Six Must Have Ingredients

The Classic Cooking Pantry Guide.

Interested in whipping up some recipes from an antique cookbook passed down through the family? Or maybe you’ve discovered an old cookbook collecting dust in the corner of a thrift store? Trying out recipes from the past is a great way to spend an afternoon. Before you get started, here are some ingredients you’ll find useful to have on hand.


I know what you’re thinking: Omelettes! Yum! Which can be served at any time of the day. Versatile, plentiful, nutritious – eggs are a must-have in any kitchen. Unsurprisingly, recipes for baked goods often call for eggs, but some recipes need very large quantities of eggs. It’s not uncommon to see a cake recipe that calls for 1 dozen eggs, or 1 dozen egg whites. Eggs were also used in savory puddings and sweet puddings alike.

Yes. Eggs were convenient additions to any meal. A common practice in classic cookbooks calls for eggs as a garnish. Roasts would be garnished with sliced hard boiled eggs around the serving dish. Soups would be served with hard boiled eggs on the bottom of the tureen. Eggs are everywhere! Egg sandwich, anyone? Or how about poached eggs in tomato cups?

At this point, I’m fairly comfortable making pudding or custard dishes that call for large quantities of eggs to use up extras. We can go through 2 dozen a week, easily – and my instincts tell me that would have been on the very low end for a family in the 1700 or 1800s.


The world didn’t know about polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Heck. I’m not even sure if I’m clear on the two and I consider myself semi-well-read. What the home cook knew, however, was that fat and grease were essential to cooking. This might come in the form of animal fat that’s been rendered, or just as likely butter. Fat was necessary for pastries and breads, frying, and gravies. Think of all of the foods that use olive oil or vegetable oil today. The homemaker would have kept a supply of fat readily available to help prepare her meals!

Antique cookbook Cover


The spice nutmeg rarely makes an appearance in modern American cooking, unless it’s for pumpkin pie. 150 years ago, however, this little nut could be found in recipes ranging from cakes, to savory meat dishes, to custards. Many recipes call for ‘a small nutmeg’ or a ‘whole nutmeg’. Besides adding a rich layer of flavor to your dish, they spice up your kitchen and make it smell like the holidays!

Whole nutmegs can be expensive, but I gotta say, freshly ground nutmeg is something of a treat. Look for them to be on sale in November/December. Of course, you can use pre-ground nutmeg, but there really is no comparison between the two.

Mace also shows up in recipes. Don’t have any mace? Not to worry! Substitute the mace with nutmeg. This more expensive spice is less common in the spice aisle, and much more potent than nutmeg. A little mace will go a long way! One good practice is to taste the recipe as you’re adding the mace so as not to overpower things.

Nutmegs. Very handy.

Dried Fruits.

Fresh fruits are wonderful, and while pies, cobblers, and ices often use fresh fruits, dried fruits are far more common. And of those dried fruits, raisins and currants seem to enjoy a special status. Cakes, breads, puddings, and even homemade wines call for raisins.

Using dried fruits would have been something of the chore. Recipes instruct the cook to to sort through the fruit, remove all of the stems and seeds, and then to chop it all up. Recipes can call for several pounds of dried fruit, which makes buying it in bulk a wise move. Time to roll up those sleeves, pull out the big knife, and put on some salsa music!

The dried zest of citrus – oranges and lemons – will be helpful when making cordials, fruit punches, or icings.

Soyer's Shilling Cookery for the People CoverSugar.

You may think of sugar as an ingredient used primarily for your baked goods. After all, every cookie, cake, and bread recipe calls for some amount of sugar. Sugar makes an appearance in a range of cooking recipes, however. This staple can be used to make simple syrups for fruit drinks, preserving fruits for canning, wine making, frostings, confections, and more! You’ll want powdered, or confectioner’s sugar, brown sugar, and white sugar. The best time to stock up on sugar is around the holidays here in the States. You can take advantage of sales on bulk sugar and keep it in the pantry to use throughout the year.

How much sugar do you need?

I go through quite a bit, primarily to support my wine-making hobby. A classic fruit wine recipe could easily call for 10 lbs of sugar for a 5 gallon recipe. Sugar = useful.


Obviously, flour plays a central role in classic English and American cooking. Breads being the main focus. However, flour was used for frying and to thicken soups and gravies as well. A wonderful technique was to take a spoonful of butter rolled in flour and then to dissolve it all in the soup or gravy by swirling the spoon around. This served as an instant thickener along with a neat trick to add that layer of umami richness. I don’t typically use flour as a thickener for soups because we are gluten free, but I will absolutely add a couple of tablespoons of butter to a soup if it seems to be lacking body.

  • What are some of your go-to pantry ingredients that wind up in many different kinds of recipes?

More Fun Discoveries from Antique Cookbooks

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