Pantry-keeping with staples and sales

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A common solution to the problem of eating a varied diet while minimizing expenses is to maintain a pantry that is well stocked with staples, and supplement it with whatever becomes available cheaply through sales, garden harvests, scavenging, dumpster diving, gifts, or other opportunities. Ingredients fall into three categories: stable staples, perishable staples, and delicacies.

This strategy is described thoroughly in contemporary terms in The Complete Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczyn, but the principles probably go back to antiquity.

Stable staples

Stable ingredients can be stored for very long times if kept dry at room temperature; years or even indefinitely. They are minimally-processed commodities so their price is usually stable and rarely discounted substantially. For these reasons it can be convenient and economical to purchase as much as a year's supply at once.

They should be stored in a sealed container to prevent contamination from pests and foreign matter. A plastic bucket with a Gamma Seal is an economical solution. A 5 gallon bucket can hold 30+ pounds of most dry goods, so they can be purchased in cheap 10- or 25-lb sacks. These can be found at big-box warehouse stores such as Costco, Wal-Mart, Sam's Club, or Smart & Final. Storebought grains often harbor insect eggs, so new food should be frozen for at least 5 days prior to long term storage.

Spices are often cheapest bought loose in bulk from health stores. They can be stored in the bags they come in, or you can scavenge for small containers. Though it may be worth investing in an organized spice rack or jar system so you can find spices efficiently without getting frustrated.

The list of staples to stock depends on your household's tastes, cooking preferences, available storage space, and what is available locally. A suggested list:

  • rice: white, brown
  • beans: lentils, pinto, black, garbanzo
  • flour: all-purpose, whole wheat, corn meal
  • fat: canola oil, olive oil, shortening
  • sugar: granulated sugar, honey
  • tomatoes: canned, ketchup (consider growing and canning your own)
  • canned fish: sardines, salmon, and tuna
  • spices: salt, black pepper, red pepper, mustard, cumin, chili powder, curry powder, sage, turmeric, thyme, paprika, oregano, red chili paste (consider growing your own herbs)
  • vanilla extract (make your own)
  • dry pasta (or make fresh from flour and eggs)
  • white vinegar
  • baking soda
  • bread yeast
  • sesame seeds

Perishable staples

These items greatly expand the range of recipes that can be cooked, and like stable staples are universally available and inexpensive. However they have a shorter shelf life and may require refrigeration. They are rarely discounted deeply so it is usually safe to restock them at the prevailing price as needed.

  • aromatics: onions, garlic, ginger
  • root vegetables: potatoes, carrots
  • greens: spinach, chard, collard, lettuce, cilantro
  • fruit: oranges, lemons, apples, bananas
  • eggs
  • cheese: swiss, cheddar, parmesan
  • baking powder
  • coffee and tea
  • tortillas (or make your own with a press)

Staple meals

It is important to know recipes that can be made entirely from staples. While they may not be exciting or rich, they are cheap, and can be made entirely from materials on hand. This comes in handy when delicacies are unavailable for some reason --- spoilage, unable to run errands one week, or whatever.

For example, simple variants of the following can be made with the above-listed ingredients:

  • hardboiled, fried, scrambled, or poached eggs
  • quiches and omelets
  • vegetable curries
  • congee/jook (rice porridge)
  • chana masala (garbanzo bean curry)
  • daal (lentil curry)
  • megadarra (rice and lentil pilaf)
  • Spanish rice (rice, tomatoes, and onions)
  • refried beans (pinto beans and shortening)
  • vegetarian burritos/tacos/enchiladas
  • fried rice
  • stir-fry
  • pasta: spaghetti marinara, ravioli, pierogi
  • pancakes
  • biscuits
  • flatbread (pita, chapati)
  • quick bread (e.g. corn, banana or lemon)
  • Baking Bread: sandwich bread, pizza dough, baguette, boule
  • pound cake
  • olive oil cake
  • sandwiches: tuna, sardine, egg salad, fried egg, grilled cheese
  • flatbread pizza
  • baked potatoes
  • bean burgers
  • many casseroles
  • many soups and stews

Delicacies

When other interesting ingredients become available cheaply, they should be used to make recipes that wouldn't otherwise be possible. The idea is to see what ingredients become available and then pick recipes based on that. This is the opposite of the more typical approach of picking recipes first and then buying whatever they require.

Loss-leader sales can be a good source of delicacies. Jeff Yeager suggests a rule of thumb of only buying ingredients that cost $1/lb or less. These tend to be in-season locally produced fruits and vegetables, surplus seasonal items (e.g. Turkeys the day after Thanksgiving), and are more likely to be poultry than red meat. Focusing on these foods has positive health and environmental side-effects above and beyond their economy.

A garden can be a source of delicacies, as can offerings from friends with gardens or fruit trees. Scavenging, dumpster diving, and leftovers from group events can be sources of free ingredients you wouldn't otherwise have.

The ideal is to think like a chef and be able to build interesting recipes out of whatever happens to be available, so there is no exhaustive list of delicacies. However here are some items that sometimes go on sale for less than $1/lb, and some ideas for how to use them:

  • Whole chickens: cut up the meat portions yourself (breasts, thighs, wings, and drumsticks), use the offal for pate or sausage, and use the skin and bones for chicken stock.
  • Bacon: cook with greens; or add to sandwiches, hamburgers, omelets, soups, or casseroles
  • Ground beef: hamburgers, burritos/tacos/enchiladas, pasta bolognese, casseroles, chili, meatloaf
  • Ground pork: country sausage, stuffed peppers
  • Pork roasts: pulled pork, carnitas, boiled dinner, or make salt pork
  • Pineapple or mango: smoothies or sorbet
  • Stone fruit: cobbler/pie, ice cream, yogurt topping, jelly or jam
  • Nuts: add to pilaf or quick bread, pie, granola, ravioli or pierogi filling, garnish

Sources of recipes

Thinking up recipes in response to delicacies requires knowledge of a broad array of recipes. Internet recipes tend to be oriented toward the recipe-then-ingredient mindset, not the ingredient-then-recipe mindset used here, so they aren't particularly helpful. Instead, find a few cookbooks that intend to be complete manuals for cooking, and skim through them. Make a mental note, or write down, any recipe that can be made entirely from staples, or any recipe that is only 1-2 ingredients short and what they are. For example, Moroccan tagine needs only chicken and apricots. French toast needs stale French bread. Croque monsieur sandwiches need only ham.

Some suggested cookbooks: