Stock your pantry with healthy ingredients

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When I taught cooking classes with chef Eliza Gonzalez I was very impressed with her ability to combine pantry ingredients to create the amazing variety of culinary experiences. So we put together some ideas on how to stock your pantry with healthy ingredients. Because it’s the spices, vinegars, oils, nuts and seeds, dried mushrooms and other flavors that allow us to create completely different dishes from the same base ingredients.

I focus on how to stock your pantry with healthy ingredients for savory cooking. No processed foods or ready-made gimmicks. Grow your pantry collection with items that last for a very long time. Refrigerate the ingredients that are prone to rancidity once you have opened the package. Use oils that are good for you and avoid the bad ones. Check the freshness of an ingredient using an old trick.

Stock your pantry with healthy ingredients that last for a long time

Vinegars

Vinegars don’t go bad.  So you can gradually grow your collection with a vide variety of vinegars: Balsamic, apple cider (unpasteurized), rice, red wine and white wine, Ume plum. A splash of a vinegar at the end of cooking will help bring up the flavors and make most dishes brighter. You can also use them to make your own dressings and condiments.

Seaweeds

They also keep their quality and flavors practically forever. Add them to your soups and other cooked dishes for extra flavor and superb mineral content. There are some variety that you can sprinkled on your salads. Here are some examples: dulse, wakame, nori (to make your own sushi rolls) and kelp

herbs and spices
My herbs and spices collection

Herbs and spices

Herbs and spices in general don’t go bad. Some might lose their potency over time and you’ll need to use more to get the same flavor. Look at the color of your herbs and smell them as a way to check the freshness. The brighter the color and the stronger the smell the fresher the herb. Look at them and smell them when you buy them as well to have a point of reference. 

The list of spices is endless, really. This is my collection on the picture that I accumulated over years. Start your collection with the spices that your favorite recipes ask for. As you become more practiced in cooking and add more recipes under your belt your collection will grow. You also will get a feel for which herbs and spices go together nicely, which ones are staples of a country’s or region’s cuisine. For example, thyme, oregano and rosemary are a typical Mediterranean combination.

Salts

Please do yourself a service and use good quality salts. Salt is an easy way to add minerals to your diet. And I don’t mean just sodium chloride or what we call table salt. Go for sea salt, especially unbleached ones, like Celtic salt, or Himalayan. These salts contain up to 50 different micro elements that are great for us.

Dried mushrooms

You don’t necessarily want to keep them for years and years because they will eventually lose their aroma. But they don’t go bad either. Just like with spices you’ll just have to use more to get the flavor going. Soak them in warm water before adding to your dishes. My favorite ones are porcini and morel mushrooms.

Dried beans and legumes

These also last for a long time. They don’t get rancid or moldy instead old beans will just take forever to cook. I prefer using dried beans over caned ones because I always soak my beans before cooking. Soaking improves digestibility and makes minerals bioavailable to us. It’s also a much more economical way of consuming beans!

Pantry items to refrigerate after opening

When I stock my pantry with healthy ingredients I want to make sure they last. Most nuts, seeds and whole grains contain fragile fats and should be refrigerated especially after the package was open. Their polyunsaturated fats are prone to oxidation when exposed to air and heat. They get rancid fairly quickly. For example, if you open a bag of brown rice, reseal it but not put it away in the fridge or even freezer it will get rancid within a couple of weeks. How can you tell? If you stick your nose into the bag as soon as you open it you’ll be able to smell it! And you really don’t want to be eating rancid foods because they bring inflammation into the body. So do yourself a favor and keep all your open bags of nuts and seeds in the freezer or at least in the fridge. 

If you are cooking with nut and seed flours store them in the fridge even unopened. Grinding makes them even more susceptible to oxidation. 

When it comes to grains storage time will differ significantly depending on the grain. For example, brown rice can last 6 months and quinoa 2-3 years. Of course you don’t really know how long the grains were stored at the warehouse or the store before you got it. So I encourage you to buy grains, nuts and seeds in a package with an expiration date and in small quantities. And still use your nose to check for rancidity, especially with roasted nuts and seeds. 

Oils that are good for us and which ones you want to avoid

I highly recommend using olive and coconut oils. There are other good for us fat (like butter and lard) but these two can be stored in the pantry. Coconut oil being saturated is very stable and not susceptible to oxidation. It can be stored for a long time. Olive oil is mostly monounsaturated fat and is fairly stable as well if stored in a tightly closed containers and in the dark. Use unfiltered extra virgin cold pressed olive oils for making dressings, spreads and other recipes that don’t require heating. For cooking you don’t have to use extra virgin olive oil because heat will destroy fragile compounds anyway. Both olive and coconut oils are heat stable up to 350-375F. Hence you can use them for medium heat cooking like sautéing and baking.

I also sometimes use avocado and high oleic sunflower oils when I don’t want a pronounced flavor of either olive or coconut. For instance, for making mayonnaise I use avocado oil.

Oils that I avoid are canola, safflower, soybean, corn, cottonseed and vegetable oil which is a combination of the ones I just mentioned. These oils are highly processed, stripped of their healthy compounds for the sake of extended shelf life and ability to withstand high heat. They are also vey high in Omega-6 fats this skews the ratio of Omega-3s to Omega-6s in a person’s body. And that’s not good fo your health.

How do you check the freshness of an ingredient if the package is missing

Sometimes we stock our pantry with healthy ingredients, take them out of the package and forget to mark the expiration date. How can we find out if they are still good? You might have already guessed, we are just going to use our senses. Yes, you can tell a lot by looking and smelling the foods. Look for changes in color or shape, and any signs of mold or bug infestation. Yes, bugs do happen, unfortunately. If you see bugs in one of your containers chances are they are in the other ones as well. And use your sense of smell to detect rancidity. Train your nose with fresh ingredients and the ones that sat in your pantry for a while.