The Serious Eats team has been cooking even more often than usual these past few weeks—and that's saying something. As new Covid-19 preventative measures go into effect across the country, restaurants are closing their doors to keep both diners and staff safe. We’re to stay inside when we can, and to stay reasonably far from one another when we do need to poke our heads out for fresh air, or to pick up groceries.
These conditions aren't conducive to going out on the town with our friends. To support beloved restaurants and small businesses, many of us are ordering delivery, at least while the option remains. But that still leaves a lot of cooking to be done in our own kitchens. While we might have grabbed a bagel on our way to work in the past, or stepped out at lunchtime for a salad, we’re often making three square meals a day now. At home. From ingredients in our pantries. That's no small feat, but with a good set of pantry essentials on-hand, we pull it off.
Luckily, the Serious Eats staff has always had strong opinions about how to stock a pantry, and we’re making sure that we stay well fed. From beans, rice, and bright condiments, to pantry pasta essentials and all our favorite spices, these are the pantry (and long-lasting perishable) ingredients we can’t do without.
Plenty of Beans
Beans, beans, beans. Good for your heart, and good for an extended stay at home, too. And in this case, dried beans are what I've focused my shopping on. They deliver the most bang for your buck, delivering far more food per pound than the canned alternative: As I documented in my bean-conversion article, one pound of dried beans yields roughly two-and-a-half to three times its weight in cooked beans. Given that beans also swell in volume when they cook, that's a significant storage efficiency if ever there was one.
Plus, cooked-from-dry beans just taste better. I'll dress them with olive oil and freshly ground black pepper (good beans don't need anything more than that); load them into soups (like pasta e fagioli and ribollita) and bean-based pasta sauces; eat them in hearty salads and sides; maybe make some refrieds; whip up some chili; and stew them with canned tomatoes and olive oil. Oh, and let's not forget some proper Boston baked beans! In at least one way I'm looking forward to this mandatory work-from-home situation: It's going to force me to finally eat my way through a pantry that long ago grew overstocked. —Daniel Gritzer, managing culinary director
Chickpeas, whether dried or canned, are a godsend in times like these, not only because they're easy to make, but also because they're hearty and versatile. I especially like to have them on hand to make falafel and hummus. You can put the two together in a pita sandwich, and you can also use the hummus as a dip or a condiment for other meals. If you have eggs and some canned tomatoes, you can also whip up some shakshuka. And voilà, you have yourself a flavorful Middle Eastern meal that'll feed your whole family. Whatever you do, make sure you have a variety of condiments to keep your meals interesting! —Yasmine Maggio, social media intern
Pantry staples like beans, grains, and pasta are all well and good, but you'll need stuff to make those things taste good. Onions and garlic keep a very long time in a cool, dark, dry place; ginger keeps well, and you can also freeze it, if you want even longer term storage. When the self-isolation news hit, I bought a couple bags of onions, many heads of garlic, and a oak tree's root network of ginger.
Other than that, I checked on my stash of sauces, condiments, vinegars, and spices: soy sauce, mirin, fish sauce, good olive oil in variety, dried chilies in variety, cumin, coriander, fennel seed, cardamom (red, black, and green), clove, cinnamon, smoked paprika, asafoetida, fenugreek, mustard seeds, dried mango powder, black pepper, sesame oil, mustard oil, vinegars in variety (red wine, white wine, sherry, chinkiang, rice, distilled), katsuobushi (bonito flakes), kombu (dried laver), niboshi (dried infant sardines), dried shrimp, papery dried shrimp, dried shiitake, fermented shrimp paste, premade Thai curry pastes, cured meats good for cooking (Spanish chorizo, pancetta, guanciale, bacon), clam juice, Calabrian chili paste, sambal oelek, la doubanjiang (spicy fermented broad bean paste), fermented black beans (or sauce), Shaoxing wine, Worcestershire sauce, anchovies (preferably packed in salt). With all that on hand, you could make shoe leather taste good enough to eat multiple times in a week. —Sho Spaeth, staff writer and editor
Ground Beef, to Freeze
When I'm picking up pantry items, I get the standard beans and canned foods, but what I really stock up on is plenty of ground beef. Call it a coping mechanism, call it a breakdown, call it what you will, but I cannot stop making smashed burgers. Even without a trip to the grocery store, it's surprisingly easy to have all of the necessary components of a great burger on hand. Onions last for a long, long time, and I keep a nice, hard cheese in my fridge that can handle a month of storage (though it never lasts longer than a week).
