I admit that I am a bit of a food competition junkie. Best British Bakers, Top Chef, Best Spring/Holiday/Summer/Winter baker/Chopped Champ…the list goes on and on. I love these shows not only because they showcase such amazing culinary talent but because I get to see the ingredients they use in each challenge and then armchair mentally challenge their choices.
I was watching the new season of Top Chef a few weeks back and the premise of one challenge was that each chef had to use the one ingredient they could not live without. Presumably they had listed that ingredient before the show filmed because they were each handed that one indispensable ingredient and then they went to town.
This is all a long way to saying it got me thinking about what essential ingredients do we frugal types need? The essential ingredients every frugal sort should stock up on and keep in their fridge and pantry at all times. I therefore compiled the essential frugal food list below:
- Onions. They are my number one ingredient and had I been on Top Chef, the ingredient I would have named as the one I could not do without. From my savory carnalized onion dip to the celery-carrot-onion base for nearly every savory dish, I use onions literally, every single day. I keep white, yellow and red Spanish onions in my pantry but a basic yellow onion will do for most recipes. And onions are dead cheap. When I buy spring green onions I cut off the roots, put them in a bit of water for a few days and then plant them so I have more green onions. For free. Or at least a ten for one because I find I can get at least ten uses out of the regrown roots. I have done the same with leeks though they take much longer to regrow. If your onions start to sprout or go bad, diced them up and place them in the freezer. You can add them frozen to many dishes and it just takes a couple of extra minutes to cook through.
- Carrots. We don’t eat a lot of raw carrots though I feature them in every vegetable dipper tray I make. In addition to using them in my celery-carrot-onion base mentioned above, carrots last a really long time in the vegetable crisper and can be used in everything from muffins and cakes to soups to stir-frys or as one of the slow braising vegetables in a Sunday roast. They are also very cheap and as I said, last a long time. If they do wilt a bit, just stick them in some icy water to perk them right back up.
- Potatoes. You can buy taters in 10 pound bags if cooking for more than two on a regular basis though I usually go for the 5 pound bag so they do not start to sprout or go bad. Potatoes are the mainstay of so many dishes and I am forever looking for new ways to reinvent the humble spud. Potatoes are filling and easy to cook with, you can microwave a couple of them for a quick side while you make the rest of dinner. I use them as fillers and thickeners in most of my soup recipes and my potato au gratin recipe is the bomb. One of my go-to potato side dishes is to slice them, skin on, toss them in spices and a bit of oil and crisp them up in the air fryer. The result feels much more indulgent and calorie laden than it really is. I do the same with sweet potatoes.
- Chicken stock. Normally I make my own but you can find large boxes of stock on sale from time to time. I use chicken stock in everything from soups to sauces, roasts to risottos. Keep it in your pantry or freeze homemade in jars.
- Pasta. I buy most of mine for $0.89 cents a bag/package at the local discount grocery store. I stock spaghetti, macaroni and rotini along with all sorts of other shapes. Aside from being very cheap, dried pasta has a fantastically long shelf life. Keep a couple of different shapes around for inspiration and a quick weeknight frugal meal.
- Beans and legumes. Another long shelf life staple that is very cheap. I keep mine in glass jars in the freezer and rely mostly on pinto and black beans, lentils and chickpeas. Because I keep them frozen, they will basically last forever. I like to make my own hummus so chickpeas are essential and have a warm, nutty taste that also goes well in soups and sauces.
- Rice and grains. I always keep rice and cornmeal on hand. Both are very cheap and last a long time. I make a couple of rice dishes every week and polenta at least twice a month. The corn meal also works for corn muffins and other baked goods. Of course, I have flour and other baking grains but rice and cornmeal are essential to many dishes. Grain bowls I assemble at least twice a week for quick lunches. Just use up whatever is in your vegetable crisper along with some pickled veggies and top with a hard boiled egg.
- Eggs. I tend to go through eggs quickly with all the baking I do but I also use eggs in sauces, breakfast and all sorts of baked dishes. A side of deviled eggs is a real treat in our house and an unexpected addition to dinner. As mentioned above, I put hardboiled eggs in all of my grain bowls. Eggs are really a very economical protein and can be used in endless ways and if you eat them, watch for specials which come several times a year.
- Bacon. I keep bacon frozen and pull off a few strips when I need some bacon flavoring which is one of the most heavenly flavors of all time. I also wait for the specials. My bargain grocery store occasionally will feature a bargain of bacon ends stuffed into a big vacuum sealed bag and I buy that when it is on special. That tends to last me a very long time and when I am baking something in the oven and find myself with an empty rack, I will sometimes pull out a generous hand full of bacon ends, scatter them over a cookie sheet and cook them up along with whatever is baking away in the oven. I then have cooked bacon to use in many dishes for very little money. I also will use bacon fat for free bacon flavoring in my sautés from time to time.
- Shredded cheese. I buy the big bag when it goes on sale from the usual $7.99 down to $4.99 and it lasts me a long time. I use it to make my go-to cheese sauce, for Tuesday taco night, in cheesy baked pasta dishes and to top everything from meatloaf to salads. I find the bagged form lasts longer than a block of cheese and melts quickly and easily. I prefer the mixed cheese version; cheddar, jack and mozzarella or a similar combination.
Note that the only proteins I listed above are eggs and bacon and thus when bacon is really more of an accent flavor, not a main dish. Meats and poultry, while most so very eaten, are expensive in comparison to the items listed above and should be accents and additions to your main meals made from above, not the featured ingredient. Also note that those top ten are the reason my now-grown daughter would, as a teen and even a small child, peer into the pantry or fridge and announce that we had nothing to eat in the house when in fact, we were very well stocked up. That is because if you are frugal, you don’t rely on pre-made, convenience foods. As a kid you would want to open the fridge or pantry and pull out something ready made which means it costs more. My tactic was to prepare a few things and keep them in the fridge so she could simply heat them up. It is satisfying to note that she goes through the very same thing these days with her kids. Ha. Just ha.
Turns out she relies on much the same ingredients I always have.
Nice to know that her mom, aka, me, was right all along.