My Most Used Pantry Items

Coconut oil

I go through this stuff at what some people might consider an alarming rate. I use it for everything from sweets to savory dishes, and it is my baking oil of choice. I also prefer coconut oil spray for preparing baking dishes because of its slightly sweet flavor.

I use coconut oil because my body likes it and because it’s versatile and delicious, but it also offers many health benefits. For one thing, it is nature’s richest natural source of lauric acid, which has powerful antimicrobial properties. To put things in perspective, coconut oil contains 50 percent lauric acid, and the next highest source of lauric acid is breast milk, at 10 percent. There is also much recent interest in the possible connections between coconut oil and healthy brains. So much interest and anecdotal evidence, in fact, that the National Institute on Aging started a double-blind clinical trial (the results of which will be published in 2016) to study coconut oil for the treatment of mild and moderate Alzheimer’s disease! That’s something that runs in my family, so I’ll be keeping an eye on the results of that study.

Olive oil

My second oil of choice is extra-virgin olive oil. Long touted for its healthy fat and health benefits that range from cardiovascular health and prevention of cancer to anti-inflammatory properties and immune system strength. I also love the taste. I keep other oils on hand, such as avocado and grape-seed as they all have their purposes. I like avocado oil for its high smoke point and mild flavors. Grape-seed is wonderful in dressing and sauces when you don’t want that strong olive oil flavor. But if you are only going to keep two oils in the house, I would recommend coconut and olive.

Unsweeteend Coconut milk and cream

I use these versatile dairy replacers in many sweet and savory preparations and always keep a variety of forms on hand: refrigerated unsweetened coconut milk in a carton, canned coconut milk and canned coconut cream in the pantry. I don’t personally use reduced-fat, or “lite,” coconut milk in my recipes, as they seem watered down to me, but you can certainly make that substitution if you prefer. Coconut cream may be a bit trickier to come by than the other two, but if you live near a Trader Joe’s, you’re in luck; their canned coconut cream has a really thick texture and very rich flavor, and I use it as the base for ice cream, chocolate ganache, whipped cream, and many other things. If you don’t live near one, it is also sold on Amazon.

Unsweetened Almond Milk

Pia has an almond allergy, but because it is not anaphylactic we keep unsweetened almond milk in the house as an alternative to coconut milk in smoothies and for coffee. I either make my own or prefer Trader Joes Unsweetened Almond Milk.

Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free All Purpose Flour

This is my favorite all-purpose gluten-free baking blend, a great shortcut for some recipes that don’t require a custom blend of ingredients.

Bob’s Red Mill assorted flours

For the aforementioned custom flour blends, Bob’s Red Mill is also my go-to source. They make everything from rice, oat, millet, and sorghum flours to binders like xanthan gum, and they are widely available in supermarkets as well as natural foods stores.

Xanthan gum

Don’t be scared! I use this food stabilizer and thickener in very small amounts to give baked goods the elasticity or stickiness they need to mimic the texture of gluten-based foods. Basically the xanthan gum helps to make gluten-free baked goods chewy instead of crumbly.

Gluten-free rolled oats

These are used as a binder and base for granola, cookies, and bars. Plus, I just love oatmeal.

Pumpkin and sweet potato purées

Unsweetened canned pumpkin and sweet potato purées find their way into many of my baked goods. Both are a great binder, add moisture, and are full of fiber and vitamins. It’s pretty easy to make your own purée when pumpkins are in season. If you are going to make your own sweet potato purée, I prefer the orange-fleshed variety and will roast mine in the oven at 400ºF for 45 minutes. Alternatively, you could microwave one for 5 to 8 minutes, rotating them halfway through.

Beet sugar

Because one of my daughters is severely allergic to cane sugar, I almost always use beet sugar in recipes that call for cane sugar. It can be substituted 1:1, and it has given us a ton of freedom to experiment with baked goods while avoiding cane sugar. We order NOW Foods’ organic non-GMO beet sugar online, but you can also buy American Crystal Sugar brand or White Satin white sugar, brown sugar, and confectioners’ sugar, all of which are made with beet sugar. They are sold at many grocery stores and bulk and restaurant supply stores. I have also made my own confectioners’ sugar by “puréeing” 1 cup of granulated beet sugar and 1 tablespoon of cornstarch together in a blender on high until fluffy (note that you will have to sift several times to get a fine result). Similarly, you can make a substitute for brown sugar by beating 1 cup of granulated beet sugar with 1 tablespoon of molasses with an electric mixer until uniform. You can also substitute palm and coconut sugars, but they are not as sweet as cane or beet sugar.

Agave, honey, and maple syrup

I use these to sweeten foods any time they don’t compromise the structure of a dish with too much liquid. For that reason, I use them rarely in baking, but often in cooking. They produce a more natural sweet flavor and they don’t make your blood sugar spike in the same way that refined white sugar can. If you are vegan, feel free to substitute agave for the honey in otherwise vegan recipes.

Pumpkin and sunflower seeds

Use these in place of nuts in pesto, cereal, cookies, and snack bars. They are crunchy and delicious and full of protein and fiber.

Sunflower butter

Ground sunflower seeds make a good replacement for peanut butter and nut butters in sauces and baked goods.

