Every good cookbook tells you what sorts of ingredients, tools, etc. work best for the recipes inside. If yours doesn’t, repurpose it (fire fodder is a good option!) and find another one that does. Recipes vary like crazy enough without your having to guess if what you have in your kitchen will work for a particular recipe.
That’s not to say that if you don’t have exactly what I have, that the recipe will be a disaster. Not even a little bit. But it may cause your recipe to be…different. I’ll try to let you know how so, if I’ve used variable ingredients or tools for a job, but otherwise, deviate from this list at your own risk. And if you really want to be crunchy about it (AKA not be a dick to animals and the environment), get the best stuff you can buy from as well-known/local a farm or purveyor as possible. I’ll specify below.
Milk: Unless I’ve specified otherwise, I’m talking whole milk, because whole milk is best milk. Whole milk from a local dairy farm is even better – you’ll support your local farmer, have better-tasting milk (if they’re nice to their cows), and know your cow, which is pretty grand.
Eggs: Large chicken eggs, any color shell. Duck eggs are pretty awesome, too, since they have extra fat and make baked goods richer. They’re a bit bigger, so plan accordingly. Pasture-raised is best – you’ll actually know those ladies got outside and ate delicious bugs, which makes for delicious eggs. All of the terms, including “pasture-raised,” can be fudged by various big egg companies, so actually getting the eggs from a local purveyor and seeing their practices can help guarantee you’re getting eggs from happy hens.
Butter: I’m on Team Salted Butter. I’ve never found myself saying, “Gee, I wish I’d used unsalted butter for that recipe,” but I’ve certainly said the opposite. Salt = flavor, and flavor is good. Fight me.
Meat: Get the best meat you can afford, preferably local and pasture-raised – you’ll generally get better taste, texture, and food safety. Knowledge is power here: if you know your farmer and processor, you’re more likely to get the product you’re looking and paying for, since many labels and terms are unregulated by the USDA (including “pasture-raised”). Read and understand your labels, as there is only a small list of labeling terms regulated by the USDA. If you’re buying organic, there are specific guidelines for that labeling, as well.
Flour: Unbleached. Always. I’m a big fan of King Arthur for taste and all-around results, but I also go with locally ground flours to reduce packaging and transportation costs.
Black Pepper: Buy peppercorns and grind them fresh. Anything else is just black dirt.
Salt: Depends on what I’m making. I’ll usually reach for kosher salt: I can use less of it for more salt flavor, I can easily see how much salt is going into what I’m making, and I can use it for pickling, since it doesn’t have anything in it (like iodine) that might give my pickled products weird colors or off-flavors. If I need fine salt, I’ll use sea salt, generally. I’m not against iodized salt, for the most part – I just prefer the flavor and visibility of other types.
Spices: I have jars of pre-ground spices for convenience. But there is a huge difference between the flavors of pre-ground and freshly ground spices. I’ll liken it to having your favorite beverage of choice, and then having someone add a cup of water to that beverage of choice – the flavor is still there, but it’s loads better whole. Freshly ground nutmeg changed my life, is all I’m saying.
Vanilla: This depends on what I’m making. If I’m baking with it, I don’t bother with anything expensive or fancy – imitation vanilla (yep, the kind that comes in big bottles for a dollar) works just fine, since the high temperatures needed for baking eliminate any nuance of flavor from fancier vanillas. If, however, I’m making something that highlights vanilla flavor without high temperatures – say, ice cream, marshmallows, or candies – I’m going to go with the real deal: vanilla beans, pure vanilla extract, you get the picture.
Check back for updates!