It’s Not the Zombie Apocalypse, Dude! You Don’t Need All That Stuff in Your Cupboards!
Everybody needs to stock a few things in their kitchen cupboard. But if you’ve got too much, it’ll either go bad before you use it, or you’ll pack it up and move it fifteen times and then finally throw it out.
So, the point is, it’s a waste of time and space, and especially money, to have too much on hand.
When I met my husband, Larry, he had several huge bottles of Lawry’s seasoned salt and two mega jars of beef bouillon cubes which his mother had sent him off with to start life on his own. God only knows what she thought he’d cook up with those things, (the man fixes pasta and pancakes and frozen vegetables, that’s it), but they came with him and his LP collection and a huge blue oil painting when we got married. I finally threw out the salt after 20 years (don’t ask me why I kept it, but there is a power to mothers-in-law), and I used up the bouillon cubes about ten years ago. I wasn’t so lucky with the oil painting — it’s in the family room. But, I digress.
Buy herbs and spices in small containers. They are expensive, and they lose their punch pretty quickly. Sniff before using, and don’t hesitate to pitch it if your dried oregano is smelling more like your great aunt’s reticule (look it up) than an Italian herb. Everything lasts longer in the fridge and freezer, and I know a lady who keeps her spices in the fridge. I don’t have room in mine, but you might try that.
Some spices, like allspice, can be bought whole and ground in a spice grinder for a fresher taste. Whole nutmeg is nice to grate with a small grater onto the top of a pumpkin pie.
For organizing spices in the cupboard, a small Lazy Susan is cheap to buy and very helpful. Anything that will hold your spices together, and keep them from wandering all over the shelves is a good idea. I’ve seen people use Tupperware-type plastic containers to hold like-sized spice containers, or to alphabetize their spices. I’m just not that organized, alas.
Olive oil has become about as complicated to buy these days as wine. But the good thing is there’s a lot of good olive oil out there, so it’s hard to go wrong. Buy olive oil as “extra virgin” (yes, I know this makes no sense), and it should be the “first cold pressing” if it says anything about pressings. I like Pompeian (it’s Italian, but bottled in Baltimore and I’m a loyal Baltimorean), but as I said, there are many good olive oils out there, including some from California that are great. However, unless you want to eat bread soaked in olive oil with your spaghetti dinner, (which is a healthier option than butter, and very tasty) you don’t need the more expensive brands. Don’t get huge bottles, either. Like wine, olive oil doesn’t like being exposed to air. It gets an unpleasant metallic taste to it after awhile. So, buy no more than eight ounces (less if you live alone) and buy it more often than less often. Throw it out if it tastes bad. My niece imports a delicious Turkish olive oil that’s great with bread and salads. You can check it out on Facebook.
Vinegar, on the other hand, lasts a long time, though it can get cloudy, in which case, throw it out. Don’t get white vinegar, which is diluted acetic acid and is nasty (it smells like a chemistry lab). White vinegar, however, can be helpful in cleaning lime scale, since lime scale is basic, the opposite of the vinegar’s acid. But white vinegar should not be used on anything you eat. Yuck. Get red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar. Balsamic vinegar is very nice, and has come down in price in recent years. Still, it shouldn’t be used in a recipe. If a recipe calls for 1/4 cup of vinegar, they mean apple cider vinegar, which costs $2.00 a quart, not balsamic vinegar, which costs $6.00 for half that much. Champagne vinegar is a marketing ploy. Don’t even bother.
Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, and Tabasco-like hot sauces last almost forever and are nice to have around to enrich sauces, use in recipes and in case a guest asks for them for their meat or rice. I get small bottles because we don’t use them much. You should purchase what you need depending upon what you use.
Cooking oil is important to have for baking and frying. I don’t use a lot because frying isn’t a healthy way to cook. I’m not picky as to kind, though I usually get canola oil since it’s supposed to be better for the heart (wait a week, and the theory will change). I buy a quart or liter bottle at a time. It doesn’t go bad on the shelf. Cooking spray, such as Pam, has all but replaced cooking oil in my frying. So, it is always in my cupboard. I don’t get store brands because the nozzle on those tends to give too heavy a spray. Though brands such as Mazola tend to be less expensive than Pam, which was the original.
Baking powder and baking soda. If you bake you need them both. Baking powder is the stuff in the round can, baking soda is the Arm and Hammer rectangular box stuff (though buy the generic, it’s the same and much cheaper). See the photo at the top of the post, if you are confused. These two things are very different in their actions when used in baking, so make sure you have the right one. Baking soda can be really useful around the house. You can use it for tooth paste in a pinch (though it lacks fluoride). It makes a cheap, nonabrasive cleaner for surfaces when sprinkled on a wet sponge. It absorbs odors in the fridge if you leave an opened box in the back, then after a couple of months you can pour that box down the kitchen sink to freshen it up a bit and rinse it down with a pan of boiling water. If you have acid indigestion, a teaspoon mixed in a glass of water will fix that too (though it’s very salty and if you have heart problems or high blood pressure stay away from it and stick with a regular antacid).
Flour, corn meal, sugar, corn starch etc. should, again, be kept in canisters which can be bought cheaply anyplace that sells housewares. Pantry moths love these things and once an infestation gets going it’s tough to get under control and it involves throwing out a lot of food. (Can you tell I’ve been traumatized by these things?)
Have a few canned goods on hand, but remember that you don’t need to stock up as if your kitchen cupboard is a 1950’s bomb shelter. Even a good blizzard won’t keep you housebound for more than a few days. Canned things take up space and you’ll find that a few of those things will linger in there for months (if not years), and that’s a waste of precious money. Also, you should be eating fresh foods as much as possible.
Thinking of blizzards, if you live in the world of blizzards and black-outs, or Zombie invasions, for that matter, I highly recommend gas stoves. If you are apartment or house hunting, and you have the choice, get the place with the gas stove. You can always light a gas stove with a match if the electricity, and the electric pilot, goes out. With an electric stove, you are out of luck. Yes, a gas oven is not as good as an electric oven because the heat is not as even. The back of a gas oven will always be hotter than the front, so you may have to turn a baking loaf of banana bread half-way through to assure even cooking. But, a gas stove top works much faster compared to an electric stove top. And generally, gas is cheaper than electricity. So, if you are looking at places to live, and one place has a gas stove and another has an electric, go with gas.
Regular white granulated sugar is plain old sugar, buy the cheapest you can find. However, did you know that powdered sugar and confectioner’s sugar are the same thing? Powdered confectioner’s sugar is the stuff that you dust on top of a cake to make it look like pretty snow. Powdered sugar can’t be substituted for regular granulated sugar! You can demonstrate this by stirring some in your coffee, it will make it cloudy and icky sweet. So on to brown sugar. I have found that brown sugar can vary. If you are buying brown sugar, buy it in a plastic bag, not in a box. I live in Southern California, where it’s really dry, and since brown sugar is made by mixing white sugar with molasses, sometimes it seems that the boxed brown sugar is just a large lump of white sugar with molasses sprayed on it, which then instantaneously becomes a unless brown brick. The stuff in a plastic, resealable bag is the real McCoy; nice, soft dark brown sugar.
So, there you go, my ideas on what you need in your cupboards. Of course, things will accumulate. I bought a bag of bulgar wheat awhile ago at Whole Foods, thinking I’d cook that up in some imaginative way. It’s still sitting there on the shelf, next to the bag of mixed beans I was going to make into soup. Nobody’s perfect, I’m sad to say.