When you first begin low-carbing, it can seem a daunting task to prepare your kitchen with Basic Low-Carb Staples. Not only do you have to divest yourself of all those high carbohydrate staples in the pantry and fridge, but you’ll quickly discover that many of the more interesting recipes call for ingredients you’ve never heard of! Xanthan gum? Soy lecithin? Vital wheat gluten flour? Rice protein powder? How are you ever going to know which items you really need and which are so esoteric that they’ll take up space in your cupboards forevermore?
My first rule of thumb is to hang on to all your favorite seasonings, spices, herbs, and flavorings, and Read The Labels. Seasonings and flavorings should have nutrition information, and you can check the carbohydrate count before deciding whether to use, chuck, or save for special occasions. Unless a product is sugar-based (or corn syrup-based, which amounts to the same thing), you can probably use it at some point. Herbs and spices do not always carry nutrition information, but you can look them up in the USDA databaseor in one of the several carb-counter books available in bookstores.
Two of the “high carb” items you may want to keep around are sugar and blackstrap molasses. Sugar is most easily kept in the little packets that are one teaspoon each, and is indispensable if you plan on baking yeast breads. One teaspoon is ample for “working” the yeast, and the yeast will consume virtually all of the sugar as it works. Blackstrap molasses, while somewhat carby, is also a very strong flavoring agent. A teaspoon goes a long way – enough for a batch of 48 cookies or 8 servings of pumpkin casserole.
Now, before you rush out to buy things you’ve only read about, give some thought to the kinds of foods you “normally” choose to eat, the kinds of foods you consider yourself capable of preparing – in terms of time requirements as well as difficulty – and the amount of storage space you have available. I’m not kidding about storage space… I joke that I own at least one of every low carb item on the market (not quite true, but close), but if you come to my house you will see that I’ve had to install two large shelf units on the window seat in my dining room because I lack cupboard and pantry space in the kitchen!
So which special low-carb staples are the ones you really need?
- Vital Wheat Gluten Flour – Unless you are allergic to wheat, you will want to keep some of this on hand. Bob’s Red Mill is a good brand, but you can purchase any kind that has 6 grams of carbs per 1/4 cup after deducting fiber.
- Oat Flour – Not as carby as regular wheat flour, but you will still want to limit how much of it you use.
- Wheat Bran – This should be about 80% fiber. It’s good for adding to baked goods, pancakes, etc.
- Flaxseed Meal – Nearly 100% fiber… useful for baking, as a hot cereal with protein powder, and also good as a gummy thickener. Or buy whole flax seeds and grind in a coffee grinder. Keep flaxseed meal frozen or refrigerated.
- Artificial Sweetener – I prefer Splenda (sucralose), which is heat-stable and comes both in packets and a “granulated” form that can be measured like sugar. I also buy Sweet One (acesulfame potassium), Brown Sweet-N-Low (saccharine), and Brown Sugar Twin (saccharine in the U.S., cyclamates elsewhere).
- Pure Vanilla Extract – It’s a little carbier than the artificial vanilla stuff, but you also use less of it to get the same flavoring power. And it’s less chemical-y. Stock up on other flavor extracts according to your personal tastes, but a few good ones include maple, butter, banana, lemon, and chocolate.
- Expert Foods not/Starch – This blend of vegetable gum thickeners is exactly what you need for thickening sauces, gravies, and soups. It is not cheap, but a little bit goes a long way.
Those are the basics, but if you are planning to cook or bake specific items, you will need other specific ingredients. Here are a few more lists that may be useful:
For Low-Carb Baking:
- Baking Powder – whatever brand you used pre-LC should be fine.
- Whey Protein Powder – I like Designer Protein, and get the “natural” (unflavored) kind so I can add my own flavorings. Whatever brand you get, be sure it has no more than 2 to 3 grams of carbohydrates per serving; and if you are going to cook or bake with it, it should not contain aspartame.
- Sugar-Free Syrups – There are several brands out there — Atkins, DaVinci, Torani, Nature’s Flavors. Any of these should be fine, except you will want to avoid aspartame because it is not heat-stable. So read the labels. I recommend starting with just a few flavors that you really like. You can always add more later.
- Almond Flour – for cookies, cakes, pie crusts, and the like. I first found it at a local specialty market for over $8.00 a pound and bought a LOT of it, but next time I will order online, where it can be found in the range of $3.00 to $5.00 a pound.
- Soy Flour – Personally, I can’t stand the stuff, but many people swear by it.
- Low Carb Bake Mix – There are a number of brands out there, with Atkins being the most widely advertised. Most of them contain soy flour (see above). Most also include some kind of raising agent such as baking powder, similar to non-LC bake mixes.
- Cocoa – the unsweetened, powdered stuff.
