Pantry Basics: Dry Goods

In addition to flour, sugar, and other baking ingredients, there are a few other dry ingredients we need to have in the pantry.

Rice. This is a staple for most of the world. Only in the more northern climates, like Europe and North America, do people consume more wheat and other grains. You can buy rice in many forms, but I stick with the very affordable five-pound bag of regular long-grain white rice. It is easier to cook and the most adaptable to a wide range of recipes and cuisines. It is true that brown rice, which is exactly the same but with the outer hull still on, does have a higher nutritional value. But it also requires longer cooking and can be more difficult to get right. You can buy instant rice if you’re not sure of your ability to cook rice without it coming up mushy or sticky. Instant rice is just rice that has been partially cooked and then dried. An agent to keep it from sticking together or absorbing moisture from the air is about the only thing added. The boil-in-the-bag types are okay, too. The microwavable or boxed side dish varieties present a problem since they usually have lots of salt and other stuff in them. However, I will admit they are very convenient.

Cooking rice DOES take some practice. Sushi chefs spend two years just learning how to make the rice. Fortunately, rice is inexpensive. Start out with small amounts until you get the hang of it. Here are the tips:

  • Wash the rice in a strainer. Do it in batches if you have to. Rinse under cold running water and try to make sure every kernel gets doused. Don’t be afraid to get your hands in there and work the water and rice around. You are removing the excess starch on the outside of the rice kernels which can make the rice mushy or clumpy.
  • As a side note, many parts of the world, particularly East Asia, prefer their rice a little mushy and clumpy. They also don’t season the rice, not even with salt. They have rice at almost every meal and use the bland rice to absorb some of any sauce from the usually heavily seasoned entree and side dishes. Also, clumpy rice is easier to eat with chopsticks.
  • Add rice and cold water to a cold saucepan that has a good, tight-fitting lid. The amount of water you use depends on the type of rice and the cooking method. For standard white long-grain rice, you use about two cups of liquid with one cup of rice. Brown rice will need about two-and-a-half cups for each cup of rice. See the package directions for the exact information for that kind of grain. However, this ratio changes with quantity. If cooking less than a cup of white rice, the amount of liquid is 1.1:1 rather than 1.25:1.
  • Add 1 teaspoon salt, or 1 chicken bouillon cube, or 1 teaspoon chicken bouillon granules. You can also use 1 cup of chicken stock instead of 1 cup of water. This is if you like rice to have a little flavor. Omit if serving East Asians.
  • Stir once.
  • Put on high heat and bring to a rolling boil. You may stir once if you fear the rice might be sticking, but that’s all. Any more will make the rice mushy.
  • Turn the heat to very low, cover and walk away for 15 minutes.
  • Remove from heat and let the pot sit for 10 minutes.
  • Now, carefully use a fork to fluff the rice and break it up.

It may not work the first time. Every stove and pot is different and can affect how the rice turns out. But once you get it, you’ll find it easier each time. I’m not a big fan of most rice cookers because I don’t think they turn out any better. For the beginner, instant rice is easier but may or may not be foolproof.

Pasta. My problem with pasta, as I think I’ve mentioned, is that we eat too much of it because it’s cheap. As a processed food, dry pasta is not bad as it usually doesn’t have much of the bad stuff in it. FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS ON THE BOX! The times they give are usually pretty accurate. Do NOT throw pasta against the wall to see if it sticks. Just pull a bit of it up out of the pot, blow on it to cool, and see how it feels in your mouth when you chew it. You’ll know if it’s right.

Previous advice would have said to always use at least 4 quarts of water or more. This is one time a stock pot is really useful. However, for some dishes, like Cacio e Pepe, one uses only enough water to cover. This makes a starchy water used to make the sauce. Personally, I don’t think there’s much difference between one pasta brand and another. Think about using pasta more creatively instead of just a tomato-based sauce. Mix with extra virgin olive oil, grated Parmesan cheese, and dried basil for a classic Italian side dish. Pine nuts go great with this if you have some, but they are expensive. Mix vegetables, cheese, herbs, and a little oil or butter to make a healthy side. Just don’t have a big plate of pasta with sauce and meatballs or meat sauce. That’s like eating half a loaf of bread.

Bread Crumbs. Like chicken stock or broth, I think you should make your own bread crumbs. It’s not hard. If completely dry, they can go in an airtight container (otherwise, stick them in the freezer). You can save up stale bread or crackers for just this purpose. If you must buy bread crumbs in the store, try to find Panko, the Japanese-style breadcrumbs. Your last choice should be that sawdust in the container they sell. I don’t care how they dress it up, it’s still sawdust. It’s just too fine to create more than a mush. If you need bread crumbs for a recipe, put some bread in the toaster on the darkest setting without burning or blackening. If you have a food processor, use it. Otherwise, let the bread sit for a bit and try toasting again until you get as much moisture out of it as you can. Watch it carefully! If the oven’s already on, cut the bread into small pieces and arrange on a cookie sheet and bake until golden brown.