Saturday, January 31, 2009

Kitchen Keeping Tips #4 -- Making the Most of Your Pantry (Pantry Philosophy Edition!)

What is a pantry, and what goes in it? Why should you have a well-stocked pantry?

Your pantry is any storage area in or adjacent to your kitchen where you keep dry goods (like rice, pasta, beans, grains, flour, etc.), canned goods, and other nonperishables. For the purposes of this post, your freezer counts as part of your food storage. If you have a deep freeze, that counts, too.

In the past, I've given a pantry list, along with ten pantry-only recipes and a 30-day menu plan, as shower gifts for brides-to-be. I figure it's incredibly practical. How many times have you come home, hungry and exhausted, from your family vacation, only to be greeted by an empty fridge? And if your schedule looks anything like mine, there are times when you literally have no time to grocery shop. A well-stocked pantry will get you through those moments with minimal stress.

Think about a steaming bowl of spicy, savory pasta puttanesca. Or a rich, comforting risotto. Or Cuban red beans and rice. Or a quick vegetarian black bean chili, served over creamy polenta. You can make all of these things in thirty minutes or less, with only ingredients you have in your pantry, if you stock it according to the list in the previous post.

But just how do you do that without breaking the bank?

It's simple. Make a list like the pantry list below of all the items you do not have, and keep it with your shopping bags (you do use cloth shopping bags, don't you?) or in your purse. Each time you go to the grocery store, pick up one or two of the items, or more if you can find them on sale. You're going to be saving money by using my shopping plan anyway, so you'll be well able to afford those few extra items -- and they're cheap items!

The next time you're in the neighborhood of an ethnic grocery (there are Indian, Korean, and Mexican groceries close to me, so that's where I go), pick up some of those ingredients as well. Indian groceries are a fantastic source for cheap spices, lentils, and basmati rice. Mexican groceries often have canned and dried beans that are much more reasonably priced than a regular grocery store. An Asian market is obviously the best place to buy your everyday rice, and is a surprisingly reliable source for fresh, unique produce.

If you're a meat-eater and own a deep freeze, look into sourcing meat directly from local producers. If you put half a beef or a whole pig -- butchered and custom cut, of course -- into your freezer once a year (almost always at a dramatically lower price per pound than comparable meat at the grocery store), you can keep eating the meat you enjoy while saving literally hundreds per year.

Now, how much to buy? The answer to that involves three considerations: how much money can you save by buying in bulk, how much space do you have, and how quickly will you go through pantry items?

I have a very small kitchen, and all of my pantry items are in one standard sized cupboard and one small cupboard above my stove. Plus, I'm cooking for one most of the time. So buying beans or rice or flour in fifty-pound sacks isn't practical for me. I don't have any place to put that amount of food, and there's no way I could get through it all before it got bugs or went rancid and I had to throw it away, which negates any savings I could get by buying such large amounts.

But let's say you have six kids, your house has a root cellar, and you bake all your own bread and eat rice and beans twice a week. For you, buying rice and beans and flour in fifty-pound sacks would probably be a great plan, and the best use of your money!

Here are some good rules of thumb for determining how much to buy:

1. Buy as much of the product (rice, pasta, beans, flour, etc.) as you can store, in the largest package possible. It's more economical to buy staple foods in large quantities than small, not to mention the environmental benefit of reducing packaging materials.
2. Balance that with how much you can use before the item gets rancid (a consideration with whole grains and nuts), attracts bugs, loses potency or flavor (as with baking powder, herbs and spices, tea and coffee, etc.), or gets freezer burn in the case of your "freezer pantry."
3. Plan. I cannot over-emphasize this. PLAN to use each item in turn as you plan your meals. Focus your meal plans on your pantry stocks rather than on meat -- in other words, if you use a flex-plan like I outlined in my Shopping post, plan to have rice one day a week and pair it with a meat that was on sale at the grocery this week (or go meatless and do rice and beans!). Another day, have pasta with another meat that was on sale (or, again, go meatless). Have a meal that puts a homemade bread at the center, like pizza, crusty bread with soup, or hot sandwiches.

Whew! That was a LOT of info, but I hope it was helpful!


Hannah said...

Great info, thanks for the post!! And I LOVE your idea for what you give newlyweds. Wow, they are lucky to know you!

Hannah @ Safely Gathered In

Donners said...

Sorry Laura, that was me, not my husband!

GaryV said...

Thank God I'm married. I'm hopeless with this sort of thing.