Salt – I always use kosher salt, and all the recipes on this site use it. It doesn’t taste any different than regular table salt, but it’s coarser. I prefer Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt because it’s got just the right coarseness, but it’s brittle enough to crush between your fingers if you want it to be fine. If you prefer to use table salt, reduce the amount in the recipes by 25% (i.e. 2 teaspoons would be 1 1/2 teaspoons.)
Pepper – saltmills are stupid, but peppermills are great and produce a noticeable difference. Get a decent peppermill and buy whole peppercorns.
MSG – I love the stuff for certain applications, and you can read why here. In the grocery store it’s called Accent, and is usually with the spices.
Granulated Garlic – buy whatever’s cheap, McCormick redcap or store brand is fine.
Ground Cumin – buy whatever’s cheap, McCormick redcap or store brand is fine.
Herbs de Provence – this is worth looking for, even if you have to buy it online. It’s a multifaceted herb blend that goes surprisingly well with a wide variety of dishes. If you can’t find it, Italian Seasoning is an okay substitute. Just okay though.
Cayenne Pepper – buy whatever’s cheap, McCormick redcap or store brand is fine.
Ground Bay Leaf – find this if you can, McCormick Gourmet Collection usually has it in the grocery store. It’s so much more versatile than whole bay leaf. If you can’t find it anywhere, whole bay can be substituted, just make sure to remove them before serving.
Dried Tarragon – it makes sense to spend a little more here, the higher quality stuff is usually better.
Ground Allspice – buy whatever’s cheap, McCormick redcap or store brand is fine.
Sugar – buy whatever is cheap, standard brands or store brands are fine.
Baking Soda – buy whatever is cheap, standard brands or store brands are fine.
Vinegar – for versatile, flavorful vinegar you want white wine vinegar. It doesn’t need to be fancy, as long as its white wine vinegar you’ll be fine.
Non-Stick Spray – buy whatever is cheap, standard brands or store brands are fine.
Cheap Olive Oil – exactly like it sounds, buy cheap. Anything labeled pure olive oil is good. We’ll be using this olive oil for cooking.
Good-Quality Olive Oil – this is your fancy extra virgin olive oil, used as a finish to add olive oil flavor to a dish. This one’s important, and using good quality makes a massive difference to the final dish. Not just any extra virgin olive oil will do though, you want to be spending at least $10 for a 750ml bottle. There are good ones from Spain, Italy, and California. I usually get the California ones, as they have a labeling standard that ensures you are getting the good stuff. Look for the COOC badge (that’s the California Olive Oil Council,) I’ve never purchased olive oil that had that badge that I didn’t love.
Vegetable Oil – buy whatever is cheap, standard brands or store brands are fine. This is used for higher heat cooking and deep frying. If you were pressed to reduce your pantry, you could even leave this out.
All-Purpose Flour – buy whatever is cheap, standard brands or store brands are fine. Basic flour for basic baked goods.
Self-Rising Flour – this makes biscuits or dumplings exponentially easier, so I always have some on hand. I like the King Arthur brand, but I’m picky. The cheaper stuff works well too.
Wondra Flour – this stuff is AMAZING for thickening sauces, soups, and gravies. It’s also great as a dredging flour, it doesn’t get as clumpy as all-purpose and browns more evenly.
Canned Tomato Paste – buy whatever is cheap, standard brands or store brands are fine.
Canned San Marzano Tomatoes – seriously, the san marzano tomatoes are a step above when making tomato-based things. Get the real ones, Cento is the most common brand that I see. Watch out for “San Marzano Style” as they aren’t the real deal.
Canned Beans – I like to have a variety, but you should get what you like. Buy them cheap, there is no difference between the fancy ones and the store brand. GOYA is my go-to, but if I see another brand that costs less, I buy those instead. I’d say that beans pretty much fall into 2 categories: “dark” beans like black beans and kidney beans, and “white” beans like great northern, pinto, and black-eyed peas. Try to have at least one of each.
Oil Packed Canned Tuna – seriously, it’s different than water packed tuna so GET THE OIL PACKED. It’s sometimes called tonno, and is made by a few different brands. Bumblebee is readily available (in a shimmering golden can, no less) and Genova is another common brand. It’s usually yellowfin tuna, and if you are in doubt just read the ingredient label. It should list olive oil as an ingredient, and not list water. That’s the one you want.
Canned Chopped Clams – an easy way to have tasty seafood always on hand. Get whatever’s cheap, usually that’s a brand like Bumble Bee. Minced clams are fine if you like the pieces smaller, but don’t get whole baby clams.
Canned Chicken Breast – a great source of lean protein for soups, dips, and salads. Get whatever is cheap, I personally use the larger cans Kirkland brand ones from Costco.
