Subtitle: Twelve Step Program for Managing a Pantry
The pantry used to be a respected room of the house. In truly large households, large enough to hire servants, a pantler was an important person. The pantler held the keys to the pantry and kept it inventoried and stocked for a year’s worth of food for the entire household – servants, family members, guests, and enough extras to feed the indigent who came to the back door. They consulted with the gardeners about the kitchen gardens and the cook for putting up the food that was stored there and may have shopped the farmer’s markets to add to the stores.
Our households aren't that big anymore and we aren't storing food for hordes of people. Most of the time, we're just storing food for between one and five people, so our pantries don't need to be massive affairs. We still need them because we still eat.
In America, at least judging by the many homes I’ve toured and the floor plans I’ve pored over, the pantry has shrunk from a root cellar or other room of its own to a small cabinet and a refrigerator. In fancier houses, the pantry may be a closet, and not even a walk-in one.
As part of the ongoing theme of the permacultured kitchen, managing a pantry is essential. A pantry is where our preserved and root cellared foods are stored for the year. This makes it sound as if there is a massive annual undertaking to stock the pantry. Truth is, stocking the pantry is a year round effort as you purchase, preserve, and store what’s in season so it will be available all year round, restocking as new crops come around. Depending on where you live, stocking the pantry may be a weekly endeavor during the harvest season or a bi-weekly to monthly endeavor all year around.
There are many ways to manage a pantry, and the first step is to determine what kind of pantry you want.
There's the year round, casual pantry which stores canned and boxed goods purchased at the store, spices and seasonings, and foods you preserved yourself for out-of-season eating. Once set up, it generally has enough food for about a year on a rotating basis, all year long, and is constantly being replenished. This is my pantry.
There's the "I only shop when forced to" pantry, where you buy all the non-perishable, canned, boxed, preserved foods you need for a year, and only replenish when all you have left is a can of tomato paste and a half eaten jar of peanut butter. These people look like they are either shopping for an apocalypse or just setting up house for the first time when seen at the store.
There's the small apartment pantry that has enough food for maybe a month or three, but no more than that unless they start using canned goods as bookends and ornamental pyramids scattered throughout the apartment, lined up along the bottoms of closets, on narrow shelves above each doorway, stacked into milk crates covered with a cushion as seating, and stashed under beds. This is not a very comfortable way to live, but I know people who do this.
And then there's the apocalyptic pantry, where you could feed the entire neighborhood for a year, if only they knew. Food is stored much like the small apartment dweller's, but more aggressively. The apocalyptic pantry may even have taken over an entire room of the house or apartment, or fills the basement.
If you live in a small apartment and choose to store more food than the apartment provides for, you'll need special coordination tools. Since you’re reading this on a computer (you are, right?), you have a tool that will save you time and grief – the computer. You don’t even need a special program, a word processor or a spreadsheet program works just fine. I prefer the spreadsheet program. Make a form for each room in which you are storing food (Living room, master bedroom, back bedroom, laundry room, kitchen – egads! We actually store some food in the kitchen!). In each room’s page, list what foods you are storing there and how much of each. When you use the food, make sure you subtract it in your form. When you add more food, add it in your forms, too. When you are pondering dinner, you won’t have to wander from room to room, pulling out underbed boxes or opening cabinets. You can just open your spreadsheet and glance down the list (spreadsheets allow you to also add images which can make it much more fun to browse through), making your selections. You can also store a file of favorite recipes using the foods you most commonly store.
Even if you don't stash food all over the house, having an ongoing inventory is useful. I've found these inventory programs to be very helpful.
I'm not that dedicated. But that's how you'd do it if you were.
What do you keep in your pantry? That depends entirely on your own food preferences and habits. My pantry is a blend of store-bought canned goods, boxed and bagged goods, herbs and spices, and foods I’ve put up myself either from things I grew or foods bought at the farmer’s market. I have home canned jars sitting alongside tin cans of commercial foods and my spice cabinet is a blend of store bought and home grown. You may start out with a pantry of nothing but store bought foods and eventually augment it with home canned (yours or a friend’s!), or even replace the store bought eventually with only home canned. I’m not a purist; I’ll always have a blend of store bought and home-made.
