Let’s Talk Pantries

Let’s talk about pantries. This is apparently a pretty important topic for us homemakers. Oh Joy! just did a post on easy hors d’oeuvres for spontaneous entertaining that mentioned that she never has stuff on hand for guests. May Richer Fuller Be just reorganized her pantry. With spring on the immediate horizon, organization and easy, casual entertaining is going to be on everyone’s minds. So I thought I’d write a little it about how I do it.

First, let’s start with organization. Mine is…loose. And not super pretty. We have five spots in our kitchen that are not filled with with dishes. That might not seem very efficient, but it works for us. The main thing here is separation. I don’t want to have to wade through twenty bottles of spices to get to my baking powder. Nor do I want to have to store 10 pounds of flour behind three types of snack food. We don’t have a real pantry so this is the system that we’ve worked out.

One cupboard contains large amounts of daily baking supplies (flours, sugars, nuts & dried fruit, chocolate, that sort of thing). I do a lot of baking so clearly not everyone would need space for four types of flour, four types of sugar and ten pounds each of all-purpose flour and white sugar. But that, plus everything I need for weekly granola, pizza, bread-making and the inevitable cookie, cake or quick bread project are here.

One small upper cabinet contains oils and vinegars (and also alcohol, but those will be transferred to the radio/bar when it’s done). I have something like six kinds of vinegar, which most people probably wouldn’t find necessary, but I use all of them all the time.

I have a shelf for spices by the stove. This is a bad place to store spices, in sunlight, by a heat source. However, none of the more traditional spice storage options work for us because our cabinet shelves are so close together. So this is what we get.

Finally, our main “pantry” is a cupboard above the microwave and is “organized” into five sections on three shelves. The first shelf has dinner-making basics like rice, pasta, dry beans and cooking spray. It also contains our snack food like nuts, pretzels, eating chocolate and cookies.

The second shelf contains small baking things on the left (baking powder, unsweetened cocoa, baking soda, sea salt). On the right are spices that I don’t use as often, tea and larger containers of stuff like table salt and pepper. Basically, miscellaneous stuff that we use often, but that doesn’t fit in anywhere else.

The top shelf contains back-up items: extra pasta sauce, cans of beans, Rotel, diced tomatoes, instant coffee, olives, tuna, back-up stocks (for when I haven’t roasted chicken in a while and don’t have any frozen on hand) and other stuff that I like to keep available, but that doesn’t get used every day. This shelf is actually probably the secret to my pantry amazingness though: a stash of basics so that I can prepare a meal plan for an upcoming week and find that I pretty much only need to buy whatever fresh food we’d need (like meat & veggies). In an entire week’s worth of meals, I generally only have to buy one or two new ingredients.

This doesn’t cover the fridge or freezer, but suffice it to say, eggs, cheese, milk, ground beef, chicken breasts, various condiments and leftovers are also a part of this pantry preparedness picture.

I occasionally look at lists of what other people think comprises a well-stocked pantry. The one I liked best was from Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food because it best matched up with how we eat. People with toddlers would likely have very different ideas of what a “well-stocked pantry” might be. Coincidentally, when I ran through Waters’ list, I already had about 90% of what she recommended, just by being annoyed over the years when I would find myself buying diced tomatoes every week, or worse, running out mid-recipe. I recommend that method over just taking someone else’s word about what a well-stocked pantry is. You might not like Rotel or beans or olives, but they’re staples for us. Also, improvisation. Almost anything that wants capers can be done with chopped up olives. Sour cream and plain yogurt can be interchangeable. And so on.

Our system for staying stocked is pretty simple. When I run out of something, I write it on a magnetic pad we keep on the refrigerator. So when we notice we’re running low on white sugar (i.e. when I have less than five pounds) or unsalted butter (i.e. less than two pounds–three pounds at holidays) or more prosaic items like diced tomatoes, black beans, or whatever, we write it on the list.

I did grocery shopping on Friday so this is the start of this week’s list.

So what does this have to do with hors d’oeuvres? Well, a couple things. First, I can always make chocolate chip cookies because I always have chocolate chips on hand (and I often do when I have a little advance notice of a visitor). I can always make hummus because I always have canned chickpeas and olive oil and throwing something in the food processor for three minutes isn’t much of a distraction from my guests. I can always put out little bowls of nuts, olives of various types and cheese cubes because I always have olives, nuts and cheese. If we’re having a party, I can go fancier and often do, but that’s just too much work for spontaneous entertaining. I can always have a quick look around and come up with something.

All this has earned me the reputation of being an amazing baker, cook and hostess, but really it’s just all about figuring out what works for us. So, yes, I can make cookies at the drop of a hat (probably also drunk,  in my sleep or maybe even dead), but that has more to do with having chocolate than it does with any exceptional skill. And I can entertain up to six people pretty easily because there are many recipes that stretch with beans or rice or cornbread or biscuits. If you email me on Saturday night about bringing a snack for church in the morning, I can always make muffins.

Peach oatmeal muffins from last summer.

So I guess what I’m really saying is, it comes down to experience. There’s really no magic pantry formula that will work for everyone. We have a system that makes our lives easier and more welcoming and that’s really what matters.

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