Entertaining Essentials: What you need in your pantry

No matter what you're serving over the holidays, you'll likely need to stock these basics in your pantry.

 Salt and pepper. Use kosher salt for seasoning while you cook; have table salt handy for guests to season their own dishes. Table salt should also be used for baking. Buy whole peppercorns and a pepper grinder; the flavor difference with freshly ground pepper is worth the extra effort.

 Chicken or vegetable stock or broth. Buy stock in resealable boxes, which are more convenient than cans.

 Lemons and limes. Perk up seafood, vegetables and salads with a squeeze of lemon; serve cocktails with a wedge of lemon or lime.

 Fresh garlic. There's no substitute for the flavor of fresh garlic, so skip the jarred cloves and always keep a bulb on hand.

 Onions and shallots. Many of your recipes this season will call for these ingredients. Store in a cool, dry place to ward off spoilage. Keep them away from potatoes, which can also speed up the spoiling process.

 Cornstarch. If your gravy is too thin, a little cornstarch will easily thicken it in just a few seconds.

 Good-quality olive oil. Re-create the restaurant experience by letting guests dip bread into small bowls of olive oil. You can whisk olive oil with vinegar to create a quick salad dressing; or, drizzle over roasted vegetables just before serving.

 Vegetable oil. This healthy oil is perfect for cooking; you can heat it to a higher temperature than olive oil.

 Balsamic vinegar. Whisk with olive oil and season with salt and pepper for the easiest salad dressing ever.

 Mustard. This versatile condiment pairs well with roast beef or sausages; you can also use it as a dipping sauce for crackers or pretzels.

 Roasted almonds or spicy nuts. Set out bowls of nuts for an instant hors d'oeuvre when guests drop by.

 Crackers. Keep an assortment of crackers on hand to serve with cheese or for dipping into sauces.

 Jars of salsa, tapenade or other dips. Always have these in your pantry for an instant party snack; spread on bread or crackers, or dip chips or raw vegetables.

 Cocktail sauce. Serve with thawed, pre-cooked shrimp you store in your freezer when you need to entertain in a flash.

 Box of chocolates. You don't need to buy anything fancy; add an elegant touch to any gathering by arranging a few chocolates on a pretty plate to serve with coffee or Champagne.

 Store-bought cookies. Buy elegant-looking butter cookies, shortbread or tuiles in case you're ever in a jam for dessert. They can be served on their own, or with a bowl of ice cream or whipped cream.

 Canned pumpkin puree. You'll probably be making a pumpkin-themed dessert for Thanksgiving, so make sure you have this essential ingredient.

 Can of cranberry sauce. It never hurts to keep this in the pantry in case you run out, have a cooking disaster, or forget to make it entirely.

 Can of gravy. See above.

 Spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger. You'll reach for these spices again and again for both sweet and savory dishes during the holidays.

 Vanilla and almond extracts. Buy the real thing—not flavored imitations—to make your baked goods taste their best.

 All-purpose flour. Store in a sealed container or tightly wrapped in order to preserve freshness. You can also store in the refrigerator.

 Granulated sugar and brown sugar. Store tightly covered in a dry place; make sure brown sugar is in an airtight container to prevent moisture loss.

 Powdered sugar. You'll need this for cookie icings and cake frostings. You can also dust over plain cakes and cookies to dress them up.

 Baking powder and baking soda. Baking soda has an indefinite shelf life, while baking powder will last for 6 - 12 months.

 Coffee and tea. It's always a nice gesture to offer guests coffee or tea at the end of a meal.

 Hot chocolate and marshmallows. This is a festive drink for both kids and grown-ups alike at any holiday gathering. Splurge on quality hot chocolate and use real milk for a decadent experience.

More holiday entertaining essentials:
Decorations for your holiday party
What you need in your linen closet
What you need in your cabinets
What you need in your refrigerator

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