10 must-have basic ingredient for all kitchens

Must-have ingredients (10 basics) - Embers on the hearth

There are very few ingredients that I would consider musts in a kitchen, most would depend on the season, the kind of food you like and how you cook. But if you are someone who is interested in cooking from scratch I believe these 10 are almost impossible to avoid.

I came up with my list after living in several different countries and experimenting with many different cuisines and cooking styles. And in all situations these 10 ingredients have been my go-to’s.

Most lists of basic ingredients are usually biased towards the preferences of the author. So many times I’ve seen ingredients listed as must-haves that I rarely use and are most definitely not something all homecooks need to have around. One of my cookbooks lists capers as an ingredient everyone should have. I love capers, and probably use them much more regularly than anyone else I know (I almost always have a little jar around), but they are not something I believe everyone should keep in their pantry!

My must-have ingredients are more than anything else categories that give you options to suit your budget, preferences and dietary needs. For example, I am lactose intolerant so my milk is usually soya and my ‘butter’ is usually margarine, my daughter can’t have raw eggs so most of the time we end up using a vegan egg alternative.

I often buy enough ‘basics’ to last about 2 or 3 weeks, because my health is pretty rubbish and I don’t have a car. I usually buy in bulk and have them delivered, that way I can reserve my energy for when I shop for my other ingredients on a more regular basis. When I want something that is not a common basic in my area, I go to local international supermarkets and shops.

Water

From a decent cup of tea to good pasta, you need good water to cook, there’s no way around it.

If you live in an area with hard water, you could buy bottled or, if you can, use a filter. Depending on where you live, you might be able to find eco-friendly water filtering systems that use a lot less plastic than a regular jug, or non at all.

For years, I used a filtering jug. It was a bit of a pain to only have 2 litres at a time and to have to wait until the whole thing was done, but it was a game changer, and much more eco-friendly than buying bottled water. My parents live in an area with extremely hard water, so they get 20-litre water bottles in bottles that get returned and re-used.

Tap water or rain water are of course the cheapest option if available. If you collect your own rain water, be careful as depending on the area it could have pollutants.

What I usually have:

  • tap water: I’m lucky that my current area has really good water.

Salt

Salt is important not only to make things salty but as a way to bring out flavours. If you check sweet baking recipes, they all (at least the good ones) use some salt.

You can choose from super-budget table salt to posh hand-dried sea salt. There are also many options of low-sodium salt. Basic table salt works for pretty much everything. And it’s very cheap, especially if bought in larger refill bags (my prefered option).

If you enjoy those salts that come premixed with herbs and spices, make sure you also have plain salt for recipes where those particular flavours might not be a good idea.

What I usually have:

  • table salt for cooking
  • sea salt for finishing

Sugar, or an alternative

By ‘sugar’ I mean anything that could make your food or drinks sweet. If you like making sauces, jams and jellies, or ferments you will also need something sweet. Sweeteners can be classified in either solid or liquid; and natural, man-made, or processed.

Whether you go for natural (for example raw honey), processed (such as syrup) or man-made (like saccharine), it’s up to you. Lately there has been a trend of going back to more natural options and a lot of diabetic-friendly alternatives have appeared on the market too, so there are lots of products you can choose from.

As for liquid vs solid (often powdered or granulated), solid is usually more versatile because you can also dissolve it. But, any liquid sweetener can be used in a recipe that calls for sugar or artificial sweetener, usually by reducing the other liquids a bit.

Cheap white granulated sugar works every time something needs to be sweetened. If you need a liquid sweetener, syrup and caramel can easily be done in a few minutes. And if you own a food processor, it can be made finer in a few seconds.

What I usually have:

  • artificial sweetener for my drinks (I prefer the flavour)
  • white granulated sugar for everyone else’s drinks, cooking, baking, and making some fermented foods and drinks (like kombucha)
  • honey for ginger tea (for my husband and son) and some baking

Eggs, or an alternative

Eggs are used throughout the world in a ridiculously massive amount of recipes. They come in a range of qualities and a variety of humane-treatment levels, and of course from a variety of birds.

Good quality eggs are more expensive but also worth the money if you can afford them. If you ever get the chance to keep some hens, go for it! They’re lovely animals and you’ll always have fresh eggs.

If you’re allergic, vegan, or watching your cholesterol, you can use chickpea (gram) flour instead. It can replace eggs in pretty much all applications by using 3 tablespoons of water and one of chickpea flour. If you want to keep some of the fatty mouthfeel of eggs, add 1 teaspoon of oil or butter. Just don’t try it raw, it tastes awful! There are many other vegan egg replacements, but chickpea flour is (in my opinion) the most versatile.

What I usually have:

  • chicken eggs
  • chickpea flour

Oil

Oil is my keyword for a fat that will stay liquid at room temperature, it could be any oil or ghee.

Oils come in all sorts of flavours and price-points. An oil with a neutral flavour is the most versatile, but stronger flavoured ones can be fun to have around. For general cooking and frying, generic vegetable oil works a treat, and can also be flavoured at home with herbs and spices.

If you are a ghee fan, there are vegan options available usually under the name of vegetable ghee. They are basically flavoured oils, and taste very similar.

If you are trying to limit your oil intake, many uses of oil can be replaced by either water, stock, or coconut milk (the canned kind).

What I usually have:

  • vegetable oil
  • a flavoured oil (usually olive or roasted sesame) or ghee

Butter

Similar to oil, this is my keyword for hard fat. It could be butter, margarine, lard, coconut oil, or any fat that stays hard at room temperature.

Butter is more expensive than margarine or spreadable butter (butter that’s been mixed with vegetable oil). However, because of the flavour, you tend to use less.

