When you first start getting into cooking, stocking up your storecupboard can feel like a daunting (and expensive!) task. But it’s well worth building up a set of key items that you can use across hundreds of different meals. Here’s our advice on the essentials that will give your cooking baseline a boost.
Tins and jars
Some chefs are a bit snobby about tinned food – but in reality, they’re a great way to access good quality, healthy ingredients, and have them ready and waiting for your next meal. These are our staples:
- Chopped tomatoes. The base of so many Italian, Mexican and Spanish recipes. Blend down for fussy eaters who don't like lumps (or buy passata instead).
- Sardines. Including oily fish in your diet has been shown to prevent a range of health conditions, from heart disease to certain cancers. For a delicious, healthy lunchtime snack, mash sardines into wholemeal toast with slices of avocado and tomato, or mix in with some leftover rice and salad.
- Baked beans. A humble tin of beans is actually a brilliant way to get a protein hit in a hurry. Choose low sugar and salt versions where possible, and add a drop or two of Lea & Perrins to jazz up the flavour.
- Coconut milk. A shortcut to an authentic-tasting Thai meal. Mix in with some leftover meat or veg and a curry paste and you have yourself a dinner.
- Pesto. We’ve never yet met a child who doesn’t love a bowl of pasta and pesto, so it’s a great way to feed after school extras. Stir in some frozen peas (a surprising source of protein) and any leftover meat or veg you have to hand.
Legumes aren’t just for vegetarians; they’re a brilliant way to add texture and volume to a meal, and up your protein quota. Try these:
- Red lentils. These have a lovely flavour and are a great addition to soups and stews. Even dried versions will dissolve during the cooking process, so there’s no need to pre-soak.
- Puy lentils. Try these with chicken or fish, or throw some into a bolognaise sauce to help it go further (and be healthier). Again, they will soften if you cook them for long enough (you might need a bit of extra liquid) – or buy the xxx sachets and add them in at the end.
- Chickpeas. Buy the tinned version, which are ready to use. As well as being a delicious addition to stews and salads, they’re the key ingredient for home-made houmous (which is much easier to make than you’d think).
Oils and condiments
We could write a whole blog on this section alone – and maybe one day we will – but in the meantime here’s our top five to get you started:
- Oils. Different oils have different temperature tolerances, so it’s worth having a few. Use rapeseed oil for frying, olive oil for roasting and extra virgin olive oil for drizzling and dressings.
- Vinegars. Balsamic vinegar is a great all-rounder – it lifts a sauce and makes a delicious dressing too. Rice wine vinegar is particularly good in pan-Asian dishes and is also worth investing in.
- Soy sauce. Another pan-Asian staple that you should always have to hand. Choose a light version and mix with noodles and leftover meat and/or veg for a simple evening meal.
- Dijon mustard. Stir in a small amount (or more, if you’re a fan of strong flavours) to oomph up sauces and make your dressings taste like the real deal.
- Pomegranate molasses. We know, it sounds fancy, but it’s a complete go-to when you want to add a bit of sweetness and sharpness to your dish. And it keeps for AGES in the fridge.
Dried herbs and spices
We recommend seasoning with salt regularly as you cook, to bring out the flavour, and adding black ground pepper to taste. Here are our other spice rack highlights.
- Garlic salt. When you’re frying at high temperatures, fresh garlic can burn and go bitter really quickly. Garlic salt can stand the heat, and will last ages in your cupboard too.
- Oregano. If you only have space for one green dried herb, this is the one to go for; it works with everything. A jar of mixed herbs is another, equally good option.
- Paprika. Whether smoked or sweet, it’s a hugely versatile spice. Mix with oil, lemon and oregano for a roast chicken rub.
- Cayenne pepper. If you buy only one heat-creating spice, this is the one we’d recommend.
- Ground cumin. As you’d expect, a key ingredient for Indian and Middle Eastern food, but it’s also great in chilli and other Mexican dishes too.
- Ground coriander. Another Indian staple, this also works well mixed with paprika and garlic salt to rub over steak.
- Cinnamon. Use to add warmth to savoury dishes (such as with cumin on a roast lamb) or to make weekend pancakes extra special.
And don’t be afraid to buy ready-made spice mixes – they can be a really cost-effective way to get a variety of flavours into your meal. For example, Schwartz’s Moroccan Seasoning combines lots of ingredients and will get you a long way towards an authentic-tasting tagine.
A few last bits and bobs
Finally, it’s worth having a packet of each of these in at all times:
- Plain flour. For baking, making a white sauce and thickening others. Just add baking powder to make it self-raising.
- Stock cubes. There’s nothing wrong with using dried stock. Invest in chicken, veg and beef to boost and deepen flavours of a variety of foods. We like Kallo’s version best.
- Oats. For a sugar-free breakfast, for making a crumble more interesting, for baking flapjacks, for boosting a smoothie... oats are a healthy ingredient you should never be without.
And of course, no storecupboard is complete without at least one bag of pasta, rice, noodles and couscous, which are the base of so many meals.
We hope this guide will help you build a versatile storecupboard that covers all the bases. Have we missed any of your favourites? Feel free to share your own essentials with us on social media.