personal choices.
You'll notice that I don't include faux meats in this list, nor spices. This is intentional. I personally choose to say no to faux. I've never had faux meat that comes anywhere close to tasting like the real thing, and as a former meat eater, I end up thinking, "I wish I was just eating meat," rather than truly enjoying my meal for what it is. With real vegetables and grains, my mind doesn't draw that comparison. But if you do enjoy faux meat, then you're probably far enough along that you don't need this list to begin with.
Spices are intentional left off as well, not because I don't use them and they aren't important, but because too often I find that spices are overused to cover up bland food prepared with poor technique. Spices are also expensive, and asking someone to purchase an entire collection of them right off the bat is a ludicrous proposition. Chances are, you already know which ones you like and have them stocked, and if you need more, well then a good recipe should help you decide that.
I also know that long-a$$ pantry lists like this can be intimidated, particularly when you don't have much of a pantry to start with. But it doesn't need to be. You don't need everything on the list, just a few items from each category to get you started.
Note: *I've starred the ones I personally use the most, if you want a really narrow and defined list.*
Dry Storage Staples
Fresh seasonal vegetables and fruits may be the backbone of an exciting vegan diet, but pantry staples are the things that are going to and fill you up and round them out into a full and fulfilling meal. Here are some of the things I like to cook with. I don't keep all of them on hand at all times, but I'll always have a couple of options within each category (even when I'm not vegan!)
Canned and Dried Beans
Canned beans get a bad rap, but I find them to be far tastier and more versatile than they get credit for. For one thing, they're always perfectly tender and creamy, which is significant, considering of the last dozen fancy-pants meals I've had in New York restaurants featuring beans, a full 50% of them served al dente beans that were so crunchy I couldn't eat more than a few.
Even their flavor can be greatly improved by simmering them in an aromatic liquid, adding a bright dressing, or tossing them with a flavorful sauce packed with aromatics and herbs. When I'm figuring out what to make for dinner on a given vegan night, 75% of the time I'll start thinking about beans.
- *Canned chickpeas!!!* By far my favorite pantry staple. I use it in curries and stews (like this Spanish Chickpea and Spinach Stew with Ginger or this Chickpea and Potato Jalfrezi), in hearty meal-sized salads (like a Marinated Kale and Chickpea Salad), even in sandwiches (Braised Kale and Chickpeas on Pizza Bianca, anyone?).
- Kidney beans are great in soup or Vegan Chili.
- White beans
- Black beans can be cooked into soups and stews, mashed and stuffed into tacos or piled into arepas
- Dried chickpeas have slightly better flavor than canned, and are more suitable for falafel, which has a tendency to fall apart when made with canned.
- *Dried lentils* are my favorite dried beans, mainly because they cook so darn fast—30 minutes on the stovetop will soften them perfectly for salads or as a side, while a long simmer can turn them into a creamy soup (like this Lentil and Coconut Soup with Cilantro-Habanero Gremolata).
- *Refried pinto beans* are one of my go-to snacks when I'm really lazy. Pile 'em on toast, add some sliced avocado, and you've got breakfast or a midnight snack.
- Refried black beans
Grains and Flours
It's easy for a first time vegan to start a vegan diet eating way too many grains to try and fill them up. This is not a good strategy. For vegans, perhaps even more than omnivores, a good balanced diet is essential to maintaining good health. That said, that doesn't mean there's no place for them in a vegan diet. Whole grains and pulses in particular can make for excellent side dishes, or even small-but-hearty main courses.
- *Flour*. I mainly reach for the bread flour to make things like my Better No-Knead Bread or No Knead Pizza Bianca. Whole wheat flour is a good addition to any savory baked recipe.
- *Oats* are great toasted with some Cranberry-Raspberry jam stirred into it, but they aren't just for breakfast! We have over a dozen flavor variations, many of them vegan.
- *Pearled barley*, wheat berries, quinoa, and *bulgur wheat* all make great additions to soups and stews, or can be cooked, seasoned, and served as a side dish or salad on their own. (Check out this Lentil, Barley, and Olive salad, this Quinoa Salad with Corn, Tomatoes, Avocado, and Lime , and of course classic Tabbouleh.
- Polenta can be served soft and creamy as a base for a stew, or made into cakes and fried or grilled as a centerpiece for a dinner plate, salad, or sandwich.
- Risotto is excellent for vegans—it makes its own creamy sauce, a texture that is lacking in many vegan recipes. (Check out this Leek and Mushroom Polenta, which would be equally good with some awesome extra-virgin olive oil taking the place of butter).
- *Pasta* is great, but be wary of falling into the pasta trap that many first-time vegans (including myself!) fall victim to. The smartest move it to reverse the ratios, using a little bit of pasta to add texture to a largely sauce-and-vegetable based dish. This Spicy Peanut Noodle Salad or Pasta with Braised Broccoli and Tomato Sauce are a good place to start.
Great for adding accents to savory and sweet dishes, or for snacking any time.
- *Raisins* are my go-to. I stir them into oatmeal, blend them into the base for my chili, or use them in sweet-and-sour savory dishes like this Sicilian-Style Broccoli Rabe
- Dried Cranberries, figs, dates, apricots, mangoes, and, well, any fruits make for a great snack
I normally store my nuts in the freezer to give them an almost indefinite shelf-life, but as a vegan, I find I go through them so quickly that there's no need.
- *Peanuts and Cashews* can be eaten on their own, or tossed into soups, curries, and stir-fries.
- Almonds and Walnuts are my favorite for mixing into oatmeal, adding to salads, or for baking with.