Butter can usually be found unsalted, lightly-salted, and salted. For general cooking, unsalted is the best option so you can control the amount of salt in the recipe. Margarine and spreadable butter usually come lightly-salted only.

A number of recipes call for butter for flavour, in those cases it can almost always be replaced by oil if the loss or change of flavour doesn’t bother you.

When a baking recipe lists a hard fat, it’s usually harder to replace with oil as the results could change massively. Depending on the baking recipe, butter can be replaced by nut or seed butters or coconut oil.

What I usually have:

  • margarine

Plain flour (+baking powder/yeast)

No need to say how important flour is for baking. But it is also used for many sauces and soups, and for coating ingredients before pan or deep-frying.

For maximum flexibility get plain flour and baking powder instead of self-raising flour (which is plain flour with the baking powder added in). This way you have the option of using the flour plain or add as much (or as little) baking powder as you need. I prefer to buy baking powder in a tub and control the amounts I use. But if you’re getting started with baking, the one that comes in pre-measured sachets is very handy (and usually about the same price). If you like making bread, you’ll need to buy some yeast or make your own sourdough starter. Alternatively, you can use baking powder for a bread that is similar to traditional soda bread.

There are so many flours around to choose from. From budget basic white flour to hand-milled organic rye, and now even budget supermarkets carry gluten-free versions. As long as the one you buy gets the job done, you’re good to go. I regularly bake bread, cookies, muffins, cakes, and make pasta all with the cheapest white flour from my local supermarket and the results are fantastic.

What I usually have:

  • plain white flour
  • baking powder
  • yeast (I’m not a fan of sourdough)

Milk, or an alternative

Milk is used for sauces, drinks, soups, baking, batters…. I could go on and on. And let’s not forget my main use of milk: tea!

There are many varieties and many price points when it comes to milk. Dairy comes in a number of possible fat contents and from different animals. Plant-based milks can be made from pretty much anything these days, and are easy to make at home with just a blender. And don’t forget options like evaporated, condensed, and powdered milk.

UHT dairy milk is the cheapest and wideast available option. Some people prefer the flavour of fresh milk, I personally can’t tell the difference other than fresh milks being more expensive! And UHT usually means less waste and fewer trips to the shops. If you’re lucky enough to live in an area where there is a milk delivery, that is usually a great option as the bottles are often reused and the milk is local.

If you’re dairy-free or vegan, soya milk is now about the same price as dairy milk. And in almost 20 years using it, I’m still to come across a recipe where it doesn’t work as a replacement (and it’s great in tea and coffee too).

Play around with different milks as they all have different flavours, textures, and will produce different results.

What I usually have:

  • soya for most things
  • cow’s for my son’s drinks and making yogurt
  • evaporated for my husband’s drinks
  • powdered milk for making yogurt (makes it thicker),

Stock

Stock or something that will give you nicely flavoured water in a fast way. It could be actual stock, stock cubes, melts, powdered stock, or even liquid flavouring.

Chicken stock seems to be the go-to, but I’d like to make a case for vegetable stock. The flavour is usually richer but not overpowering (the way beef or fish stock can be), and if you have vegetarians or vegans around, they’ll be able to eat more things. Just be careful, because many vegetarian stock cubes have dairy and are not vegan.

Homemade stock is great if you have the time and ingredients (I save all my veg trimmings and boil them in a pressure cooker). If not, cubes are fantastic. They take a lot less space than liquid stock, they create less packaging waste, and they are very, very cheap.

What I usually have:

  • vegetable, chicken, beef, fish, and crayfish cubes
  • vegetable scraps to make my own stock (I keep them in the freezer): onion and garlic skins, onion tops, cabbage cores, ginger peels, kale and herb stems, chili tops…

Onions, or an alternative

Much like eggs, onions are used worldwide. Most savoury recipes start with some sort of plant from the onion family.

Onions are a fantastic way to get a lot of flavour with very little work (and money). Brown, yellow, or white are usually cheaper and the most versatile.

If you like eating onions raw or using it as a garnish, then red onions, spring onions, or shallots will come in handy, even if they are a bit more expensive. Even leeks are a possibility when it comes to the onion family.

If you can’t have onions, asafoetida is a great alternative. It’s not an exact replacement, but it will give food that pungent depth of flavour onions also give food. You should be able to find it in large supermarkets, and Indian or Middle-eastern stores.

What I usually have:

  • brown onions for cooking
  • red or spring onions for eating raw
  • asafoetida

Some recipe ideas

There are many simple recipes that can be made with just the 10 basic ingredients. Most are not meals on their own right, but can be if combined and they all make either great sides or treats. If you add a few other things, your options will grow massively.

  • Cake: or muffins or cupcakes
  • Pancakes (American-style or crepes), or waffles, or popovers/Yorkshire pudding
  • Breads: soda bread, yeast bread, sourdough, onion bread, bread sticks, pretzels
  • Flat breads: wraps/flour tortillas, naan, roti, fried bread, skillet flatbread
  • Soupy things: onion soup, cream soup base, egg drop soup
  • Pastry: choux, shortcrust, puff…
  • Biscuit-related things: sugar cookies, shortbreads, scones/biscuits, crackers
  • Savoury sauces: white sauce/bechamel, gravy, mayonnaise
  • Sweet sauces: custard/ice-cream base, dulce de leche/milk caramel, caramel, syrup, buttercream
  • Pasta
  • Savoury eggy things: scrambled eggs, omelette, fried eggs, boiled eggs, poached eggs
  • Sweet eggy things: flan/creme caramel/baked custard, meringues
  • Onion things: onion rings, onion pie, caramelised onions, roasted onions, fried onions
  • Fancy butters: brown butter, clarified butter
  • Brine
  • Yogurt (if you have a starter or some live yogurt)

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