How to Stock Your Pantry on Any Budget, According to a Chef

On this episode of Play Money, baker Vallery Lomas strategizes to help you pick the perfect staples at every price point.

Pantry staples are the building blocks of many meals—and ensuring you have the right elements on hand for the dishes you want to make will help you avoid running short in the middle of a baking marathon, or having flour or nut butters that go bad before you use them up.

Professional baker Vallery Lomas, author of Life Is What You Bake It, has the perfect plan to help you set up your pantry perfectly, no matter what your budget is. The first rule: Think about what you want to make. If you're not a baker, there's probably no need for a big bag of flour or a big bottle of vanilla extract—but if you are, you might save money buying those in bulk.

Check out Vallery's strategies for building a pantry, whether you're on a budget or have plenty of money to splurge.

Building a Pantry for $25

For $25, Vallery sticks to the basics that you need for everyday cooking—extra virgin olive oil, salt, and pepper to season and cook her dishes. She adds rice for a perfect side dish, and flour and sugar for basic baking. Vinegar is great for adding a little acid to her cooking, and can be mixed with the olive oil in salads.

Building a Pantry for $100

With $100, Vallery can get a little more creative and give herself more pantry options. She starts by sprucing up her baking shelf with some basics—baking powder, baking soda, vanilla extract, confectioner's sugar, brown sugar, and chocolate chips.

She also adds cinnamon, cayenne, and hot sauce to her spice drawer, and some bulk pantry items like peanut butter, pasta, pasta sauce, and tomato paste.

To get more bang for her buck, Vallery opts for dried kidney beans and lentils, which allow you to get more for less money than canned. She also adds canned chickpeas and brown rice.

Honey, canola oil, and rolled oats are adds that make breakfast better (including a homemade granola using the honey and cinnamon). She also adds grits—as she loves to eat grits and eggs for breakfast.

Building a Pantry for $1,000

Vallery was surprised how easy it was to spend $1,000 on a pantry—but she had a lot of fun filling it with a variety of different grains, oils, and spices.

She started with upgrading her salt game, with flaky Maldon salt to use to finish dishes (and make her chocolate chip cookies even more irresistible), plus pink Himalayan salt because it's less refined.

She added lots of different grains to change things up—farro, quinoa, popcorn, buckwheat flour, and cornmeal. And three different types of rice—jasmine, wild, and black. "With a thousand dollar pantry, you don't have to make the same thing twice in a row," Vallery says.

A variety of nuts and seeds was next on her list—almonds, pecans, cashews, pine nuts (great for pesto and a salad sprinkle), nut flour and nut butters, plus poppy and sesame seeds, which can add texture and flavor to dishes and baked goods.

For her baking shelf, there was chocolate—dark, milk, white, plus cocoa powder. Cooking spray and baking spray with flour make it easier to prep pans for cooking, and sprinkles and food dye are great for creating fun cakes and frosting. Whole vanilla beans are a big splurge that give you a stronger vanilla flavor in your baked goods. You split the bean, scrape out the seeds, then put the beans into sugar to give your sugar a subtle vanilla scent. And she finished off the baking shelf with a variety of flours—wheat, self-rising, and bread flour.

Next, she opted to add in some specialty ingredients for different types of cuisines—tahini, a sesame paste that's used to make hummus, soy sauce and fish sauce for Asian cuisine, and jaggery for Indian foods. And then the oils—sesame oil and coconut oil.

She updated her condiments with sriracha, mayonnaise, dijon and yellow mustards, strawberry jam, and maple syrup. And canned tuna, canned salmon, and tinned anchovies are a great base for her cooking.

But her big splurge was spices—she got some saffron, the most expensive spice on the market, and a collection of 55 different spices from Burlap and Barrel. "It's worth the price tag because it makes your cooking so vibrant and delicious," Vallery says.

Vallery upgraded her vinegar game with balsamic, rice, and apple cider varieties, and spent the last of her $1,000 pantry on chicken stock, chipotles, pumpkin puree, molasses, corn starch, coffee beans, and candied ginger. Her advice? "Make sure that you're using whatever is in your pantry, and that you know what you're going to cook and what you want to eat," she says.

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