Chocolate and chocolate chips

For cooking chocolate and chips I like Enjoy Life brand chocolate, which is free of everything on our “no” list except cane sugar. If you need to strictly avoid cane sugar (like Pia), I like Lilly’s dark vegan chocolate sweetened with stevia. I buy it in bar form and chop the bars into chunks to use instead of chocolate chips. There are a few other chocolate chip brands that are gluten-free and vegan and sweetened with alternative natural sweeteners, but always make sure you check the label for soy. Vegan chocolate bars are widely available although not always marketed as Vegan (look for cocoa percentages in the 80% or higher range). Unsweetend Chocolate has no dairy in it.

Coconut amino acids

This is a soy-free, gluten-free substitute for soy sauce or tamari.

Apple cider vinegar

I use this in combination with unsweetened coconut milk to create a faux buttermilk that adds great flavor, moisture, and tenderness to baked goods. You can use white vinegar, but I like the very subtle apple flavor and sweetness of apple cider vinegar. Plus, apple cider vinegar boasts incredible health benefits ranging from antibiotic effects to topical and internal anti-inflammatory benefits.

Chia seeds

Chia seeds are an incredible superfood that is very high in fiber and nutrients for a relatively small amount of calories. When they are mixed with hot water, chia seeds form a gel that is an excellent binder and substitute for eggs. 1 tablespoon of chia seeds mixed with 3 tablespoons hot water are a direct substitution for 1 large egg.

Canned garbanzo bean liquid (also known as aquafaba)

This may sound weird, but the liquid that comes from canned garbanzo beans is an amazing egg replacer that also adds moisture. I use this in everything from pizza crust to brownies. 3 tablespoons if aquafaba is a direct substitution for 1 large egg.

Dehydrated Potato Flakes

Sometimes known as dried mashed potatoes or potato buds which are 100% real potatoes. These are amazing for binding (like in meatballs) and for tenderness (like in pizza crust). These are easy to find at the grocery store, just make sure you get plain, not flavored.

Vegan butter

Soy-free vegan butter creates a creamy flavor and texture that is superior to coconut oil or any other fat in many baking recipes. Most stores carry several varieties—read the label to be sure it is soy-free.

Gluten-free beer

You’ll find a bit of beer in many of my baking recipes because the carbonation gives a fantastic lift and yeasty flavor that I can’t get achieve any other way.

Packaged broths

In recipes that are otherwise free of animal products (including honey), I try to adhere to using only vegetable broth, but in general whenever my recipes call for either of these broths, they can be used interchangeably. If you are not vegetarian or vegan, feel free to use chicken broth in any of the recipes. I just use whatever I have in my pantry. When buying packaged stocks and broths, do take time to read labels! Many broths and stocks have added ingredients you will want to avoid like cane sugar or soy. You can also easily make your own basic broth whenever you have a bit of extra time. Just combine a few pounds of chicken bones, 2 cups chopped onions, 1 cup chopped carrots, and 1 cup chopped celery in a large pot and add enough water to cover. You can add thyme, parsley, turnips, mushrooms, or garlic if desired. Simmer for 2 to 4 hours, and then strain. Refrigerate for 4-5 days or freeze up to 6 months until ready to use.

Kosher salt and (lack of) black pepper

I use Diamond kosher salt for everything—cooking, baking, you name it. Be aware, though, that kosher salt does not measure out the same as table salt, and that other brands, like Morton’s, can be significantly “saltier.” The difference between salt brands is that the flakes vary in size, so using a teaspoon of a brand with smaller flakes will make something taste saltier than a teaspoon of a brand with larger flakes, so always add salt to your own taste. You may also notice that I do not call for black pepper in any of these recipes. I have never subscribed to the idea that everything seasoned with salt must also be seasoned with pepper, and not just because it turns out I am allergic to black pepper, a more common problem than you would imagine. If you don’t have a problem with pepper and really miss it, you may certainly add pepper to taste, but try eating without it for a while. You may not notice its absence as much as you’d think.

Fresh and dried chile peppers

I use a lot of fresh and dried chiles in my cooking. Besides being delicious, they are incredibly good for you, offering immense amounts of nutrients in a small package. I previously thought that I could not tolerate spicy food, but it turns out the dairy, eggs, and wheat were ulcerating my esophagus and GI track, not the chiles. Something to think about for those of you who have uttered the well-known “I love spicy food, it just doesn’t like me.”

Tahini and toasted sesame seeds

I use sesame paste and sesame seeds in some of my recipes. Tahini is toasty, nutty and creamy and is the best addition to salad dressings and sauces. Sesame seeds are a wonderful, crunchy and flavorful and wonderful sprinkled on top of just about everything, sweet or savory. *Also, a note that some people who have serious nut allergies also have sesame allergies.


Personally, I am obsessed, but my daughter can’t eat garlic. If you find that you have crazy heartburn after eating it, you probably shouldn’t either. When I need to leave it out of a recipe, I add extra onions or something else like a pinch of red pepper flakes or a little lemon juice to supply that kick garlic provides. When there is an easy substitution in one of these recipes, I generally make a note of it.