As you recall, Part 1 of the “Perfect Pantry” series was about savory spices, seen here. This next part features essential liquids to have in your pantry, to help add flavor and moistness to your cuisine.
1.) Vegetable (or Canola) Oil:
Growing up, this is what my ma used for EVERYTHING. She doesn’t like the floral/fruity/grassy notes of Olive oil, so she’d use this instead. Not the most flavorful (in fact, it’s flavorLESS), but it’s a necessity because it’s a light oil, and therefore can tolerate a lot of heat before smoking; veggie oil is perfect for frying and baking because of those reasons.
2.) Extra Virgin Olive Oil:
Olive oil, as stated earlier, has a complex range of flavors from grassy, to sweet and fruity, and so on. A little bit often goes a long way, and it’s best used when sautéing, or in salad dressings. High quality (read: $$$$$$) olive oils have a higher smoke point than more economical brands, so keep that in mind when cranking the heat under the pot. There are a lot of “flavored” olive oils, beware. A lot of the flavored ones often have loads of salt, other random chemicals, and sometimes Botulism if they haven’t been packed correctly. Yum! (Botulism occurs in garlic infused olive oil that has been infused incorrectly. Go ahead and Google that one for further explanations.)
3.) Sesame Oil (last oil, I promise):
Sold in small bottles, a drop or two of sesame oil goes a loooonnnng way. Most associated with Asian cuisines, sesame oil gives a strong, pungent, nutty flavor to any dressing or side dish, and is used as a seasoning in cooking, in conjunction with another cooking oil. And remember: sesame oil needs to stay refrigerated.
4.) Red Wine Vinegar (or Apple Cider Vinegar):
Even though these two vinegars differ greatly on taste, the point here is to make sure to have either one on hand. White vinegar is nasty, astringent, and best used for cleaning purposes. Apple cider vinegar is tangy, a bit sweet, and sour; that is the vinegar I grew up on. Red wine vinegar has more of a bite, is also sour, but less sweet, and has some added aromatic qualities. Both of these vinegars are interchangeable, and taste great in dressings, or used in dishes.
5.) Balsamic Vinegar:
Quite a different beast from the previously mentioned vinegars. Balsamic vinegar is dark, mysterious, complex, and sweet. Because of it’s high sugar content, it works great as a sauce because as it reduces, it thickens and becomes almost syrupy. Still used in dressings, and in cooking in general, but balsamic is also used in a wide variety of desserts.
6.) Stock (chicken/beef/veggie):
First, the difference between broth and stock, is that stock uses bones (and therefore also attains a glorious smooth mouth-feel from the gelatin) and broth just uses the meat and seasonings. I buy mine, and I always get the lower sodium varieties (read labels!) but you can make your own, it’s really easy… I’m sure we’ll get to that sometime around here. Stock/broth is an essential liquid because it’s the base of soups, stews, risottos… hell, I even boil potatoes in it sometimes to add a “meaty” flavor when we’re all out of meat. It’s basically a delicious flavored water that can help boost the flavors of any dish.
7.) Agave (or Honey):
I’d like to point out that, while most of the time, these can be used interchangeably to add sweetness, they are definitely different, and each has its own strength. Honey is thick, and adds floral notes; Agave is very neutral in flavor, but dissolves better than honey (especially in cold liquids. Iced tea anyone?) and isn’t as sweet. Point being: have either one on hand, to add a touch of natural sweetness to your dishes without having to use white sugar, or fake sugars (SO MUCH ANGER TOWARD FAKE SUGARS. But that will have to be saved for another post…).
So there you have my top list of essential liquids for your pantry! Ta-da! It’s pretty basic, nothing fancy about them individually, but their abilities within cooking are what make them important depending on what flavor you’re looking for. If you don’t find it necessary to have all of these items, just remember you’re looking for fats (oils), acids (vinegars) and a few wild cards. That will keep your pantry balanced, so you’ll always have what you need to create a tasty meal.
What about soy, Worcestershire, and Tabasco sauces? Don’t worry your pretty little head, I haven’t forgotten about those. We’ll get to them another time.