I only keep foods I will actually eat. It makes no sense to me to buy or put up food I have no intention of ever eating. It’s a waste of food and space, and if you have limited space, don’t fill it with food you’ll never eat. Of course, I like a huge variety of foods, so I have a very varied pantry with food from a wide selection of ethnicities and countries. I also happen to have a dedicated pantry room so I have the space to store a big variety of foods.
In the very first diary on the Culture of the Kitchen, I asked that you track what foods you ate and how much. It wasn't that long ago, so you haven't had time to track much, but you're beginning to get a glimmer of how much you eat, and how a year's worth of that might look in your kitchen. A year's worth of food is a lot of food. The canning series by tonyahky inspired you to can things, and now you're wondering where to put them. You're probably looking at your kitchen with either despair or a new appreciation for what you have. You're beginning to wonder how you'll manage all of this, and understand the special skills of the pantler.
The old Medieval and Victorian pantlers would love some of the tools we have at our disposal, particularly the computer and the freezer/refrigerator. They might shake their heads at the paltry cabinet space we have for food, but they'd love those.
Setting up a pantry requires two basic steps: knowing how much and what kind of food you will be storing, and where you'll be storing it.
You've started the what kind and how much process, so let's talk a bit about how to manage the acquisition of food before we talk about storing it. By pre-planning, you'll create the type of storage you'll need.
What you’ll buy and what you’ll grow or can yourself determines somewhat the timetable on which you will replenish your pantry, and so determines how much you purchase or put up at a time. On a calendar (a paper one or a computer one, it doesn’t matter), mark out the dates you’ll shop for the food, the harvest dates for your home grown foods, the dates the produce you'll buy come into season, and the dates you’ll put up the different foods (assuming you grow and put up food). If you raise animals for eggs, milk, or meat, or hunt for your larder, be sure to mark the hunting seasons and slaughtering dates. If you don’t have the equipment to slaughter and butcher your meat, you can take them to processors who will do it for you. If you buy shares in a dairy cow or purchase quarters or sides of cows or pigs or venison or buffalo or ostrich or buy free-range poultry, mark the dates your rancher slaughters them for your pick-up (and mark the payment dates if you pay in installments). If you buy shares in a CSA, mark both the payment dates and the pick-up dates for your produce.
Then, on the marked dates, perform the actions you marked: shop, pay, pick up, hunt, butcher, put up.
If you’re already in the kitchen butchering and putting up food, you might as well make a few prepared foods, too, to put up for later convenient eating. If you’ve invested in a pressure canner, you can put up your own soups and chilis and spaghetti sauces and such. If not, you can make and freeze them. A good freezer is a good investment for annual food storage and eating.
If you are an advocate of the once-a-month-cooking method, use the spreadsheet to mark what meals you’ve prepared ahead and where you’ve put them. It doesn’t have to be frozen meals, although most once-a-month methods rely on freezers. You can also can meals like stews, chilis, and casseroles, and I've known people who layer "meals" in a jar to can for later eating - all they need to do is add a salad or fruit and bread for a ready-to-eat meal that blows TV dinners away.
Mark your spreadsheet when you use food from your pantry so you know what to replace and when. Your calendar will be useful for planning shopping trips. Coordinate your inventory spreadsheet with your provisioning calendar so you always know what you have on hand.
Before computers, the pantler had to remember all this in their head, or handwritten in notebooks. Today, we can use calendar programs with reminders and spreadsheets as a faster and more reliable way to manage a pantry and keep it stocked – and a more flexible way to accommodate taste changes, seasonal specials, and lifestyle changes.
Now that you know how to manage the acquisition of your food, let's move to part two: the physical pantry itself.
First step is to see what you actually have for food storage. Upper and lower cabinets, a kitchen closet, counter tops, refrigerator, freezer, doors...
The next step is to gather some essential supplies: trash bags, a box, permanent marker and labels, various size zippered plastic food storage bags, rubber bands, binder clips, small plastic baskets, clear storage containers with lids (these can be plastic or glass). Fill the sink with hot soapy water.
Step three: Empty your cabinets and drawers. Completely. Everything out. Wash the cabinets, including the walls, and scrub out the drawers.
Step four: Discard all expired foods that were in that cabinet. Into a box, place any food items you received as gifts or that you bought that are unopened and within their expiration dates to give to a food pantry or to share with friends.
