Having a kitchen equipped with the essentials makes cooking easier to do on the fly, less time consuming, and makes shopping for recipes less daunting.
Here are a few of the things I always keep my kitchen stocked with:
*Onions - I LOVE onions. I could put them in almost anything. I keep mine in my pantry (a cool, dark place) and they keep for up to a month.
*Garlic - I used to use minced garlic from a jar, and while I still keep that on hand, I find that fresh garlic almost always works better and tastes better in recipes. So I always keep a head of garlic in my pantry (with the onions). I've read that heads of garlic can keep for up to 3 months stored in a cool, dry, dark place! Another great thing to have on hand if you need to use A LOT of garlic is whole garlic cloves peeled, wrapped tightly and refrigerated. You can pick up a bag at Trader Joe's or the grocery store. I grab this if I'm making something that calls for a lot of garlic. It saves time since you don't have to peel each clove.
*Olive Oil - I simply could not cook without olive oil. I use it ALL THE TIME. Get Cold Pressed or First Cold Pressed Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Good olive oil can get pricey - and while it's nice to have some high quality oil on hand for dressing salads and finishing touches, your everyday cooking olive oil doesn't need to cost you over $10 a bottle. I avoid grocery store chain-brand olive oils and pick up my olive oil at Trader Joe's. I also keep a nice bottle of Lemon Meyer Olive Oil from a specialty shop on hand for fancier olive oil needs.
*Olive Oil and Canola Oil Sprays - These are super handy for when you need some oil but not a lot. They are great for misting baked sweet potato fries instead of dousing them in oil. They work great for anytime you bread something and bake it instead of frying (zucchini sticks, onion rings) it gives just enough oil to get the crunch you are looking for without making the breading soggy. I also use them to oil the bottom of a pan when making a quesadilla, etc.
*Butter - I use Kerrygold Irish butter. It's insanely good and comes from grass fed cows, which means it's better for you and you can really taste the difference. It's a must have in my house. I add it to scrambled eggs and it creates a nice silky texture.
*Plain Greek Yogurt - Plain greek yogurt, full fat or not, is an excellent substitute for sour cream. I love sour cream, but I almost never use it anymore since I've replace it with greek yogurt. Greek yogurt has a fraction of the calories and has more protein! 2% is my favorite, but I often buy non-fat since the flavor is only marginally different. I keep greek yogurt in the fridge in case I decide to make a dish that calls for some creaminess, or a soup that needs a dollop as a topping, or my fabulous mashed potatoes. Plus, if you realize your not going to be needing it for a recipe you can always eat it with some fruit for breakfast! Side note: a quality brand goes a long way - get Chobani or Fage.
*Chicken or Veggie Stock - Super important to have on hand. Great for making soup, adding to meat in the crock pot, adding to the pan of a chicken roasting with veggies, mixing in mash potatoes, and even caramelizing onions. I keep a 32 oz box on hand and a small can, in case I only need a little and don't want to open the whole box.
*Salt - Salt is my best friend. It makes everything taste better. It makes flavors come together. It's just awesome. Keep sea salt and kosher salt on hand at all times. Kosher salt is what I use in almost all my recipes, it has a thicker grain and is not as salty as table salt, so be careful when making a substitution in my recipes. I highly recommend getting a box of Kosher salt. Baking needs often call for a finer salt, like table salt. I confess I don't have table salt on hand. I often just use my sea salt or kosher salt. Haven't had a problem... yet.
*Black Peppercorns (and pepper mill) - Ditch that flavorless powdery pepper and pick up the real thing. It will seriously make a difference in your cooking. Especially flavoring steaks. Trader Joe's carries disposable pepper mills. Choose from black peppercorns or multi for $1.99.
*Cumin - Needed for most Mexican dishes. I buy ground cumin. There are schools of thought that say toasting and grinding your own cumin tastes much better and makes a world of difference - and I agree. But I just don't have the time, and honestly, I don't like cumin all that much so it's not worth it to me.
*Cayenne Pepper - You only need to keep this as a pantry staple if you like things spicy. A little cayenne pepper will go a long way. I add it to roast veggies, my easy zucchini and almonds side dish, chili, enchiladas, and just about anything else that needs a little kick.
*Lawry's Seasoned Salt - Great for potatoes and meat. In theory you could make your own - it's basically salt, sugar, paprika, turmeric, onion, and garlic. But I'd rather just leave it up to Lawry's.
*Other Basic Spices - Chili Powder, Cinnamon, Nutmeg (buy the whole ones and grind yourself using a zester), paprika, and garlic powder are the ones I use the most.
*Lemon - I always like to have at least one lemon on hand. It helps brighten up almost any dish and is great in chicken marinades. I also keep a small bottle of lemon juice in the fridge in case I'm caught without a lemon on hand.
*And of course the basic baking staples are always good to have on hand. Flour (white and whole wheat), Sugar (white and brown), baking powder, baking soda, and cornstarch.
*Almond Flour or Meal - I must have for the paleo household. I use it to "bread" chicken. It can also be very useful in gluten-free baked goods, but I'm still experimenting.
*Coconut Oil - Use in place of regular oil or olive oil for cooking. Great in stir frys!
*Coconut Aminos - replace soy sauce with coconut aminos. Coconut everything is super healthy, and honestly, I like the flavor better!
*Nitrate Free Bacon - I get thick cut applewood smoked nitrate free bacon at Trader Joe's. We have it for breakfast almost everyday. Nitrates and nitrites are bad for you, so please pick your bacon wisely!