- Parmesan Cheese – for making crackers, etc. I get both the fancy shreds and the powdery grated stuff. When buying the powdery stuff, check the carbohydrate count and the ingredient list to make sure it doesn’t have added sugars or starches. An anti-caking agent is okay.
- Expert Foods Cake-Ability – This is a very specialized item, and quite expensive, but works well for turning nut flours into a nice cake. Purchase it only if you’re really going to use it.
- No-Added-Sugar Fruit Spreads – Make nice fillings for low carb cookies. Look for brands with 2 grams carbohydrates per tablespoon. Watch out, because some of the “fruit only” spreads are sweetened with concentrated fruit juices and have up to 10 grams carbohydrates per tablespoon! If you want to make your own fruit spreads using fresh strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and so on, you will want to purchase:
- Expert Foods not/Sugar – a vegetable gum thickener that works particularly well in recipes where you’d normally use sugar as a thickening agent as well as a sweetener.
- Sure-Jell for Low-Sugar Recipes – or another pectin product that claims it will work with reduced-sugar recipes. Keep in mind that you will not be following the recipe on the package, which still claims that sugar is absolutely necessary to achieve the desired results.
If you have a hankering for homemade sugar-free ice cream
- Granulated Sorbitol or Granulated Maltitol – these polyols are not carbohydrate -free, but the carbs in them are not absorbed and digested like “regular” carbohydrates. Because of this, polyols are noted for producing gas and/or diarrhea when consumed in excess. “Excess” varies from person to person, so you will need to experiment for yourself. However, sugar-free ice cream made with artificial sweetener alone will freeze hard as a rock. Using half Splenda and half sorbitol produces ice cream that you can actually get a spoon into.
For Low-Carb candy-making:
- Unsweetened Baking Chocolate – which you will sweeten yourself.
- Liquid Lecithin – will give a nice gloss to your chocolate. A bottle will last you practically forever, unless you are in the commercial strawberry-dipping business.
Other specialty items that you may want to keep in your fridge and/or pantry include:
- Sugar-Free Pancake Syrup – There are several brands available, but look for one with 4 grams of carbohydrates or less per 1/4 cup serving. (Log Cabin Sugar Free is considerably higher carb than this.) Howard’s brand is one of the lowest in carbohydrates but contains aspartame. Atkins’ pancake syrup has purportedly 0 carbohydrates, but it is also very thin and runny. Vermont or Maple Grove Farms brand (they are the same syrup under different brand labels) has 4 grams of carbohydrates per 1/4 cup serving, relatively thick, and has a very good flavor.
- Sugar-Free Ketchup – If you like ketchup on your burger, Walden Farms makes a nice Splenda-sweetened one. There are other sugar-free ketchups out there, including one under the Atkins label.
- Barbecue Sauce – Here, more than anywhere, read the labels! Commercial BBQ sauces range from 6 grams of carbohydrates to over 20 grams of carbohydrates per two-tablespoon serving. Walden Farms sugar-free BBQ sauces are very good and claim to have 0 grams of carbohydrates per serving.
- Mustard – any kind of prepared mustard with no added sugar, corn syrup, or honey.
And let’s not forget the often-overlooked items that low-carbers should keep on hand:
- Mayonnaise – the real stuff, not “salad dressing”. Duke’s has no added sugar, but other common brands such as Hellman’s, Kraft, etc., are also fine for most people.
- Salad Dressings – Most bottled varieties with 1 to 2 grams of carbohydrates per 2-tablespoon serving should be okay. If you are especially sensitive to tiny amounts of sugar, or just can’t give up your Thousand Island, try the Walden Farms dressings.
- Butter – both salted and unsalted varieties.
- Oils – I like peanut or canola oil for frying, extra virgin olive oil for salads and flavoring. Corn oil should be avoided, as should anything hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated.
- Eggs – very fresh ones for frying and poaching, less fresh for hard-boiling. Extremely fresh eggs are difficult to shell after hard-boiling, so use week-old eggs if you’re planning on deviling them.
- Heavy Cream – If you can’t find, or afford, heavy cream or whipping cream, you can get half-and-half, but remember that it has 50% more carbohydrates (9.9 grams per cup as opposed to 6.6 grams for heavy whipping cream).
What else you keep in the house will depend largely on what you’re planning to cook. Read through low carb recipes, marking those you think you (and your family, if applicable) will enjoy. Check out what special ingredients they call for, and how those ingredients are used, before deciding if you want to buy something special or if you may be able to substitute something you have on hand. For example, you can use xanthan gum and guar gum pretty much interchangeably… or you can substitute not/Starch.
Above all, try not to convince yourself that you need to buy one (or more) of every low-carb product on the market. I’d send you out to buy shelf units for your window seat, but the store has gone out of business…
If you can’t find some of the low carbohydrate specialty products mentioned, check the CarbSmart web site for them.
Almond flour can be purchased online at: nuts4u.com