Fast Ingredients: Mark Bittman on How To Stock Your Pantry With All the Essentials
How to Make Cooking at Home Easier Than Ever
A well-stocked kitchen is the backbone of fast cooking; this section lists the staples to keep in your pantry, fridge, and freezer and provides a quick rundown of which time-saving ingredients are worth buying. I’ve also included a substitution chart to inspire improvisation when you don’t have (or don’t fancy) a particular ingredient. And so you can vary both flavor profiles and key ingredients easily, many recipes include additional spins—variations—on the main recipe. But before you can cook, you’ve got to shop.
Shopping for Speed
The faster you shop, the sooner you get into the kitchen. Making a shopping list is an obvious advantage and worth reminding you about here; it’s easier to keep one perpetually going on your phone or an old-fashioned notepad than to create one from scratch every time you shop. Then try to strike a balance between spontaneous, impromptu shopping—like stopping after work for fresh vegetables and meat and weekly or even biweekly stocking up. Since the most efficient scenario is to cook from what you already have at home as often as possible, the goal is to get in the habit of using short-storing foods first. The lists here will help you do that.
Every kitchen should have the foods in the charts that follow. Some, like salt and pepper, are common sense, while others are the kinds of instant flavor boosters that are essential for fast cooking, like soy sauce and real Parmesan cheese. Other flavor-packed ingredients (not absolute essentials but nice to have around) include olives, capers, anchovies, dried tomatoes, tahini, miso, and (of course) bacon.
The Myth of Mise en Place
Although many terrific ideas have moved from restaurants to home kitchens, mise en place—prepping all the ingredients ahead of time—isn’t one of them. The term, which means “put in place,” is perfect if you have an assistant who gets all the food chopped, measured, neatly arranged in cups on a tray, and put within arm’s reach of the stove before you turn it on. But for people in home kitchens, doing all the prep ahead of time often leaves you twiddling your thumbs, waiting for food to cook. Yet this is how most cookbooks and videos direct you to work through recipes. Consider this book a call to break the habit of getting everything “put in place” before you start cooking.
Consider these the long-storing essentials you keep in either the fridge or a cupboard. As you explore the recipes, you’ll customize this list (and those that follow) to prioritize, add, and subtract depending on what you cook most.
Extra virgin olive oil
Details: What I mean when I write olive oil. It doesn’t have to be expensive—and don’t let anyone tell you it doesn’t work for frying. But if you like the flavor of olive oil, you should consider buying the freshest good-quality oil you can afford and use it for drizzling, and either a milder olive oil or good quality vegetable oil for cooking. If that’s you, look for single-source, cold-pressed oil in bottles or cans stamped with the date of harvest.
Storage: To maintain freshness, keep a small bottle on the counter, to be refilled from a big bottle or you can keep it in the fridge. Store small, more expensive bottles in a dark cabinet.
Good-quality vegetable oils
Details: Here I keep the qualifier in the recipe ingredient lists to emphasize my suggestion to use relatively neutral-tasting oils pressed from a particular seed not the generic stuff labeled “vegetable oil,” which is made from highly processed soybeans.
The best for general cooking are grapeseed, safflower, and sunflower oils. Canola is a good one if you like and already use it (I find it a bit thick and sometimes sticky). Peanut and corn oils can also be of good quality though they have more pronounced flavors.
Use vegetable oils when you want a more neutral flavor than olive oil.
Storage: Best refrigerated; keep a small jar or bottle on the counter or in a cabinet for immediate use.
Details: The most common in these recipes is sesame oil—use the dark, toasted kind; it’s a special case and used judiciously as a flavorful condiment and rarely for cooking.
Though people seem to be cooking more with coconut, avocado, and nut oils, they’re usually too heavy and strong-tasting—with a wide range of heat tolerances—for all-purpose use, but I won’t stop you if you like them and want to explore different options.
Storage: Some of these oils are highly saturated fats (like the coconut), meaning, among other things, that they’re solid at room temperature. Many will go rancid quickly. Buy only what you’ll use quickly, and keep all in a cool, dark place or the refrigerator.
Details: Sherry vinegar (a tad higher in acidity than other vinegars) is my favorite; wine vinegars are also quite good for all-purpose cooking. Balsamic and rice vinegars are the lowest in acidity and useful for their mild sweetness. I suggest stocking one wine, rice, and balsamic vinegar, as well as apple cider vinegar if you like it; the unfiltered kind has a slight apple flavor with pleasant acidity.
Storage: Vinegar keeps for at least a year at room temperature. A cloudy sediment might settle at the bottom of the bottle—the “mother” from the fermentation process—it’s edible. If you’re worried about the appearance or texture, try to pour so that it stays at the bottom of the bottle.
Salt and black pepper
Details: I use the coarse and all-purpose kosher salt for almost everything and sea salt for times the slightly briny flavor will be appreciated. Iodized salt is intense and tastes a little like iodine. Good-quality preground pepper is fine, but grinding your own is preferable and easy.
Storage: Keep a small bowl or jar of kosher salt and a sturdy hand-held pepper mill (or preground pepper in a small jar) on the counter. A little sea salt on the table is a nice touch for final seasoning.
Spices and dried herbs
Details: The essentials: chili and curry powders, cayenne, smoked paprika, ground cumin, ground ginger, ground coriander, and five-spice. Dried oregano, sage, rosemary, tarragon, dill, bay leaves, and thyme are acceptable substitutes for fresh, so consider them options even when not specifically mentioned in recipes. Start with one-third the quantity of fresh and taste as you go. There are so many good spice blends available now I encourage you to try substituting any you like in the recipes here, especially the stir-fries and soups, which easily take to flavor changes.