As for the beef, I portion it out into half-pound balls when I get home, and wrap each ball in wax paper or plastic wrap. Then they go into the freezer. I've even taken to freezing pre-sliced bread, so I can defrost two slices at a time and use them in place of buns. I far prefer the thin, lacy edges and medium-well interior of a smashed burger to the juicy, thick patty of its more traditional counterpart. Smashing the meat also stretches it out (literally and figuratively) so I don't need to use more than half a pound of meat per burger. At this rate, I might never end up opening those cans of soup. If I'm not in the mood for a burger, I'll pull out a few pre-portioned balls of meat and let them defrost for a rich, comforting Ragù Bolognese. —Elazar Sontag, associate editor
Popcorn for Snacking
This sums up my pantry shopping list: lots of popcorn. I probably pop a bowl two to three times a week normally, but these days I've been eating popcorn as a snack throughout the day. It's an ideal stress-eating food, but doesn't set me too far back—unlike the bag of M&Ms I may or may not have demolished over the weekend. In the grocery store scramble that everyone is facing, I've seen shortages of every dry grain except for popcorn, and it's nice that it's still fairly accessible. It's definitely not a meal (although I could go old-school and try it as cereal if things get down to it), but having a cheap snack that's easy to make is still very valuable to me. —Joel Russo, video producer
Powdered Soup Packets
Powdered soup packets are a godsend. The corner store by my house stocks an interesting Polish brand. My favorite flavors are the red borscht and the creamy mushroom soup—the latter especially, because with the addition of a little butter, cream and dill, it makes a rich pasta sauce in two minutes. —John Mattia, video editor
Cured Pork Products
A little bit of cured pork goes a long way in terms of adding flavor to basic pantry starches and legumes. I'm currently stocked up on small quantities of guanciale, bacon, 'nduja, prosciutto, lap cheong, and smoked sausages. They last forever in the fridge, and freeze well after they've been portioned up. Think of it like those probability math problems with ridiculous scenarios: six varieties of pork products multiplied by six starches or legumes equals 36 unique, comforting dishes to hopefully outlast the shelter in place. —Maggie Lee, UX designer
Cherry Tomatoes, Any Time of Year
I love tomatoes and I've even, much to everyone's dismay—including my own!—been known to eat out-of-season beefsteak tomatoes for what I can only describe as the "crisp, savory wetness" they add to salads and sandwiches. But whenever possible, I reach for smaller tomatoes, like grape and cherry tomatoes, which tend to taste much sweeter and tomato-ier off-season because they can be picked and shipped when they're much closer to ripe (whereas their heavier, more bruise-prone full-size counterparts are often picked green and allowed to "ripen" on their journey north).
Plus, small tomatoes are cute and very snackable, so I usually have at least a small carton on-hand all year round. Now, I'm doubling down and devoting some precious fridge space to them—they're great for salads and, if you're patient and slice each one in half, for sandwiches, yes, but they also work well in countless cooking projects. Enjoy them cooked until bursting in omelettes and stir-fries, on pasta with XO sauce, or mingled with eggplant and gochujang in this sheet pan salmon dinner. And god forbid they start to turn, you can always make a big batch of these jammy, sweet and savory oven-dried cherry tomatoes. —Niki Achitoff-Gray, editor in chief
Plenty of Coffee
It's been a strange few days for all of us (you too, I'm sure) and the food I'm most worried about stocking up on isn't an essential at all—it's coffee. As a creature of habit, knowing I can wake up and go through the ritual of making (and drinking) coffee in the morning, gives me a few minutes of normalcy and comfort that few other foods can. —Paul Cline, president
Butter... For Everything
Aside from all the staples—dried pasta, rice, dried beans—the first thing I thought to pick up a lot of was unsalted butter. It's super useful! I obviously fry eggs in it, but I also use it in tomato sauce, pasta sauces, pan sauces for meat. A pound of it will eventually become clarified butter, which you can use both as a cooking medium, and to make, say, paratha (or scallion pancakes!). —Sho Spaeth, staff writer and editor
Flour for All the Comfort Foods
