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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!

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[Illustration: Robyn Lee]

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 where 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.

The List

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 intimidating, 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

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

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.

Grains and Flours

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[Photograph: Jennifer Segal]

It's easy for a first time vegan to start a vegan diet eating way too many grains. 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 grains in a vegan diet. Whole grains and pulses in particular can make for excellent side dishes, or even small-but-hearty main courses.

Dried Fruits

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Great for adding accents to savory and sweet dishes, or for snacking any time.

Nuts

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

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.

Refrigerated Staples

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:

Alterna-Milks

Pickles and Other Preserved Vegetables

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Pickles are packed with flavor and make a great accent to sandwiches, tacos, and salads. Acidity is an oft-overlooked element in cooking, but it's as important as salt in really making a dish stand out.

Sauces and Condiments

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

These are the fridge-stable sauces and condiments that can instantly amp up the flavor of a dish with just a dollop or two.

Other Essentials

Tofu!

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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.

Vegetables

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

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.

Breads

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Just like with pasta, be careful not to fall into the too-much-bread trap. It's easy to do.

Emergency Rations!

Punjab Eggplant

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.

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?

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