Storage: Keep spices and dried herbs in a cool, dark (and handy) place. Replace what you don’t use within a year. (Note the date on the label when it goes in, and you’ll know when the time’s up.)
Garlic, onions, and ginger
Details: Known collectively as “aromatics.” Loads of recipes in this book (and elsewhere) start with garlic, onions, or both. Ginger is an essential flavor in a wide range of Asian cuisines. Other aromatics like shallots, scallions (immature or green onions), and leeks can all be good substitutes, though their flavors are different. Ground ginger is quite different from fresh, so in a pinch you can substitute just a pinch for every inch of fresh. I’ve been seeing more fresh turmeric available lately, which I also like to use in combination with ginger, but go easy since it’s a tad bitter (and turns everything it touches yellow).
Storage: Keep garlic, onions, and ginger in a basket or bowl on the counter; they’ll last for weeks. (Refrigerate for longer storage.) Once you slice into a knob of ginger, store it loosely wrapped in the fridge until it starts to look funky—usually a couple of weeks.
Rice and other grains
Details: The quickest-cooking, and therefore most used here, are white rice (short- or long-grain), couscous, bulgur, and quinoa. There are other options if you can work ahead or have a little more time.
Storage: A cabinet or closet is fine, but if you don’t use them often and have the room, they’ll keep better and longer in the freezer. (Cooked grains freeze well for several months too.)
Dried pasta and noodles
Details: There are plenty of different shapes to choose from in both white and whole wheat varieties; the shapes are mostly interchangeable, though the rule of thumb is smooth sauces with long strands and chunky sauces with cut pastas. Italian pastas are usually better than those made in the United States, though specialty and local producers are changing that. The recipes that include Asian-style noodles are scattered throughout the book and give you directions for how to prepare them.
Storage: These are usually dated for expiration but will keep longer than you’ll use them.
Dried and canned beans
Details: Dried beans are inexpensive, versatile, and easy to cook from scratch (see page 505 for a basic recipe). But you’ve got to plan ahead. With the exception of lentils, the recipes in this book call for canned, frozen, or your own home-cooked beans—and I can’t encourage you strongly enough to make a big batch whenever possible. All the recipes here give canned quantities as an option. Each type of canned bean measures slightly differently, but the ingredient list assumes that 1 (15-ounce) can equals 1¾ cups.
Storage: Canned store for years; frozen cooked beans keep for months. The older dried beans are, the longer they’ll take to cook, though they also keep for at least a year.
Canned tomatoes and tomato paste
Details: Depending on the desired texture, I use whole peeled, diced, and crushed tomatoes. All come in “small” 15-ounce (approximately) and “large” 28-ounce cans. Tomato paste in a tube (like toothpaste) or in jars is more convenient than canned, but all are fine to use in these recipes.
Storage: Canned, jarred, and boxed tomatoes are marked with a best-by date, as is tomato paste. If you don’t use all of the package, put the leftovers in a resealable bag (or container), squeeze the air out as best you can, and freeze. Next time, just thaw or cut off a chunk. Tubed paste stores for weeks in the fridge; freezing paste in an ice cube tray before storing is super-handy.
Details: Should contain peanuts and maybe salt and nothing else. Some stores let you grind it yourself. Whether you like smooth or chunky is always your call; they cook the same.
Storage: Keep in the fridge after opening. Before using, stir with a butter knife to reincorporate any separated oil.
Details: You’ll use it more than you think. In cans and in refrigerated and shelf-stable cartons; full- and reduced-fat coconut milk will both work fine in the recipes here. Just be sure to buy real unsweetened coconut milk not water, cream, or some other coconut beverage.
Storage: Leftover coconut milk keeps in an airtight container in the fridge for several days after opening and freezes well for months.
Soy sauce and fish sauce
Details: Two slightly different hits of intense flavors straight from the bottle. Soy sauce is essential; fish sauce (also called “nam pla” or “nuoc mam”) is great to have around too.
Storage: Both last a long time, but fish sauce stays fresher longer when stored in the fridge.
Sugar, honey, and maple syrup
Details: I used to say sugar is sugar, though of course it’s not really since there are a few different kinds like granulated, golden and dark brown, or turbinado; each has a slightly different flavor. Use whichever you like and have handy in these recipes. Honey and maple syrup should be real, meaning free of additives or additional sweeteners.
Storage: Sugar and honey never go bad, but if honey crystalizes, warm gently in the microwave until it becomes liquid again. Maple syrup is best refrigerated after opening.
Flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and baking soda
Details: Unbleached flour, please (I like having both white and whole wheat), and stone-ground cornmeal.
Storage: Baking powder and soda are marked with expiration dates. Flour and cornmeal keep for a year or so, longer if you freeze them.
Details: Ketchup, mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, hot sauce, and whatever else you crave.
Storage: Mayonnaise, mustard, hot sauce, and ketchup all keep longer when stored in the fridge after opening.
Nuts and seeds
Details: As big a variety as you think you’ll use. Walnuts, almonds, and peanuts are most essential, though for crunch they’re virtually interchangeable.
Storage: Use within a few months or store in the freezer.
Excerpted from How to Cook Everything Fast (Revised Edition) by Mark Bittman. Copyright © 2022. Available from Harvest, a division of HarperCollins Publishers.