I suppose I'm not alone in stocking up on flour, since every grocery store in my neighborhood seems to have none of it (bodegas, however, do!). I bought several five-pound bags since I figured I'd be making bread, pizza, cookies, chicken cutlets, and, of course, noodles. With a bit of flour, some butter (see above!), and some water, I can eat a lot of my favorite foods—that is, bread, pizza, cookies, chicken cutlets, and noodles—pretty often without having to shop for much beyond chicken and cheese. —Sho Spaeth, staff writer and editor
Dried Pasta Galore
I cook pasta all the time, but lately I’ve surrounded myself with even more dried pasta than usual. Between figuring out our favorite pasta shapes, pasta recipe development, and my general prescribed weekly intake of pasta (minimum five servings per week), my apartment is filled with packages of pasta for making my go-to soul-soothing meals like amatriciana, gricia, spaghetti con la colatura di alici, and more. Along with providing much-needed comfort during this unsettling time, I also feel good about buying dried pasta from small Italian producers that are really struggling during this period. Forza e coraggio. —Sasha Marx, senior culinary editor
Chipwich Ice Cream Sandwiches
Over the past week or two, I've been finding a lot of comfort in Chipwich ice cream sandwiches. This is a new and unexpected development that I’m embracing, and I've got a good supply of them in my freezer. I've been purchasing the commercial version for now, but I definitely see a giant batch of Stella's homemade Chipwiches in my future! —Sasha Marx, senior culinary editor
I stocked up on some frozen seafood. A few pounds of shrimp can go a long way when you're cooking for one, and storing them in smaller portions allows you to grab a few at a time. I also love the bag of individually packed vacuum sealed salmon filets at Whole Foods. A piece of fish and some grains or pasta can be really versatile using spices and condiments you already have in your pantry. —Vicky Wasik, visual director
A few months after I moved to a new neighborhood in Queens last year, a fantastic cheese shop opened across the street from me. Now, they're not letting anyone in the store and doing pick-up and delivery only, so I put in a big order yesterday—a big hunk of aged cheddar to go with the bread I've been baking (that'll last a few weeks stored properly in the fridge), some mozzarella and ricotta for lasagna that will be batched up and frozen, and big hunks of Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino Romano for all of the pantry pasta I will be making. As much as possible, I hope local stores can figure out arrangements like this to survive, and I plan on supporting them as much as I can. —Daniel Dyssegaard-Kallick, developer
Good Jarred Marinara Sauce
My one essential pantry item for this crazy, scary time is not even technically an ingredient, but hey, that’s how I roll. Rao’s marinara sauce is—as our taste test proved years ago—simply the best jar of tomato sauce money can buy (and it will cost you more money than the the pasta sauces I grew up with). You do get what you pay for. Rao’s is thick, well-seasoned, and it tastes solely of the high-quality ingredients listed on the jar's label. What do I use it for? Not just as a pasta sauce for any dry pasta, though it is undeniably delicious when used that way. I also poach eggs in it, making an easy, down-and-dirty version of eggs in purgatory or shakshuka. I use it as a sauce on an English muffin or pan pizza. Don’t tell my wife this, but I’ve even been known to eat a spoonful cold right out of the jar. Don’t knock it until you try it. —Ed Levine, founder
Pesto Paste for Fresh Herb Flavor
I'm already dreading the skeptical remarks about this one. But hear me out! If you have an abundance of fresh herbs at home (and you're storing them properly), making pesto is a great way to preserve that bright flavor. But sometimes I just don't want to deal with the process. We are in a state of crisis! I don't feel like using my Vitamix or worse, a mortar and pestle. So that's why I buy Amore pesto paste. It's an ingredient I'm always stocked up on and I reach for it often, no matter the circumstances.
This pesto paste is nothing like jarred supermarket pesto, which is typically filled with ingredients that aren't in traditional pesto, like potato flakes, yeast extract, and sugar. It's really just the basics, but super concentrated. I'd compare it to a good tomato paste, where a little spoonful goes a long way toward enhancing the flavor of whatever you're cooking. So for those times when I don't have fresh herbs in the house and my pasta—or ground turkey, or tomato sauce, or eggs, or soup—is just a little bland, I squeeze in some pesto paste and everything is all the better. So maybe you're still a little skeptical. That's okay. It only takes one tube to change your mind. —Ariel Kanter, director of commerce and content marketing
What are your pantry must-haves? Stuck with ingredients you're not sure how to use? Let us know in the comments!