Must-have INGREDIENTS (10 basics)

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

There are very few ingredients that I would consider musts in a kitchen. And this is my list of 10. I developed it after living in several different countries and experimenting with many different cuisines and cooking styles.

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!

This list is all about those ingredients that are so basic that you would be in a tight spot if you were missing more than 3 and that are used by most cultures in one form or the other.

They 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 always soya. And I don’t really like the taste of butter so my hard fat is usually margarine.

I often buy enough ‘basics’ to last about 2 or 3 weeks, sometimes at a discount supermarket, sometimes at a regular one in big packets, and sometimes when I want something that is a bit more specific I go to local international supermarkets and shops.



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. 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 10-litre water bottles.

Tap water is of course the cheapest option, if available.

What I usually have:

  • tap water (I’m lucky that my area has really good water).


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 a idea.

What I usually have:

  • table salt for cooking
  • sea salt for finishing


A sweetener is basically anything that could make your food (or drinks) sweet.

They 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 to you. The point is that you need something that allows you to sweeten things.

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.

Like with salt, 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.

What I usually have:

  • saccharine for my drinks (I prefer the flavour)
  • sugar for everyone else’s drinks, cooking, and baking
  • honey for ginger tea (for my husband and son), and some baking


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 it). 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.

Read about egg alternatives here.

What I usually have:

  • chicken eggs
  • chickpea flour


Oil is my keyword for a liquid fat, 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 be 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.

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
  • an oil for salad (olive, sesame…)


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. If you are someone who enjoys baking, it’s best to keep a hard fat around. If you don’t bake much, then you can get away without (unless you want something to spread on your toast in the morning).

What I usually have:

  • margarine (usually vegan)

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). 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.

Read about wheat flour alternatives here.

What I usually have:

  • plain white flour
  • baking powder
  • yeast


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 dairy-free or vegan, soya milk is now about the same price as dairy milk. And in over 15 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 ones as they all have different flavours, textures, and will produce different results.

Read about plant-based milk alternatives here.

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


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. 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 cubes
  • vegetable scraps to make my own stock (I keep them in the freezer)


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 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.

  • 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 pastry, puff pastry…
  • 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
  • Pasta
  • Savoury eggy things: scrambled eggs, omelette, fried eggs, boiled eggs, poached eggs
  • Sweet eggy things: flan/creme caramel/baked custard, meringues
  • Buttercream
  • Onions: 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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