Spices and spice blends may not appear on many food pyramids, but eating would be pretty boring without them, plus many spices have associated health benefits. The home cook probably already has table salt and a pepper grinder, but here are some other ways to stock your spice rack and improve your home dining experience. Don't forget to use fresh herbs along with your dried spices for the best flavor bang for your buck. So, What Spices Should Every Kitchen Have?
Absolutely Essential for Every Kitchen, No Matter What
These are the two spices that are so useful not even the most committed of take-out devotees should do without them.
If you don't cook, you probably have little use for fresh cloves, but ground garlic, whether plain or mixed into a garlic salt or garlic powder and herbs mixtures, is the perfect addition to give any meal or snack a little more taste. You can put it in everything to create many savory dishes, from scrambled eggs to spaghetti sauces, on pizza, or on a piece of toast with melted cheese for a simple DIY garlic bread. If the leftover Chinese is seeming a little bland, just stir in a pinch of garlic and heat it. It goes with virtually every savory dish.
Similarly, ground cinnamon can add class to any sweet food. Put it in cookie dough, or sprinkle it on just before baking. Use it to top cakes, pies, or even just your bowl of ice cream. Mix it with sugar and sprinkle it on toast. Add a pinch to make your hot chocolate, tea, or coffee more interesting. You can put it on or in pancakes, with or without sugar, and it's one of the keys to excellent French toast. It can even be used as a flavor booster in sweet or fruit-based curries and other entrees.
Spices for the Occasional Cook
Here are a few additional different spices you might want to have on hand if you're cooking on a semi-regular basis, but prefer to stick to the basics.
For cookies, stir-fries, and everything in between. Ground ginger is a key ingredient in most curries, and you can make a simple, tasty sauce for cooked veggies by mixing soy sauce, sugar, and ginger. Ginger is a staple in Asian cuisines. Together with cinnamon and the next three spices, it forms the Holy Quintet of baking - the five spices that can be added to almost any baked dessert for instant deliciousness.
Nutmeg, Cloves, and Allspice
In addition to baking, these spices (plus cinnamon) are the essential elements of pumpkin pie spice (and work well in many fruit pies as well). Nutmeg and cloves are also great on eggnog, in curries, and mixed with a bit of paprika and ginger in mac and cheese sauce.
An exotic spice that is perfect for curries, stir-fries, soup, and chili. Personally, I like it in scrambled eggs.
Basil and Oregano
Whether you buy it dried or fresh, these two leafy spices are definitely required for top-quality meatloaf, spaghetti sauce, salad dressings, and most other Italian cuisine pasta sauces, as well as advanced spice-sprinkling on many of the same dishes you already learned to add garlic and onion powder too.
Really Cool Spices for Aspiring Gourmets
Finally, in this category, we have a few spices that I'm personally fond of for anyone who loves to cook but doesn't really know where to get started. (Hint: look through a few cookbooks for recipes that sound appealing, write down the required spices, and pick out the ones that appear frequently or in your favorite dishes.)
It's the final, Expert-Level addition to the foods you enjoy with garlic, basil, and oregano. If baking is your thing, these four go well together in bread and biscuits as well.
This is a great aromatic spice for desserts and baking. Shortbread, scones, and sugar cookies all benefit from a little pinch. Put a little bit on ice cream, in milkshakes, on eggnog, or in tea. (But be careful when you're buying to get it ground unless you really want to dig little chunks of spice out of their seed pods and grind them yourself.)
If you spend a lot of time cooking, you may prefer to use cinnamon sticks rather than the ground stuff in hot drinks, curries, and other dishes with enough water to let the flavor diffuse. Grittiness is greatly reduced, and cinnamon sticks are reusable, unlike ground cinnamon, which may run out quickly if you're using it frequently. And it can make any dessert look much more elegant for all those fancy dinner parties you're going to want to be throwing.
Spices to Use on Meats and BBQ
Most people, whether culinary-inclined or otherwise, know that no chef can go without salt or kosher salt and pepper in the cupboard. However, the world of herbs and spices goes far beyond these mainstays, and anyone seeking a richer, fuller meal-time experience will need to do so as well. In particular, there are a number of spices beyond salt and pepper and the popular variations of garlic and onion that lend themselves particularly well to creating dry rubs for meats and seafood. Who doesn't love crushed whole peppercorns on a filet Mignon?
Though some shy away from this piquant spice, chili powder is one of the most versatile spices on the shelf for making spicy foods spicy. Used in barbecue sauce, vinegar, marinades, rubs, soups, stews, and countless Indian and Mexican dishes, chili powder is a powdered form of hot chili peppers through which pepper and thus its potent heat can vary.
Chili powder commonly is made from cayenne pepper, New Mexico, ancho, pasilla, and/or jalapeno chilies. The most common is the ground ancho variety, composed 80 percent of pepper and mixed with garlic powder, oregano, and ground cumin. The spice works well with some red pepper flakes on a variety of meat dishes, such as chili con carne and is often used as a rub on fish, chicken, hamburgers, and steak.
Bay leaves, whether fresh or dried, are a mild yet versatile addition to meals. Used in soups, stews, tomato-based dishes, and braises, the fragrant Bay Laurel leaf is bitter when eaten whole, though considerably milder after drying. This aromatic leaf is one of the oldest spices in the world and is similar to thyme and oregano. It is a popular complement to roasted meats such as chicken, pork, ham, turkey, pot roast, and other cuts of beef. Bay leaves and mustard seeds are a great addition to pickling liquids.
Cumin is the dried seed used as a spice in Middle Eastern, Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese, Cuban, North African, and Indian cuisine. It has a somewhat bitter but warm taste and a distinct aroma. Cumin figures prominently in curry powder, a key ingredient in South Asian curries. As is the case when used in curry, adding cumin is a great way to compliment a variety of meats and meat dishes, such as spaghetti and other tomato sauces (especially when meat is a key ingredient of your Italian dishes), beef stew, meatloaf, chicken, lamb, fish, pork, sausage and a variety of soups and stews.
Marjoram is a slightly bitter and aromatic herb with a wood-like flavor. Ground versions are available, and you should exercise caution when using either this form or the whole leaves, as they can overwhelm a dish. Marjoram works well with lamb, seafood, chicken, turkey, and other poultry, in sauces and soups.
Let's head out to the grocery store and stock that spice cabinet!
With so many herbs and spices available it may be difficult to decide which one you want and which one is going to add the best taste to your meals. Certain combinations work better than others. Some can be used for drinks, desserts, meat, sauces, and vegetable dishes. Ginger for cakes and Asian dishes. Some for salads, chicken, egg dishes, sandwiches, and soups.
So, we've answered the question What Spices Should Every Kitchen Have? Storing your spices in a dark place will go a long way in extending their shelf life. Read more about storing spices in my article Storage Tip For Dried Herbs and Spices.