Dorm Cooking 101: The basics

Dorm cooking is famously difficult. Limited access to kitchen space and lack of room to store ingredients can make planning and executing anything outside of a microwavable meal a chore. Often those kinds of meals are full of empty calories, not to mention things that may not necessarily be good for you, including high sodium or additives like MSG.
There are some things you can have on hand, however, that can make preparing simple meals in your dorm room much easier. A microwave rice cooker can double to cook pasta in a pinch,, and a can of simple tomato sauce can easily be dressed up with a few key spices or a bit of grated cheese.
Some basic equipment to keep on hand in your room, if you have a shared kitchen space but not a private one, are a microwave rice cooker, a microwave steamer and basic cooking utensils, such as a good spatula and a set of wooden spoons, and maybe one or two good knives.
A coffee pot can also be invaluable if boiling water is needed. A good 2-quart pot, a 10-inch skillet and a couple of oven trays or pans can go a long way if you do have access to a stove and oven.
Another way to help improve a cheap cup of ramen (aside from cracking an egg into it) is to keep low-sodium broth cubes handy, and make your own seasoning. There are certain spices that every good cook should keep on hand that can be used to make a plain meal into something very nice. Below are what I always have in my spice rack:
Aside from basics like salt, pepper and sugar, there are other spices such as basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary and dill weed, which are all great for adding a bit of oomph to a pasta sauce or a soup. They’re all versatile and blend well together, so it’s hard to make a mistake when using these, unless you use too much.
If you want to kick up a bit of heat, keeping paprika, chili powder, cayenne pepper or red pepper flakes around will give you what you’re craving. Red pepper flakes are especially nice if sprinkled over a hot pizza.
Garlic and onions are great to have at the ready, but keeping them fresh can be more difficult if you aren’t going to use them immediately. For this, we have garlic powder (NOT garlic salt) and minced/dried onions.
Although these spices might not give the desired texture of the original, they are still two versatile spices, and are often quite inexpensive and have long shelf lives. I will add here that grated cheeses are also a good idea. A can of quality parmesan can improve an otherwise mediocre tomato sauce or soup.
The last spices that are important to keep around are sweet spices: Cinnamon, vanilla (either as an extract or as sticks), mint and pumpkin pie spice. I also recommend keeping a good brand of chocolate syrup, a liquid sweetener like agave nectar and powdered milk.
Although it is unlikely that you’ll be doing a lot of baking in the dorms, if you are a fan of coffee, keeping flavor extracts and certain spices on hand can help you pull together a coffee beverage that will taste as good as a coffee shop drink for a lower price, and you’ll be able to customize it to your palate if you prefer a heavier dose of cinnamon, or don’t want quite as much sugar.
These are only basic spices. There are plenty more to choose from depending on what you want to cook, or what kind of flavors you prefer.
However, these will provide a solid base on which to build or improve dishes that you might be able to make in a dormitory kitchen area.

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