- *Pepitas* are nutty, toasty, crunchy, and so awesome as a garnish to anything from salads to soups to main courses. They bring their nutty crunch to my Chilaquiles with Charred Corn and Black Beans and my Sopes with Refried Beans and Salsa Verde
The fridge is where you may see the most change. No more milk, eggs, mayo-based condiments, or meats. Here's what you should keep instead
- Soy, almond, cashew, or rice milk. I personally don't enjoy alternative milk products (a good job too, as I'm allergic to most of them), but if you want something creamy to stir into your breakfast or need milk in your morning coffee or tea, here are some options to consider.
- *Coconut milk* Coconut milk is an essential for curries and soups.
Pickles and Other Preserved Vegetables
Pickles are packed with flavor and make a great accent to sandwiches, tacos, salads. Acidity is an oft-overlooked element in cooking, but it's as important as salt in really making a dish stand out.
- *Dill pickles* are great for snacking or sticking in sandwiches.
- *Olives, capers, and pepperoncini* get chopped together and made into an olive salad that brings flavor to any vegan sandwich, pizza, or pasta dish, like this Broccoli Rabe Muffaletta
- *Pickled jalapeños* get stirred into my beans with more frequency than decency.
- Sun-dried tomatoes are meaty, intense, and packed with flavor. A vegan's dream come true.
- *Quick pickled red onions*. I am never without a jar of these easy quick pickled red onions, and from what I gather ,neither is anyone else who's ever tried the recipe. Five ingredients and five minutes for a flavor punch to the gut.
- Zha Cai. Sichuan preserved mustard root. It might be tough to track down (check the cans at your local Asian supermarket), but once you do, it lasts forever. It's great chopped and tossed into stir-fries or Chinese stews, or as a bright, hot element in a soup.
Sauces and Condiments
These are the fridge-stable sauces and condiments that can instantly amp up the flavor of a dish with just a dollop or two.
- *Tahini and harissa*
- *Really good olive oil and vinegars* (sherry, balsamic, white wine, cider). Extra points if you make them into a vinaigrette and store it in a plastic squeeze bottle.
- *Good mustard*
- *Soy sauce and/or liquid aminos* (like Bragg or Maggi). All three are umami bombs that can add a bit of savory depth to stir-fries, sandwiches, soups, stews, or other condiments.
- Miso paste is a great ingredient for marinades, rubs, and dips.
- Chili oil adds fat and heat.
- Vegan mayonnaise. You can go with the store-bought stuff, but homemade vegan mayo is easy enough, and tastes far superior.
- Tare is a Japanese condiment made by simmering flavored soy sauce and mirin until syrupy. It's great for drizzling over grilled or simmered vegetables like broccoli or pumpkin.
- Cilantro/Herb sauce is great for adding moisture, heat, and flavor to fried grain-based dishes like falafel or arancini. I originally included a recipe forCilantro Chutney with my Chickpea and Potato Jalfrezi, but it's a great condiment to have around all the time. Mix up the herbs for variety.
- *Nut butters* make for an easy and nutritious snack with plenty of protein and fat to fill you up. They can also be used as the base for creamy sauces.
Tofu (firm and soft) is one of the most underrated ingredients by omnivores. Far from being a meat substitute, it has a fully developed repertoire of dishes all its own. Try this Spicy Warm Silken Tofu with Celery and Cilantro Salad, or these Ginger Scallion Noodles with Tofu.
Of course vegetables of all kinds are great for vegans, and I can't possible list all the ones I eat here, but I'll give you a few that I can't go a week without.
- *Kale and other hearty greens* last forever, are packed with vitamins and fiber, and are great in a multitude of dishes, braised, marinated raw, sauteed, simmered in soups, topping pizza, you name it, kale will work.
- *Carrots, onions, and celery* are the three most important ingredients in a Western pantry. There's something about the combination of them that just tastes right. I use them as the base for stocks, soups, and stews.
- *Squash and pumpkins* are two of those hearty vegetables that fill you up before you even notice it. They also last forever. Roasting squash and pumpkins can concentrate their flavor and sweetness, like in this Roasted Squash and Raw Carrot Soup
- *AVOCADO*!!! As Erin puts it, "avocados are like vegan butter." I probably average an avocado a day. Sliced and eaten for breakfast. Mashed and used as a spread on a sandwich. Seasoned into guacamole. It's creamy, filling, and simply delicious.
- *Mushrooms* or all shapes and sizes can help give you that rich, umami-blast you might be missing if you are used to a meat-based diet.
- *Fresh herbs* are a must for any kitchen, vegan or not. Parsley, mint, and cilantro are always in my fridge.
Just like with pasta, be careful not to fall into the too-much-bread trap. It's easy to do.
- Sandwich bread, preferably whole-wheat. And be wary—many supermarket brand breads are not vegan. They contain milk products or honey. Check those labels!
- Tortillas (corn and flour) are a better option for wrapping foods and making snacks that regular bread. They're less filling so let you focus more on the other ingredients than the wrapper. There are plenty of great vegan taco options, like these Potato Tacos (just use avocado in place of the cream) or these Charred Corn and Zucchini Tacos.
- Pita or naan are great for picking up dips and spreads. Here are a whole 15 versions of hummus, most of them vegan.
Sometimes you just need a snack and all the fresh fruit has run out. Here are a few pantry-stable snacks that can hit the spot when hunger strikes.
- *Trail mix*
- Potato chips
- Fruit juices
- Ready-to-eat meals. Avoid those that are branded as vegan—I've never found one that I've enjoyed—rather look for normal heat-and-eats that just happen to be vegan incidentally. Tasty Bite's Indian Bite series is a great place to start. I've also had some decent success with the Microwave Meals from Barilla (who knew pasta could stay al dente in the microwave?). And Erin is a fan of the frozen potato and onion dosas from Trader Joe's.
Am I missing any of the essentials here? What do you vegans out there keep in your pantry? And what do you omnivores think you'd miss most?
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.