Step five: Before you return the remaining food to the cabinets, think about placement. The most frequently used items go where you reach the easiest.
Step six: Then gather like items together: all the baking supplies (cake mixes, frosting mixes, brownie mixes, flour, sugars, yeast...), all the spices, canned goods, boxed goods, the electric items like mixers and blenders, etc. Don't put them in the cabinets yet. You're still inventorying and sorting.
Step seven: Determine how you're going to access this food and the kitchen equipment once they are back in the cabinet. Bottles of oil, vinegar, bottled sauces, etc, can be put on a turntable or lazy susan. Bagged food can be placed in baskets that can slide in and out of the cabinets. Rimmed baking trays can be used to slide small items out from the back of the cabinets, and baking trays and cutting boards can be sorted into stand up racks. Some items can be removed from their boxes or bags and placed into the clear lidded containers (flour, instant mashed potatoes, cereals, sugars...).
Step eight: Consider your spices. Y'all probably don't have an entire closet full of herbs and spices like I do, but I bet you probably have more than 10 that you use regularly (parsley, cream of tartar, sage, cinnamon, cloves, oregano, allspice, nutmeg, basil, thyme, dillweed, curry powder, chili powder, saffron, rosemary, chives, and that doesn't include salt or pepper!). Those cute little spice racks are probably not going to be adequate. I recommend dividing your spices by use. Place your baking spices (flavor extracts, food coloring, sprinkles, baking powder, baking soda, yeast, salt, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, etc.) in a basket to be placed near your other baking ingredients like flour and sugar. If you grill a lot, place all your grilling spices in a basket. If you cook special ethnicities, place their spices in their own baskets. Consider storing the spices in a drawer (label the tops of the jars fro easy identification) or on a tray that can be pulled out of a cabinet.
Spice racks look really cool, but they take up a lot of space, don't hold much, and you have to refill their little jars, which may not be designed for ease in refilling.
Turntables are easy to use and make finding the spices at the back easier, but they are hard to alphabetize and some spices wind up hiding in the center.
Step organizers help you see what's in the back, but they are hard to get the spices if you're short and avalanches are inevitable.
Drawer organizers are easy to reach, easy to see, and the only downside is that they take up valuable drawer space for utensils. If you have other plans for your utensils or plenty of drawer space, this is, in my opinion, the best option.
Cabinet or door mount racks take up often neglected space, but if you're renting, you might not want to drill holes in the cabinet or kitchen doors.
Other types of spice storage: Magnetic strips screwed under cabinets can hold spices, or the spices can be put into magnetized jars and stuck to the refrigerator, there are under cabinet mounted spice racks that spin, and other such options. These all depend on how you use your spices, where you have space to stash them, and whether you can drill holes for screws and such.
Step nine: Dishes and utensils. If you have a buffet or china cabinet, keep your dishes, table linens, and tableware there instead of in the kitchen cabinets. If you must store them in the kitchen cabinets, consider stacking racks for the plates and bowls and hanging racks screwed under the shelves for hanging cups and mugs. Cooking utensils can be set into a canister on a counter top, or a wall of pegboard (sealed against grease spatters!) can be attached to the wall beside the stove or above it, with hooks for the utensils (I papered the wall behind my stove with spatter-resistant wall paper, then hung rows of 1x2s (painted) with "L" hooks drilled into them to hang my most used cooking utensils, my cloth shopping bags, my net produce bags, and my aprons), or drawers can be partitioned off for them. Since ladles, spatulas, strainers, and such are awkward sizes, I prefer not to put them in drawers. I have a magnetic strip screwed to the wall over where I do most of my cutting and chopping and my most used knives cling to that. Knives can also be kept in a knife block on the counter or in special partitions in a drawer.
Step ten: Cleaning and recycling. Cleaning supplies are kept on large turntables and pull out baskets in an under-cabinet, but you may prefer to keep them elsewhere in your kitchen, or even somewhere else in the house.
I have a recycle tower in my kitchen because it has a smaller footprint. The bottom bin is for general trash and is a standard 13 gallon sized trash can. Above it are bins for aluminum, plastics, paper, glass, and fabrics.
