I’ve discussed before about how important it is for the home cook to have a well-stocked spice cabinet. By having an array of seasonings on hand, any dish can become tastier, which allows you to rely less on prepackaged food and encourages you to cook a variety of dishes. With a few choice herbs and spices, inexpensive cuts of meat become delicious roasts, vegetables become the star of a dish and cultural cuisines become a shake away.
Stocking a selection of seasonings, however, doesn’t happen overnight. While you can always purchase unique, exotic and lesser-used spices in bulk when you need them for specific dishes and while you can find many fresh herbs year-round in your grocery store, having a spice cabinet that you can turn to at any given moment is important for all home cooks. However, since containers of high quality herbs and spices can be relatively expensive, I don’t suggest buying a couple dozen when you’re first starting out.
Instead, beginning with ten essential herbs and spices allows you to grow your collection depending on what flavors and cuisines you enjoy the most while still maintaining a store of commonly used seasonings for any occasion. For instance, if you love Chinese food, then you may want to invest in five-spice and star anise in addition to ground ginger. Or, if Latin American fare is more your style, then cumin, dried cilantro and cayenne pepper would be a good investment. In any case, it doesn’t make sense to purchase a huge quantity of seasonings at first because if you don’t use them on a regular basis, they will likely go bad – which wastes money – or they’ll simply take up unnecessary space in your cupboard.
Below is a list of what I consider to be the ten most essential herbs and spices that all home cooks should have in their kitchen. Salt and pepper, by the way, aren’t on the list as I expect that everyone – even those of you who’ve never cooked before – have these lying around. Instead, you will find quintessential seasonings that can help you build a variety of flavors and explore numerous cuisines as a cook.
Like most Americans, I love Italian food, and oregano is a foundational herb in many Italian dishes. Whether sprinkled on pizza or mixed into pasta, oregano adds a fresh, herbal depth to any dish, and it’s great for balancing out strong flavors like garlic, roasted tomatoes or seared meat. When using dried oregano, make sure that you don’t use too much, though, as it can overpower subtler flavors. Also, I recommend rubbing it between your hands before use to help release the oils and bring out its aroma. Despite its prevalence in Italian cooking, oregano has a host of other applications as well. Oregano plays an important role in many other Mediterranean cuisines, and it is a great herb to have on hand when making Greek, Moroccan and Middle Eastern dishes. Kabobs, tagines and roasted eggplant for baba ghanoush all use oregano as a main ingredient. Finally, oregano makes a great seasoning for most roasted vegetables, and I always reach for it when cooking potatoes, carrots and bell peppers.
2) Red Pepper
Heat is an important component of many dishes, and red pepper flakes provide a versatile punch that goes great with virtually any cuisine. Although many people like to simply sprinkle red pepper flakes on top of a dish for an added zing, incorporating them into your cooking allows the spice to impart a richer and deeper flavor. When they are lightly toasted or cooked in oil first, red pepper flakes take on a bolder and sweeter taste, allowing them to spice up an entire dish and not just a single bite. One application for this vibrant spice that I particularly enjoy is to use them with greens. Any time I make a side of wilted kale or collards, I always add some red pepper flakes to my garlic and olive oil before I add in the chopped greens. This way, the flavors infuse into the oil – allowing it to coat the greens – imparting a bright note to a usually earthy and one-dimensional dish.
While basil, like oregano, might be synonymous with Italian cuisine for most Americans, this herb is a staple in numerous cultures. Although there are different varieties meant specifically for various cuisines, having a stock of dried basil – which is usually Italian basil – allows you to add an aromatic and herbaceous element to Thai, Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian dishes. Basil is an incredibly pungent and floral herb, but in its dried form it lacks much of its potency. Therefore, if you’re planning on adding dried basil to lasagna or pad Thai, make sure that you rub it between your hands first and always cook it into a dish for a significant amount of time. While fresh basil is always best, having a jar of this herb in its dried form allows you to enjoy its bright, sweet taste year-round, albeit in a much milder form.
Rosemary is the best friend to any roasted meat, and it is foundational for American, European and Mediterranean cuisines. While this herb often pops up in recipes in its fresh form – especially for roasted lamb and chicken dishes – dried rosemary has a variety of culinary uses as well. Like oregano and basil, one way to get the most out of your dried rosemary is to rub it between your hands or give it a rough chop before adding it to a dish. Additionally, if you’re putting dried rosemary in a marinade, allow it to sit in some olive oil for an hour or two before using it, as this will help the flavor infuse deeper into the food. Cooking your dried rosemary in oil before adding other ingredients to the pan is another great way to get the maximum flavor out of this aromatic herb. Due to its woody, evergreen taste and fragrance, rosemary is best used to balance out stronger flavors or add depth to an otherwise lackluster dish. Therefore, rosemary is a perfect accompaniment to mashed potatoes, infused butter, vinaigrettes and marinades, sautéed onions and quiches.
