Pantry Essentials For The Home Cook

I’m sure all home cooks know this scenario, you are engrossed in your favourite cookery program and you are inspired to recreate one of the dishes you have seen your food hero chef make. The next day you go to your larder and try to assemble the ingredients in the recipe only to find (sod’s law)you are missing most of them. You know the ending to this scenario and you reluctantly pull the takeaway menusout of the drawer and “dial a dinner”

All good cooking begins with good ingredients so it’s essential to have a variety of basic ingredients stocked in your cupboard, pantry or larder.  I have a few suggestions in regards to what I find useful to have on hand, some may be familiar others may not be. Let’s face it taste is an individual thing but it is defined by the following five categories, salt, sweet, sour, bitter and Unami (savoury) By mixing some or indeed all of these these 5 elements you can hopefully createsome of your own flavour parings and dishes.


Salt is a very basic ingredient which I’m sure you already have one sort or another at home. It is a great way of balancing flavours and it can be used in sweet and savoury dishes. Which is probably why salted caramel is such a well used and loved combination. I particularly love sea salt flakes such as Maldron as it’s a more natural product than fine table salt. There is a huge range of artisan salts on sale in Ireland with flavours such as smoked and seaweed which can add another flavour note to your dishes.


There are oils for cooking and oils for drizzling. I tend to use rapeseed oil for frying, as it has a higher burn point. A drizzle of extra virgin olive oil is a fantastic way to elevate a green salad or soup and is the basis of many a salad dressing. Coconut oil is great when used in baking as it has a sweet mild flavour, you can also use it in stir frying.


White wine vinegar has a sharp acidic flavour and works well in sauces and dressings especially the classics such as creamy Béarnaise sauce and French vinaigrette. Balsamicvinegar has a more rounded and deep flavour which works well in salad dressings and is gorgeous when reduced to make a sticky sweet sauce.


These wonderful little preserved fish are usually canned or in small jars, are a very popular with Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and even Nordic chefs. They are are bursting with strong flavours and are a great addition to stews, casseroles and soups as they add a deep flavour. They also are wonderful chopped up and sprinkled over salads such as Caesar salad.


With its origins in the Middle East, is made from hulled sesame seeds and tastes a bit like smooth peanut butter. It’s used in sauces and dips such as hummus and baba ganoush or simply drizzled over an oven baked aubergine.

Dried Mushrooms

Porcini or other dried varieties add an earthy depth of flavour to a casserole or dish or stew. Soak them in boiling water for a few minutes and add the plumped up mushroom and soaking water in to your dish. You can also blitz the dried mushroomsin a blender to make a fine powder to finish off a pasta dish with a little something extra.

Worcestershiren Sauce

Has been around for years and definitely packs a punch of a umami element with its pungent fermented flavour. I love adding a dash to cheese on toast, soups, salads dressings or indeed a Bloody Mary.

Garlic Powder

This is an absolute must have and can be used if you have no fresh garlic or you are feeling too lazy to chop some. It can be substantiated unto any recipe that calls for garlic.

Asian Flavours

Miso paste is a Japanese word for fermented beans and adds a savoury umami flavour. I marinate chicken and beef and vegetables. You can also make a simple broth by adding boiling water and soy sauce.

Gochujang is a very popular Korean Sauce. It is essentially a hot red pepper paste that is used throughout Korean cooking. I use it in stir fry’s, marinades for chicken wings. Just be careful as it’s powerful stuff.

Coconut Milk which is usually canned is a great ingredient used in savoury and sweet dishes. You can add it to Thai curry, Indian korma or even add it to smoothies and shakes for a non dairy option.

Sweet Chilli Sauce is a must have for making sauces and dips. Try adding it to mayonnaise or drizzle some over warm pan fried prawns.

Dry Spices

Cumin is a very versatile and blends well with most other spices. It has an earthy back-note and It can be used in Mexican, Middle Eastern and Indian cooking. I use it chilli con carne, hummus and Indian curries

Smoked Paprika is a gorgeous rich vermillion colour and has the most amazing aroma. It’s used widely in Hungary, Spain, Mexico and China.  It works really well in tomato based dishes, stews, casseroles and marinades.

Harissa Powder is a hot and aromatic made from dried chilli, assorted  spices and herbs. I use it in marinades & casseroles.

Curry Powder is one spice mix I would definitely buy it from an ethnic store as it has a better taste but watch the strength as some are really hot like the madras.

Chinese 5 Spice is based on the five elements, water, fire, wood, earth and metal. It is probably one of the most aromatic of the spice blends with star anise, cinnamon, fennel seed, sichuan peppercorns and cloves. Use this in marinades, stir-fry’s, and rice dishes.

All of the ethnic ingredients can be bought in Asian supermarkets or Oriental emporiums. The rest of the suggested larder essentials can be bought in the larger supermarkets. Always read the storing suggestions to check if you should keep it in the fridge or dry larder and for how long. If you are interested in further reading on flavours and taste parings I can recommend reading The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit or The Art of Flavour by Daniel Patterson & Mandy Aftel.


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