Under the kitchen sink, I keep a bin for compost. I adore the biobag composting system. It's small, it never smells (but don't I implore you, put banana peels in it. Every time I have, the bin gets filled with those tiny little fruit flies. I stopped adding banana peels to it and no more fruit flies!), and it's easy to carry the compost to the outdoor compost bin or to give it to a friend or neighbor who composts.
Step eleven: Consider little used appliances and specialty equipment and store them somewhere other than the kitchen. If you have a particularly deep linen cabinet - little used or seasonal appliances can be stored in the back behind the linens. They can also be boxed, labeled and stored under beds, the top shelves of closets, in the attic or basement, or in a storage shed. Giant stock pots, pressure canners, waterbath canners, the turkey oven, specialty bakeware such as holiday Bundt pans, and so on can be stored outside of the kitchen if your kitchen is small.
Step eleven is a longer step of multiple parts, so I'm not going to break it down into step this or that. This is the step where you return all your food back into the pantry.
Stand in your kitchen and imagine cooking meals or preparing snacks. Where would you reach for items, where does it feel comfortable to store your foods?
I have all my dried beans, pastas, flours, sugars, and grains in clear gallon sized glass jars (I collected them for years, they were originally pickle jars. Sadly, most gallon sized pickle jars are now plastic and the vinegar smell takes a really, really long time to fade) set on a shelf above the shelves of canned goods. They are chest high so I can reach them down easily and see at a glance what I have.
My canned goods are alphabetized (like my spices), and I use those rolling stackers so I can place the newest canned goods in at the top and the oldest ones roll out at the bottom for me to use. This works for both the pint sized Mason jars and canned goods from the store. They are on the lower shelves because they weigh more. The very bottom shelf is for the heaviest things - the large bins for root vegetables and long storing fruits, home-bottled sodas and water, and such.
On the shelf above the jarred grains, beans, and sugars, I have baskets of food arranged according to the most common meals I cook. Spaghetti pasta, jars of spaghetti sauce, grated parmesan and romano, garlic bread seasoning, and Italian salad dressing go in one basket. Jars of beans, chili powder, chili seasonings, tomato paste, diced tomatoes, chopped jalapenos, cornmeal, baking powder, dried buttermilk go in another basket. You might have a basket for breakfast items or one for lunches. And so on. Cooking is easy if all you have to do is pull down a basket that already has all your non-perishable ingredients in it, just add fresh veggies and meat.
That shelf also has undershelf baskets to hold bread and buns. Never forget that there is room under many shelves to store additional things - hooks for cups and mugs and measuring cups, baskets for breads and envelopes of seasoning packets (like beef stew and chili and gravies...), and even for napkins and kitchen towels.
Above that, on the top shelf, are the baskets for entertaining - special napkins, dishes, serving dishes, drink markers, and so on divided by purpose (Corny Movie Night, Book Club Night, Crafter's Night, Mad Scientist's Night, Charity Work Night, Birthdays, Anniversaries...). Seasonal party supplies are kept in boxes and stored out of the kitchen.
This is what I call zoning - you zone your kitchen for the various things you do in it, then store the food and supplies you are most likely to use in those zones. My most often used cooking utensils hang by the stove, my most used pots and pans hang from a rack above the stove, my most used spices and cooking oils are under the cabinet closest to the stove. My cutting boards are in a vertical rack beneath the magnetic strip that holds my most used knives. My bread machines (yes, sad but true, I have more than one) are stored beside my bread pans and near my flours.
I recommend reorganizing your pantry with a friend - they help with yours, you help with theirs.
If you have food you won't eat that's still sealed and inside its expiration date, you can trade them with your friends or take them to a food pantry. Duplicated equipment can also be traded around, put up on Craigslist, or donated.
Expired foods and spices, broken equipment, warped, unusable plasticware, excess empty containers, and so on can be thrown away or recycled as appropriate.
Once your kitchen is in order, maintain it by labeling where everything goes (essential as you learn your way around your kitchen again) and by maintaining the food inventory on your spreadsheet. Keep a pad of paper attached to your refrigerator with a pencil so you can note when you need to replenish foods.
And periodically, when your kitchen habits and needs change, re-assess how you have it organized. A kitchen is not a permanent, unchanging environment. It reflects your lifestyle and eating habits. Don't be afraid to change it up as you need it.