Jack Bishop, editorial director of America’s Test Kitchen, joined us recently to talk about what essential ingredients every cook should have on-hand in their kitchen at all times. Here’s his list – along with some helpful tips on how to store them so that they last longer:
You probably have a couple days past the sell-by date on your milk before you notice any spoilage, and up to a week, if it hasn’t warmed up too much between the store and home. Freezing milk can lead to separation.
Speaking of freezers, they’re great for the occasional cook. Butter, nuts, stock, tomato paste, canned chipotle chiles all can last for months on end in the freezer.
Eggs: Don’t store them on the door – it’s the warmest part of the fridge and the eggs won’t last as long. Keep them in the carton, which prevents them from drying out. Whole eggs don’t really freeze well, but you can try to freeze the whites.
Always have lemons, which will last a while in the crisper drawer in your fridge.
Onions and garlic are also must-haves because they’re in so many different cuisines. According to Bishop, a basic yellow onion is good for 98% of the recipes you’re going to make. Red onions are great for a recipe that calls for raw onion. Both onions and garlic need to breathe and if you keep them cool (in the pantry or your basement), they’ll last longer. Once you’ve cut into an onion, it’ll last another day in the fridge because the flavor gets too intense after that.
Stock is another essential. Pre-made ones can last up to 2 weeks in the fridge after they’re opened. America’s Test Kitchen has found that thick pastes (which you reconstitute with hot water) – one example is Better Than Bullion – will last up to 18 months. Making your own stock is great, and you can freeze some in muffin tins or an ice cube tray or a small Tupperware. But be warned – it takes a lot of planning.
If you love butter on toast, use salted butter. But for cooking, unsalted butter is better because each company uses a different amount of salt.
When it comes to olive oil, use extra virgin olive oil – anything else, and Bishop says, “you may as well be using vegetable oil.” America’s Test Kitchen’s top-rated olive oil is a moderately-priced Spanish oil named Columela. It’ll last about a year.
Vinegars will last forever as long as you don’t get a bloom of the mother, which is coagulated bacteria. Keep them away from sunlight to make sure they last for years.
Mustard is really a matter of personal taste. But no matter what kind you choose, mustard loses its kick over time, even if it’s unopened.
Whole spices – like cumin seed and cinnamon sticks – can go in the freezer for at least a year. Ground spices stay in the pantry for a year. After that, they lose their “oomph.” Smell or rub spices between your fingers to make sure they’re up to snuff.
Bishop says you need 2 salts – a finishing salt like Maldon (with big crystals) that you should use at the table. But if you’re cooking pasta, go with the cheapest salt you can find – either kosher salt or table salt – because you won’t be able to taste it.
You can use black pepper for almost every recipe. White pepper is more for aesthetic reasons.
For pasta, always have one long strand and one short tube in your cupboard – linguine and penne or spaghetti and rigatoni.
Long grain white rice is probably the most useful and versatile for most cooks.
All-purpose flour is fine unless you’re a big baker. It works for most baked goods. America’s Test Kitchen likes the unbleached all-purpose. For flour, whole grain means it’s got the oil from the germs that they contain, which means it can go rancid more quickly, so keep it in the freezer if you’re not going to use it all in a few months.
Baking powder and baking soda have a shelf life of 6 to 12 months and then they’ll lose their leavening power. Past 12 months, your baked goods may not rise properly. Use stick-on dots on the products to keep track of when you bought them.
Keep condiments like Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, A-1 in the fridge, where they’ll last up to a year.