Virtually anyone can go to the store, buy ingredients, follow a recipe, and make a decent dinner. It’s not that hard to do, and it’s something everyone–no matter how minute their passion for cooking may be–gets an inkling to do every once in awhile, right?
But making a home-cooked dinner every night of the week? Finding time to bake a dessert for book club when you’ve spent the week shuttling kids to every extracurricular activity under the sun? That’s when cooking doesn’t sound so fun, or easy, or even doable some nights. When life gets busy and there’s no such thing as “free time,” the home cooks who still manage to prioritize making from-scratch meals and treats are the ones who really deserve a gold star. In my opinion, this is the quality that differentiates someone who can cook from someone who is a good cook.
Simply following a recipe and churning out a decent meal does not a good cook make–sure, that’s part of it, but anyone can do this when given ample time, ingredients, and assistance. You know what a truly good (or even great) home cook’s secret is? It’s the ability to whip up something satisfying at any moment–without running to the store or missing a beat. This agile cook (or baker) is someone who can work with what they have on hand… and this is because, this kitchen master is one who knows what to keep on hand. They make a point on their regular grocery runs to stock their kitchen with these key ingredients that are not only essential, but versatile. Prime example: My mother.
I don’t think my mother is a good cook purely because she “makes good food,” but because she has the seemingly-inherent ability to quickly take stock of what she has on hand and magically pull together a delicious dinner. Though it may seem to me–someone who opens the refrigerator and complains that there’s “nothing to eat”–like an innate gift, it’s really not; the ability comes from practice. It comes from years and years of scheduling and preparing. It comes from the meal-planning, the grocery shopping, the cooking, the baking, the cleaning, and the managing of a household. It’s all about experience.
The only way to learn is through practice and personal experience. So if you’re like myself and aiming to reach this level of being an “effortlessly” exceptional cook rather than simply someone who can cook–start stocking your refrigerator with the ingredients that will get you there. Soon enough, miraculously concocting a rave-worthy meal from “nothing” will just be a part of the routine. Hey--just ask my mom.
The learning journey may seem overwhelming, but here is a solid starting point. Keep these 10 ingredients stocked in your fridge, and you've already set yourself up for success:
There are countless reasons why you should always keep eggs on hand--which is why they sit at the top of this list. Not only are eggs delicious, but they're an extremely versatile food and can be used for breakfast (duh), lunch (think egg salad sandwiches and Cobb salads), and dinner (quick skillet meals), and for concocting every dessert under the sun--from puddings to the easiest 3-ingredient cookies. Our running office joke for someone who's in a bind and doesn't know what to cook is, "Just put a fried egg on it." But really, it's kind of an all-purpose, foolproof solution, just look here, here, and here. We also love eggs because they're a great, meatless protein source that are are packed with essential vitamins and minerals. And if that's not enough, eggs have a relatively long refrigerator life, typically 4-5 weeks.
#2. Greek Yogurt
Plain yogurt is a staple ingredient I couldn't imagine cooking through my week without. I say go for Greek--it's a little pricier, but it's also more protein-dense (which is ideal if you're making a meal of it) and richer (great for cooking applications like sauces/dips) than regular. Beyond being packed with protein, Greek yogurt is a good source of calcium and, most importantly in the context of this round-up, there are countless ways to make good use of it. I'm telling you, I use yogurt for everything in the kitchen. Given its rich tang, I often use Greek yogurt in place of sour cream when baking, making homemade sauces and dips, adding richness to creamy soups, and just for topping dishes like chili, tacos, or baked potatoes. It offers more nutritional perks than sour cream, and it lasts longer in the fridge. Plus, I can also use it as the base for meals like yogurt topped with fruit and cereal, smoothies, etc. Our current staff favorite choice is is Fage 2% because it's the real deal, widely-available, and affordable.
