Stock up on these essentials—they're the backbones of cold-weather cooking.

By Victoria Spencer
October 12, 2020
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Annie Schlechter

In the cold months, a cook relies on her pantry more than she does in the summer when fresh tomatoes are plentiful and dinner is something grilled with a salad. When the produce comes from faraway lands or is thin on the shelves (and the farmers' market looks sad and gray), the staples here will become your essentials for making delicious winter meals. Stock your pantry with them and you'll always have the fixings for several good dinners on hand.

Use this list as a guideline and tailor it to suit your cooking with the grains you use most and the beans and lentils that you like best.

Dried and Canned Beans and Lentils

Think cannellini, chickpeas, black, and pinto. You should keep a stash of canned beans for quick weeknight meals and bean dips (yes, hummus!), but you'll also want to stock up on dried beans because they're more economical, often have better flavor than canned, and generally have more unusual varieties available.

Looking for a shortcut to dinner? Red lentils cook fastest; they break down and are great for soup or dal. French green and brown lentils, on the other hand, are classic for salads, patties, and more.

Rice, Grains, and Polenta

Whether you love basmati or arborio (or something else entirely!), the most important thing to do is stock your pantry with the types of rice you and your family will actually eat. If you'll eat a variety, bring home a few different types of rice that you can use with different meals.

But don't let your grain supply end there. Barley and other whole grains, such as farro, millet, and freekeh, can make a healthy side for dinner or be the base of a cozy winter one-pot meal like Braised Chicken with Tomatoes and Freekeh. Quinoa is a protein-packed seed that's used like a grain and can be served as a side or as the center of a veggie bowl, turned into a veggie burger, or used to stuff winter squash, which means it deserves a place in your cupboards, too. And don't forget about polenta! Regular polenta takes about 15-20 minutes to cook, but we prefer it to quick-cooking polenta.

Canned Goods

Don't overlook the versatility and health benefits of canned Fish: Oil-packed tuna, sardines, and anchovies are loaded with omega-3s and add protein and depth of flavor to pasta, salads, marinades, and sautéed vegetables.

Other canned goods to stock up on? Tomatoes. When fresh tomatoes are not in season, make liberal use of canned ones in soup, pizza, and Chilaquiles Egg Bake. Also be sure to keep tomato paste in a tube. We prefer tubes of tomato paste—not cans—for better quality and quantity control; most recipes call for just a tablespoon or two, not a whole can.

Oils

you'll need olive oil for cooking and for using as a finishing oil, but you should also keep vegetable or other neutral oil (for cooking at high heat and for when you don't want to taste the oil), and oils such as toasted sesame oil and nut oils (for finishing dishes and vinaigrettes) in your pantry for nights when heading to the store just isn't possible.

Nuts and Nut Butters

Protein packed and versatile, nuts can be used in sauces (and not only pesto), added to braises, used as a topping for your oatmeal, and enjoyed as a snack. You'll also want to keep a few different nut butters in the cupboards. You'll use them for sauces, marinades, sandwiches, and maybe even eating straight from the jar! Looking to get creative with your nut butters? Did you know how quick and easy it is to make your own almond butter? You may never actually buy the jarred stuff again.

Other Essential Flavors

Be sure to have soy sauce and Sriracha—or your hot sauce of choice—on hand. It's the easiest way to liven up any meal. Consider adding miso to your pantry, too: It lasts forever and can add savory flavor to practically everything—roast chicken, pasta, dressings, even chocolate ganache (really!).

We also like to keep capers on hand in the winter. Salt packed are best, since they have a fresher, almost floral flavor and aroma; they keep their shape and firmness better, too. Another pantry staple? Dried mushrooms. We're especially partial to dried porcini mushrooms. If you're cooking them in liquid, don't bother to reconstitute them, as with this ristotto recipe. Last but not least, be sure to stock up on dried chiles and chile flakes, which are both easy flavor enhancers for many dishes.

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