How to: Purge your Pantry

In two months, I'm going to graduate from college. Great news indeed! However, it also means I'm going to be moving across the country. That means in the next two months, I need to whittle my pantry down to bare bones.

There are some things that I don't expect to finish (like my 25-pound bag of flour) but most of them were cost-effective nonetheless. (That 25-pound bag of flour cost the same as 2 5-lb bags of flour, and I've certainly used more than 10 pounds of it. Same goes for the 16 fl oz bottle of vanilla extract.)

There are a lot of other things that are odds and ends from care packages and study breaks, which were of no cost to me, but that I would still like to finish off.

There are also the odds and ends from various recipes, experiments and impulse shopping buys that I really ought to finish off, as well as some staple pantry items that I bought too much of.

The goal is to eliminate as many of these ingredients as possible without purchasing many new ingredients. I did something similar when I lived in my parents house this summer--to minimize our food budget, we tried to use as many of the things they had left in the pantry or freezer. Fortunately, the collection I have here is slightly less eclectic and should be a little bit easier to eliminate.

How to clean out your pantry:
1. Take stock of what you have.
This means getting out a clipboard, paper and pen and writing down what you have and how much of it you have. Include everything, even ketchup and mustard. While you're at it, toss anything that's expired. (Make mental note of what you've tossed and next time it's on sale, don't buy it.)
This is probably the most laborious step. Expect to spend 1-2 hours on it, 3 if you want to clean out the fridge and cabinets while you're at it.

2. Prioritize and sort.
This step is easiest to do on a computer in a program like Excel. That way, you can sort your list in a bunch of different ways.
First, as you type up your list, try to organize your list into sections. For example: spices, baking items, grains+starches, snacks, nuts+dried fruit, etc. Some things won't fit into categories, but do your best.
Second, you need to rank the items you have left. You should have two scales: difficulty to use and quantity remaining.
Some things are harder to get rid of: barley malt and cream of tartar for instance. Other things disappear remarkably quickly: butter, chocolate, cinnamon graham crackers. Rate things from 1 to 5 where 1 is really easy to use and 5 is very difficult to use. Consider things like cooking time, versatility and how much you like eating it. Don't consider how much you have or how much is left.
Your second ranking should be about quantity remaining. Of course, a tablespoon of cinnamon is very different than a tablespoon of flour or a tablespoon of butter. So try to think about how many 'servings' you have left of a given item. Rank things from 1 to 5, where 1 is very few servings and 5 is more servings that you think you can use.

3. Decide where you want to start.
I recommend starting with the most difficult things, because you may end up using some of the easy ingredients in the process. Order your list by difficulty to use and then by the amount you have left. (Excel will do this for you!!)

4. Plan recipes.
There are two types of recipes you need. First, you need some good "disposal" recipes, like oatmeal cookies or this pasta formula from goodLife{eats}. These are the types of recipes where you can just throw in a bunch of stuff from your pantry to get rid of it. To make this most effective, think ahead of time about ingredient combinations. For example, I know that chocolate and cranberry is a favorite.

Second, you need some ingredient specific recipes, especially for the stuff that's hard to get rid of. I have a lot of sesame seeds and malt, so I'm planning on making bagels (to use both) and sesame seed candies. Preferably, these are recipes that star some of your more difficult-to-use ingredients and don't use too many new ingredients. Try searching by ingredient on allrecipes.com, searching Google with a list of ingredients, or looking in the index of your favorite cookbooks for inspiration.

Having a list of your spices handy will also help you determine when you can just throw something into one of the recipes you're already planning to make. The other day, I added a bay leaf and chili flakes to my quinoa, beans and peas to add more flavor and help clean out my pantry.

5. Update your list!
This is probably the hardest part. Keep track of what you've used and what you have left. Update your list every time you cook something. You can also bring this list with you to the store so you don't accidentally buy something that you already have. (This is especially good for your spices!)

So far I've gotten rid of my sea salt, half of my quick oats, most of the dried cranberries, half of the shredded coconut, all of the brown short grain rice, and various portions of garlic, soy sauce, sesame seeds, olive oil, chili flakes, bay leaf, quinoa, canned beans and frozen peas.

What's the thing you always buy too much of? How do you plan to get rid of it? Let me know what you think and leave a comment or email me at piquantprose [at] gmail [dot] com. 

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