What is your favorite thing in the kitchen? What is the one item you could not cook without? Your food processor? Your blender? Your knives? For me, the answer is my spice cabinet. I love my collection of dried herbs and spices. When I open the cupboard and see all the bottles filled with pretty colors and get a whiff of all the different aromas, I’m in heaven. My creative juices start flowing and I can’t wait to cook up something flavorful and delicious. Even when I travel, I take along a small collection of dried herbs and spices so no matter where I am, I can create decadent dishes filled with spice and flavor.
Spices are essential to cooking. Salt and pepper are just not enough to enhance your recipes. Seasonings are aromatic and add complexity and depth to any dish. There are so many herbs and spices available. How do you know which ones to buy? Which ones will you use and which ones will end up sitting in your cabinet unused and gathering dust? In order to not waste money or cabinet space, use these guidelines to help stock your own spice cabinet.
1. Decide Your Style of Cooking
My spice collection is as personal to me as my clothes or jewelry. They represent my style of cooking, the flavors I love and yes, even my personality. I love hot spices, warm spices, exotic spices, comforting spices, and the fresh green notes of dried herbs. The cooking I do is mostly Italian, Spanish, and Asian. The spices you fill your cabinet with should be just as personal. There are some basics that every cook should have, but beyond that, decide what styles of cooking you do so you can buy the seasonings that will make the most of your time, space, money, and cooking.
2. Supply Basic Dried Herbs
Fresh herbs are amazing. Nothing smells as good as the grassy and floral notes of fresh herbs. If you can keep yourself in a steady supply of them, whether by buying them or growing them yourself, you should. Having a huge herb garden is a fantasy of mine. But fresh herbs may not always be available to you so it’s good to also keep your pantry stocked up with the most commonly used dried herbs. I always make sure to have dried versions of parsley, basil, thyme, oregano, rosemary, sage, dill, and bay leaves in my spice cabinet.
3. Consider Your Basics
Again, even the spices you consider basic is rather personal, but for me, these are the most common spices I come across in recipes. They are spices that are used in American as well as ethnic cooking. First of all, you should have kosher salt and sea salt. If you want, you can keep both fine and a coarse sea salt on hand. Whole black peppercorns and a good peppermill that lets you adjust the grind is also a must-have. You can keep a jar of ground black pepper in your cabinet but nothing tastes as good as fresh-cracked black pepper. The other spices I consider basics include garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, chile powder, turmeric, ground cinnamon, nutmeg, and ground ginger.
4. Decide on Ethnic Spices
The list of ethnic spices is really long. The first thing you need to do is decide which styles of cooking you plan to do. Each ethnic style has its own usual list of spices. If you plan on doing a lot of Italian cooking, stock up on red pepper flakes and fennel (in addition to the garlic powder, oregano, and basil already mentioned). Asian and Eastern cooking use a lot cumin, coriander, star anise, cardamom, mustard seeds, curry powder, garam masala, and one of my personal favorites, 5-Spice Powder. Spanish and Mexican cooking always have cumin (my very favorite spice), coriander, Mexican oregano, cayenne pepper, and chile powder. If you dabble in international cooking but don’t do it enough to warrant buying all these spices, look for spice blends. There are brands of all the different blends – Spanish, Italian, Cajun, Indian, Jerk, etc. – and it’s way less expensive (and easier) than making your own spice mixes. Try to find the blends that are salt-free. You can always add your own salt to your taste.
5. Buy Specialty Spices in Small Jars
If you are really into cooking and you want to experience the full range of flavors, there are spices I consider specialty ones. These are the spices I might use once in a while for specific recipes. Specialty spices include allspice, berebere, lemongrass, lemon pepper, marjoram, smoked paprika, sumac, white pepper, pink peppercorns, za’atar, and the most expensive spice in the world, saffron. There are also specialty salts such as pink salt, fleur de Sal, and Himalayan black salt (which adds an “eggy” aroma and flavor to dishes). Try to buy these types of spices that you will use less frequently in smaller jars so they don’t expire before you can use them up.
6. Remember Baking Spices
If you love to bake, it’s important to keep some basic baking spices on hand. The most common spices used in baking are cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and cream of tartar. Luckily, most of these spices are also used in savory dishes so even if you don’t bake often, you will get your money’s worth.
As you can see, there is a long list of herbs and spices that help make cooking irresistible. The prices can really add up. If you are buying spices you will use infrequently, buy the smallest size jar possible. If it’s a spice you will use daily, get the larger size. You can also buy spices in bulk online and at natural foods stores. It’s much less expensive this way and you can buy just the amount you need. If your recipe requires a teaspoon of fenugreek, you can buy just a teaspoon of fenugreek. Store your spices in glass jars and keep them in a cool, dark place away from the heat. Over time, spices get old and lose their vitality. Basically, a jar of spices is good for about 6 months. If the color of a spice appears dull or the aroma is weak, it may be time to replace it. It’s a good idea to get into the habit of smelling and tasting your spices to familiarize yourself with their scents and flavors.
In medieval times, spices were considered currency. It’s easy to see why. They add wonderful aromas, depth, and complexity to dishes. Having lots of ethnic spices brings the entire world right into your kitchen and onto your plates. Have fun stocking up your spice cabinet!
Lead image source: Using Herbs and Spices for Optimal Digestive Health