#3. Lemons & Limes
There are a million and one store-bought condiments, sauces, and toppings you can use to easily liven up your cooking, but keeping these 2 basic citrus fruits on hand outdoes buying any of them. Seriously, making a habit of picking a few up on your weekly grocery runs is a practice that will serve you for years to come. A squeeze of lemon or lime will instantly brighten and often add that "just right" finishing flavor touch to anything from grilled meat to pasta salads to savory, earthy soups and grain dishes, and much, much more. Not to mention, this is one of those small details that will make you look (and feel) like a pro in the kitchen. Learning to utilize acid, like you would any seasoning, in your cooking can make all the difference in the world. Example: The other day I was whipping up a quick shrimp pasta dish for dinner, and realized I didn't have much in the arena of pasta sauce ingredients. However, I had butter, a lemon, cracked black pepper, some fresh herb scraps, a nub of Parmesan cheese, and chicken stock. Boom: there was the solution. I sautéed the shrimp in butter, added in my lemon juice + zest and chicken stock, reduced it down a bit to concentrate all of those flavors, seasoned with kosher salt and the black pepper, then tossed in my cooked pasta. I chopped up some fresh parsley and grated the Parmesan and tossed it all together. Voilá, restaurant-quality dinner that wouldn't have been possible without the power of lemon. Here are a few more reasons you'll always find lemons and limes in my fridge:
#2. Marinades and salad dressings. Lemon, olive oil, garlic, salt, and pepper make the simplest, but perfect marinade for preparing flavorful and succulent grilled chicken (that combo is also a great vinaigrette to whip up and keep on hand for salads). And olive oil, lime juice, fresh cilantro, and salt make an excellent, easy dressing for rotisserie chicken to pull together super-fast chicken fajitas.
#3. They're an all-natural, all-purpose kitchen aid. Beyond possessing the power to amp up virtually anything your cooking in terms of flavor, fresh citrus can help you with the post-cooking work as well. Seriously, lemons work wonders as cleaning agents. Here's 10 unique ways to use them in and around the kitchen.
Got milk? Seriously though. Milk (animal-sourced, that is) provides calcium, Vitamin D, and many other essential vitamins and minerals, and I don't have to tell you the wide array of ways you can use it in the kitchen--sauces, soups, mashed potatoes, custards, baking, casseroles, etc. times infinity. Even if no one in your house drinks straight-up milk by the glass, you should keep it around. Ideally, more than one type of it. Personally, I suggest keeping 2% or whole on hand for routine cooking (like I mentioned, mashed potatoes, making a roux for sauce or stew, etc.), a non-dairy milk such as soy or almond because these have a much longer shelf life and are great for cereal or smoothies, and a richer milk for baking and other slightly more decadent applications (think whole buttermilk or heavy cream).
Now, if you have aversions to dairy (which is honestly something I know little about), you have to navigate this ingredient based on what works for you--your body and your cooking preferences. Some alternative milks don't hold up as well when introduced to heat and cannot perform in cooking applications in the same way that milk does given the lack of protein. If you do have a dietary sensitivity or just want to explore incorporating more plant-based milks into your daily dining, I would highly recommend checking out The New Milks, by Dina Cheney. This is a great source of information on how to utilize alternative milks in the kitchen.
Butter is an essential mainstay of a functional fridge--an no, margarine does not count. Yes, butter contains fat... but fat is a part of a healthy diet when consumed in moderation. I sound like a commercial, but I'm serious. Point is, stick with real ingredients over what has to be created in a lab, and you're better off. Real buttah is a necessary refrigerator staple to keep on hand for numerous uses in cooking and a major portion of baking projects. Plus, you can keep extra sticks in the freezer for months, so stock up.
#6. Parmesan cheese
Ever since Cooking Light exposed that the pre-grated, "100%" Parmesan cheese in your refrigerator is not, in fact, 100% Parmesan and may actually contain high amounts of cellulose (or wood pulp), I've switched to only buying the real deal.
