Once you've purchased the basic tools needed for cooking, it's tempting to start filling up the refrigerator. Hold off until you've purchased a few dry staple ingredients. A pantry stocked with basic ingredients — such as flour — will keep you from having to make repeat emergency trips to the local grocery store every time you cook a meal.
Here are the essentials:
Flour: As its name implies, all-purpose flour is used for almost every type of baking.
Sugar: Regular granulated white sugar is used both as a sweetener at the table and in cooking.
Brown sugar: Molasses-based brown sugar is used in baking, sauces, and wherever a recipe calls for a stronger flavor agent than granulated sugar.
Olive oil: Olive oil is used for sautéing and frying, and as a salad dressing and in marinades.
Instant broth: Chicken, beef, and vegetable broth are used in soups, casseroles, and other dishes.
Dried herbs and spices: Dried herbs and spices lend flavor to soups, stews, and other slow-cooked dishes.
Salt and pepper: Standard table salt should meet all your cooking needs, but you may want to consider purchasing a pepper mill to grind your own peppercorns.
Noodles: No, they don't need to be ramen! Italian pasta noodles like linguine, penne, or even standard spaghetti are a quick and easy source of protein.
Rice: For variety, experiment with different types such as brown and scented rice.
Miscellaneous flavoring agents: Lemon juice, tomato sauce, and soy sauce will allow you to create a number of different dishes.
Not only is olive oil healthier than vegetable oil — scientists believe its monounsaturated fats can help ward off heart disease — it's also much more versatile. Besides being an excellent cooking oil, olive oil lends a delicate flavor to salad dressings and marinades, and can even serve as a low-fat substitute for butter on toasted bread.
While nothing beats the flavor of fresh herbs or chicken broth prepared from scratch by slowly simmering a whole chicken in water, packaged and instant ingredients will save you time on busy weeknights. For example, don't let recipes that call for lemon juice put you off — most supermarkets carry lemon juice in a handy plastic lemon. Made with oregano, basil, and other seasonings, canned tomato sauce saves you from the work of having to boil and crush tomatoes. Stored in a cool, dry place, a can of unopened tomato sauce will keep for several months.
Instant broth comes in many forms, including cubes, powdered mix, cans, and ready-to-use cartons. All are equally convenient. However, the carton types need to be refrigerated and used within two weeks after they are opened.
When it comes to noodles, many types of Asian noodles — such as rice noodles — don't even need to be boiled. Just soak them in hot or warm water until they soften. And precooked (also called “oven-ready”) lasagna noodles can go straight from the package to the frying pan or casserole dish.
Which dried spices should you choose?
There are literally hundreds of spices. However, for those on a limited budget, a good tip is to think Italian. Nothing beats dried oregano, basil, and parsley for bringing out the flavor of simmered and slow-cooked dishes. Garlic powder and onion powder make a convenient substitute for actual onion and garlic on nights that you don't feel up to peeling, mincing, and chopping.
Even dry ingredients go stale eventually. Expect flour, baking powder, and baking soda to last for up to one year. White granulated sugar has a longer shelf life than other dry ingredients — it will last up to eighteen months. On the other hand, brown sugar lasts for only six months.
Of course, improper storage will cause ingredients to go stale more quickly. Worse, certain types of small bugs — such as the flour beetle — feed on dry ingredients. For best results, store your staples in tightly sealed canisters. Don't worry about blowing your budget on a matching set of fancy chrome or other metal canisters. Plastic is fine, as long as it has a tight seal. Don't have room in your dorm for a full set of canisters? Set one canister aside to serve as a storage space for smaller amounts of various ingredients. Store each ingredient in a plastic bag, seal it, and place the bag in the canister.