Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Baker's Pantry Must-Haves

You all know how I love to bake. It seems that it's an inherited trait from my kitchen diva Aunt Debbie (she's an aunt by marriage, but we'll not get into the genetics thing today... just go with it). I grew up spending countless hours around Christmas time with her and my cousins in the kitchen, primarily baking. We baked triple batches of sugar cookies, the family's (Uncle David's) favorite sand dabs, cream cheese coffee cakes, ginger bread men, and even candies, like toffee.

So, when the mood strikes (which is often, fortunately for Benny), I like to bake. Often, this is simply a loaf of bread in the bread machine, which takes no brain power whatsoever. But I do love to bake cookies from scratch for pot lucks, cobblers with seasonal or frozen fruit, bundt cakes and coffee cakes just to have around for breakfasts or dessert. I do NOT like having to run out to the grocery store every time I pull out a recipe, so I've learned to keep a few staples on hand in the pantry. It makes the whole process so much more enjoyable.

1. Flour: I keep several types of flour on hand. My staples are all-purpose (unbleached, if I can find it), whole wheat, bread flour, and self-rising. The ones I use most are the AP, whole wheat, and bread flour. The self-rising is nice to have on hand for coffee cakes, etc., since it often simplifies the process. I also like to keep some type of specialty flour to "play" with in bread recipes. My current selection is rye, from the bulk bins at Earth Fare. (If you don't want to commit to 5 lbs, buying from the bulk bins is the way to go, because you can get as much or as little as you need.)

2. Grains/Nuts/Dried Fruit: I always keep rolled oats on hand. These are a great addition to breads, coffee cakes, meatloaf, etc., and of course, for oatmeal. I try to keep a few kinds of nuts on hand, some for snacking and some for baking (although Benny likes the stash of pecans for baking so much that I often have to keep double on hand). Currently, I have a few pecans and some mixed nuts. I also have some sunflower seeds, which make a nice addition to bread. The dried fruit is fun to add to bread and rolls, as well as to oatmeal or salads. We generally keep at least raisins and craisins on hand, and we also have dried currents right now.

3. Sugar: I generally have three types of sugar on hand: granular, powdered, and brown (either light or dark). I also know that if I run out of brown sugar, I can whip some up with the molasses and regular sugar and have the same thing without a trip to the store.

4. Miscellaneous pantry staples: Many recipes call for buttermilk, but I generally don't use that quick enough to warrant it taking valuable real estate in the fridge. So, I keep powdered buttermilk on hand. It's super easy to use and lasts much longer than the refrigerated variety. I keep powdered milk on hand for my bread recipes, and it's also great in a pinch if I run out of milk before the weekend shopping trip. As I mentioned before, I keep molasses on hand for various uses. We also keep a large bottle of olive oil and vegetable/canola oil on hand for baking. (If you're caught without the veg oil, you can use olive oil in most recipes and it tastes the same. You can also substitute applesauce.)

5. Refrigerator items: The basics--eggs, milk, butter (please, use the real stuff), yeast, and cream cheese. We have started trying to buy our eggs locally from a family at the farmer's market, so that more of our purchase goes into the local economy. The butter is always unsalted. I purchase it at Costco or Sam's and freeze most of it. This means that I'm never without, and if I think ahead, I can thaw it in the fridge before I need it. I keep a jar of yeast in the fridge for our weekly bread making in the machine. I like to keep a package of cream cheese on hand so that I can quickly pull together a yummy coffee cake or bundt cake without any hassle.

6. Spices: vanilla (homemade if you can), cinnamon, whole nutmeg (it has a better flavor and lasts longer), cloves, cream of tartar (not a spice, but go with it--use it for icing), and chocolate chips (I generally have the swirled variety and semi-sweet).

By keeping all of this on hand, purchasing in bulk and on sale (I stock up when flour/sugar is on sale around the holidays), and planning ahead, you'll be well on your way to a baker's dream. By baking from scratch, I have a better sense of what goes into the food I'm eating or giving to people, and save a ton over purchasing these baked goods from a bakery. It also means that I'm saving on the packaging that many of these items come with, therefore saving the earth a bit in the process. (Not to mention the saved fuel and CO2 from planning ahead and not running out to the store every time I need something.)

So, what are your pantry staples? Do you have any go-to recipes for weeknight baking or pot lucks? Here's to living and saving green in the kitchen!

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