Rice – there are a lot of different rices out there. I always keep a long grain and a short grain, as the two of those cover most applications. My preferred varieties are basmati rice and sushi rice, but you could mix it up. Long grain parboiled rice, medium GOYA rice, sticky rice, brown rice… the list is endless. Just get one long grain and one shorter grain.
Dried Pasta – just like the rice, I prefer to focus on one long variety and one short variety. Linguini and medium shells are my go-to, but you should follow your heart and pick your favorites. There’s just no need to have 8 shapes of pasta stocked at home.
Fresh Onions – medium yellow onions are what you want. Store them refrigerated.
Fresh Garlic – you want either whole peeled cloves, stored in the refrigerator, or whole bulbs, stored unrefrigerated. Don’t buy the paste tubes, jarred minced garlic, or any other nonsense. You don’t want anything that’s more processed than whole peeled cloves.
Potatoes – gold potatoes, red potatoes, and russet or Idaho potatoes are all very versatile. At home I usually pick russet or Idaho potatoes, but you can use any of the other listed varieties.
Fresh Lemons – always nice to have on hand to brighten up your food. Fresh lemon juice is noticeably better than bottled.
White Wine – great for cooking, great for drinking. Use whatever affordable white wine that you would drink.
Hot Sauce – whatever brand you prefer is fine. When you need hot sauce for something, nothing else will do.
Butter – I usually keep two kinds of butter: plain old unsalted butter, and high quality salted butter for spreading on to things. The unsalted butter brand doesn’t matter, and for the fancy butter I always go for Kerrygold.
Eggs – large eggs, whatever is cheap.
Milk – you can use whatever milk that you usually use for cereal to cook with. I like whole milk for cereal and for cooking, but whatever you are used to is fine.
Heavy Cream – this is a great cooking tool for lots of different things. Cream sauces obviously, but it’s also for making biscuits, adding richness to sauces and soups, and for mixing with milk to make half and half for coffee. Get whatever is cheap, you want at least 36% milkfat, and preferably 40% milkfat if you can find it.
Plain Yogurt – I always keep some on hand for making savory sauces for various vegetarian and meat dishes. It’s also great for breakfast with some honey. Whole milk plain yogurt or greek yogurt are best. You could also just use sour cream, but I keep both on hand.
Sour Cream – There are two sour creams in this world: real sour cream, and some crappy imposter that somehow gets labeled as sour cream. Don’t get anything that includes modified food starch as an ingredient.
Mayonnaise – get a quality brand, and never get Miricle Whip. Or, be super awesome and make your own like I do.
Smooth Dijon Mustard – used mostly to make homemade mayonnaise and as a spread. Grey Poupon or another quality brand is what you want, I really like the one at Trader Joe’s.
Whole Grain Dijon Mustard – this is my go-to mustard when used as an ingredient. You can even use it to make mayonnaise if you don’t mind the look of the whole grains. Buy quality, Trader Joe’s has an excellent example.
Real Parmesan Cheese – Get the real Parmesan Reggiano and shred it yourself, its a whole different thing when compared to the green plastic can. If the real parmesan is too spendy, Pecorino Romano is a good substitute.
Firm Cheese for Shredding – this could be any firm (not hard) cheese for when you want to melt cheese on stuff. Cheddar, Swiss, and Monterey Jack are all good options, get what you like.
Celery – great for snacking and cooking too. I like to buy the cleaned sticks because they are uniform and have less waste, but you can get any celery. Don’t everything this one.
Carrots – get whole carrots. They are cheaper than baby carrots or shredded carrots and not hard to cut or shred, and there are lots of recipes that use them.
Green Onions – this is a great, versatile fresh herb to finish off dishes that need it.
Fresh Parsley – another versatile herb to have on hand for adding brightness to dishes.
Instant Yeast – the easiest way to have fresh bread without making a big deal about it is to have a container of instant yeast in your freezer. Instant Yeast is what you want, and SAF brand (the red one) is the standard.
Raw Chicken – Chicken breast and chicken thighs are great to have on hand in the freezer. Freezing chicken doesn’t have any negative effect at all. I like to portion it out into separate bags, each bag gets one meals worth. Or you can buy the multicell vacuum packed ones from a club store, and just cut the cells and freeze them.
Beef Chuck – a great, cheap cut of beef that’s perfect for stewing or braising. Just like the chicken, you probably want to cut and bag portions to make thawing easier.
Frozen Meatballs – I know people think that you’re supposed to make your own, but a quality store-bought frozen meatball is at least 95% as good and makes grabbing a few for pasta or other recipes way easy. I like the Kirkland brand from Costco, but you can experiment with other brands too.