I'm talking a real block, people. Don't give me any of that flavorless, plastic tub business. And no, I'm not asking you to buy top-dollar Parm imported from Italy. A $6-8 block will do just fine. It may cost a few extra bills, but you'll never look back after getting a taste of the fresh stuff grated over pasta, salads, side dishes, and more. Like I mentioned with my shrimp pasta when we were talking citrus above, grated fresh Parmesan can also act as an awesome (super savory and salty) emulsifying agent for simple sauces and salad dressings. Wrapped tightly in plastic wrap after each use, Parmesan lasts for weeks in the fridge without a trace sign of mold or spoilage. Save the rinds and toss them into the pot when making homemade stock, or slow simmer soups or sauces--this "trash" adds savory depth like you wouldn't believe.
#7. Chicken Stock or Broth
Repeat after me: Chicken broth is not just used for chicken soup.
Now that we got that out of the way, let me tell you about some of my favorite ways to use this modern miracle (it really is) of shelf-stable ingredients.
My favorite recipe for Brussels sprouts calls for boiling the veggies in broth for extra flavor, and after discovering this recipe, I've since found that chicken broth (or stock, if you prefer) can increase the flavor of practically any veggie or grain. Boiling veggies or rice/risotto/couscous in the flavorful liquid versus water adds so much depth. Chicken broth can also help you whip up quick and savory sauces for flavoring simple pasta dishes (see #3 above), meats, side dishes, and more. Last but not least, if it's not year-round (it should be), chicken broth should at least be a staple in your refrigerator during the fall and winter months for it's multitude of uses in every soup under the sun.
Technically the stuff can sit in the pantry until you're ready to use it, but once opened, you need to store the broth in the refrigerator. It should keep for about a week or so after it's opened.
For anyone following a vegetarian or vegan diet, just replace any mention of "chicken broth" in the paragraphs above with "vegetable broth."
#8. Soy Sauce
If there's one staple Asian condiment you should always have on hand, it's soy sauce. This salty, bold sauce is essential for whipping up quick veggie-packed stir frys, marinades and glazes, dipping sauces for appetizers or skewers, quickly enhancing the flavor of meat or roasted veggies, and more.
#9. Leafy Greens
You should always, always have greens on hand. You have a "crisper" for a reason, and you should forever utilize it. If you hate salads, I'm still talking to you. Whether eaten raw, sautéed, roasted (heartier lettuces only), stirred into pasta or a grain side, blended into smoothies, or pulsed into pesto, versatile leafy greens like spinach, kale, collard greens, and Romaine are some of the most nutrient-dense and useful veggies around. Embrace them.
Pre-washed, bagged salad is completely fine and very affordable. The only issue is that the stuff doesn't last very long, so if it's getting within a day or two of it's expiration date, transfer the contents to a gallon-size plastic bag and transfer it to the freezer. It will keep for 10 more days and the frozen greens can be used in smoothies.
#10. Fruits and Veggies
I tried to get through this without naming the obvious, but I can't help it. Fresh fruits and veggies are a crucial component to maintaining a well-balanced diet and ensuring that you always have a solid, healthy starting point for a meal. I am a big proponent for always having fresh options on hand, but keeping a few bags of frozen vegetables, like peas or okra, can also be super helpful. Keep a variety of what you like, as well as new things you want to try, around. Variety here is the key word. If you're having trouble getting your kids (or yourself for that matter) to reach for the healthier items, ask yourself if you're bored of the same-old, same-old. Are the baby carrots going bad? Next week buy some red or orange bell peppers for dipping into hummus instead. Never finishing that bag of pre-cut apples? Consider buying fresh apples of a different variety (I find certain brands of the sliced apples to be bitter and bleh... try a pink lady, they're amazing) and spending the few extra minutes cutting your own. One note about prepared veggies in general: I highly recommend buying whole vegetables as often as you can. Their flavor and price is unmatched in comparison to their pre-cut counterparts.