Turmeric often goes unrecognized in most pantries, although the yellow spice from this humble root has countless applications in the kitchen. While turmeric makes an excellent and inexpensive alternative to saffron in paellas, risottos and other dishes, it has a variety of uses in its own regard. Turmeric has a uniquely smoky and earthy taste reminiscent of roast chicken. As a result, it makes an excellent addition to most chicken dishes, and it helps to heighten the flavor intensity of stocks, soups, stews and roasts. Turmeric can also be a secret weapon in scrambles and omelets, as it adds a nice richness and robustness to unexciting eggs. Finally, as a cornerstone of Indian cuisine, turmeric plays an important role in various curry spice blends. Therefore, turmeric can be used in a variety of dishes that are often curried – like chicken salad, roasted cauliflower and lentils – even if you don’t have curry powder on hand.
Paprika is a must for any kitchen pantry as it features in numerous cuisines and is a staple of many American favorites, especially barbeque. Although its culinary roots are strongest in Eastern Europe – most famously in Hungary – paprika has become a mainstay of classic American cooking because of its smokiness and subtle spiciness, as well as its deep red color. Paprika is one of the most common ingredients in barbeque rubs, and it features heavily in other roasting and grilling spice blends such as blackening spice, seasoned salt and adobo seasoning. Furthermore, due to its prevalence in Spanish cuisine and the fact that capsaicin – the plant from which paprika is made – originates from the New World, paprika is an integral ingredient in many Latin American dishes. I always rub a generous amount of it onto pork shoulder when making carnitas, and I use it heavily when seasoning shrimp for tacos. While there are many different types of paprika that one can choose from – including sweet, hot and even smoked varieties – keeping a jar of the common form of this hearty red spice is absolutely essential for any home cook.
Although dried thyme might not be the most exciting herb in your pantry, chances are it will get used more than almost any other seasoning. Not only is thyme one of the most common herbs in Mediterranean cooking and the herbal backbone of za’atar seasoning, but it also has deep roots in English and French cuisine and is a foundational ingredient in herbes de Provence. As a result, it features prominently in many American favorites like roasted chicken, mashed potatoes and beef stew. However, thyme’s versatile and subtle flavor – with a taste reminiscent of both mint and pine – means that it can add aromatics and a hint of herbaceous freshness to almost any dish. I particularly like to use thyme in conjunction with meat, incorporating it into seasoned breading, sprinkling it over roasted lamb and adding it to the mix for meatballs, shepherd’s pie and meatloaf. However, thyme also goes exceptionally well with strong vegetables like mushrooms and asparagus, and it helps to balance out the acidity of lemon in marinades and vinaigrettes.
Most people associate cinnamon with baking and sweets: cinnamon rolls, cinnamon apple oatmeal, cinnamon and sugar; the list goes on and on. For this reason alone, cinnamon would make a great staple to keep in your spice collection. However, cinnamon has a host of other applications that make it a key seasoning in a variety of dishes. Although usually all you need is a pinch or two, cinnamon makes a great addition to strongly flavored meat dishes like chili, barbeque and pasta bolognese. In fact, Skyline Chili – the defining flavor of the Queen City’s favorite food – uses cinnamon in its historic recipe to the delight of every local chili lover. When storing ground cinnamon, it is important to keep in mind that it has a relatively short shelf life of around six months. Therefore, while it is an important part of any cook’s pantry, I recommend only investing in a small container of ground cinnamon unless you use it frequently.
Sage stands as one of the cornerstone herbs of European cooking writ large, and it can be found in recipes spanning dozens of cultures. Since it has a strong aromatic quality and a grassy taste, sage is often used to bolster the flavor of cooked vegetables and to balance out the heaviness of roasted meats, which is why it’s used frequently in stuffing. However, much like thyme, sage goes well in many different dishes, and is therefore a must-have staple in any pantry. One of my favorite uses for sage is to add it to ground Italian sausage to accentuate the fennel flavor and bridge the gap between the sausage’s flavor and that of the pasta sauce. Also, sage has a variety of applications in the kitchen as a way to balance sweet and savory flavors. As a result, it is an important ingredient in dishes like roasted apple and fennel or pork chops with pears. When looking for sage at the grocery store, you will likely see it in two forms: rubbed and ground. While either is fine to invest in, ground sage has a stronger flavor yet rubbed sage has a longer shelf life.
The final essential spice for any home cook’s pantry is ground ginger. Without ginger, most Asian and Indian recipes are incomplete, and therefore it is a necessity for the spice rack. Pungent and spicy ground ginger is often used to balance out sweet and savory flavors, and it is one of the key ingredients in Chinese five-spice. In American cuisine, ginger often accompanies soy in glazes for chicken and salmon, and it features in a few notable sweets like carrot cake, ginger ale and ginger snap cookies. Ginger is also an incredibly healthy spice – high in iron, magnesium, potassium, selenium, vitamin B6, vitamin E and manganese – giving it many medicinal properties. In addition to using it in recipes, I recommend adding it to green tea to ward off nausea and help fight colds.
As with any top ten list, a few notable contenders had to be left out. For instance, I didn’t include cilantro – although it is one of my favorite herbs – since I don’t expect the average person to do too much Hispanic and Vietnamese cooking, and I didn’t include parsley because its dried form lacks virtually all of its original flavor. Additionally, I avoided spice blends – especially my personal favorites: curry powder and Chinese five-spice – because I believe that individual spices should be invested in first. Finally, I hope that you will pay attention to what seasonings and cuisines you enjoy the most, as this will help guide you towards expanding your spice rack and growing your individual flavor palate.
As always, happy cooking!