The spices you keep in your pantry can say so much about what you love to cook. Although, there are countless different spices and spice blends, so much that you couldn’t possibly have them all. The following are considered the most essential spices for an aspiring home cook or chef to keep in their pantry or kitchen ready for any occasion.
One of the easiest ways to tell herbs from spices is that herbs are raw and spices are dried. Another distinction is that herbs are best used fresh and are usually from the leaves of the plant. Whereas spices are usually made from the root, seed, bark, or fruits, mostly dried or dehydrated, and either ground up in powders or served crushed or whole.
So the differences really come down to which part of the plant is used and how it’s processed.
Although there are steps taken to preserve the spices, such as drying or dehydrating, they won’t last forever, especially if they aren’t stored airtight and out of the light. Even though you might see a bargain for bulk spices, it’s important to only buy enough for a few months to keep them at their most flavorsome.
Essential Spices For All Kitchens & Cooks
Cumin comes from the dried fruits Cuminum cyminum, found in Southwest Asia. It can be used in it’s whole seed form, often roasted first before use in rice dishes and curries. However, it’s applications go far beyond this, and it’s predominantly used in it’s powder form.
Cumin is a classic earthy spice, found in many spice blends from curry powders to chili powders. By itself, it can be used to provide a rich earthy spice, and is commonly used in mexican, or south asian dishes. Try it on eggs, with roasted vegetables, or on steak, you really can’t go wrong.
Paprika is dried and ground Capsicum annuum, which is red, bell, or chili peppers.
Paprika is a ground spice, coming from peppers in the same family as it’s sibling cayenne, only paprika is a lot less spicy. You can find sweet, hot, or smoked paprika. Sweet and hot paprika differ as they are ground with either sweeter, or spicier peppers. Smoked paprika is the ground powder from peppers that were smoked beforehand.
Definitely a humble spice, used in so many different cuisines and dishes. A favourite in many rubs and spice blends, for marinades, barbecue sauce, sausages, stir-fries you name it. Paprika is one of the spices I most often run out of, and it really is a great way to add a sweet, hot, or smokey base to your dish.
Turmeric comes from the rhizome (root) of the Curcuma longa, similar to ginger.
Turmeric is almost always used in its ground form and can be mellow and sweet in low doses, but pungent and spicy in higher doses. Plus, the vibrant orangy-yellow makes any food look more attractive. Although used extensively in Indian cuisine, it also has plenty of applications in other cuisines, for both meat and vegetables.
Keeping turmeric in the pantry will help you add a depth of flavor to your rice, soups, or curry dishes. All while providing that beautiful golden hue.
Chili as a spice comes from dried chili peppers, such as cayenne or red chilis.
Chilis are obviously known for their heat, and chili as a spice is no different. Although it comes in many forms, dehydrated, flakes, or powdered, they all have the same purpose. This is to add a kick of spice to your dish.
Usually, if you’re having crushed red chili flakes, they are most likely from cayenne peppers, which provides a distinctly spicy taste, ready to heat up any dish. Chili flakes are great at providing little hits of spice throughout the dish, as opposed to chili powder which just adds a consistent heat across the whole dish. They both have their advantages and applications, but both are a staple in any pantry of a spice lover.
Chili pairs wonderfully into most seasonings and rubs to provide that little bit of extra heat. I use it more often than now in my rubs for smoked meat, such as hickory smoked ribs, or as a mix in smoked brats.
Cinnamon comes from the bark of the inner layer of the Cinnamomum tree.
A fantastically sweet, woody, and slightly spicy spice. Although famously used for baking, cinnamon plays a huge part in savoury dishes too. You can use it in it’s bark form whole, or powdered.
The whole cinnamon bark is a great way to flavor something that cooks for a long period of time, or to add fragrance. This is observed a lot in many Indian dishes and is also a key ingredient in the spice blend Garam Masala.
Powdered cinnamon is popular in so many home-made favorites, like on donuts, oats, pastries, or pumpkin, the list goes on. You can even find it in some rubs, paired with the best woods for smoking brisket makes one tasty bark.
Bay Leaf is the whole dried leaf of the Bay laurel plant.
Bay leaf provides a unique, but subtle flavor that’s steps up the complexity and flavors of soups, stocks, sauces, or any slow cook. It provides a floral, slightly spicy, and herbaceous taste throughout.
The reason you want to fish the bay leaf out of your food before serving, isn’t because the leaf is harmful, it’s simply unpleasant in it’s flavor and tough dried leaf texture!
Oregano as a spice is dried and crushed leaves of the Oregano herb, from the same family as mint.
Fresh oregano is much more peppery and bitter, but when it’s dried and crushed, it provides a warm, slightly bitter, taste, and is much more mellow.
Oregano is highly popular in many Latin American or Mediterranean dishes, often seen over tomatoes, potatoes, meats, and seafood.
Ginger powder is made from the rhizome (root) of the Zingiber officinale, similar to turmeric.
Similar in its use to garlic powder, where ideally, you would use it fresh, chopped or crushed when seasoning your dish. The benefit of using ginger powder however, is that you can give that deep heat and gingery taste to an entire dish, even half-way through a cook if you want to add more of that flavor, rather than adding raw ginger in at that point.
It’s a staple you should keep, and substitute when you need that little extra kick in your stir-fry, salad, or anywhere you want a little throaty heat.
Clove is dried flower buds from the clove tree, or Syzygium aromaicum.
Cloves sit right next to the cinnamon and nutmeg, being great to add sweet and spicy touch in baking. But can go particularly well in seasonings and rubs, like when making a sweet hickory wood smoked pork butt.
Pepper is found in the fruits of the black pepper vine, Piper nigrum.
Although you can get peppercorns in various different colors and flavors, such as green, pink, or black, most actually come from the same plant, with the exception of Szechuan. It is always recommended to store fresh, whole peppercorns, and only grind them when you’re ready to add them to your cooking to make sure they’re at their zingiest.
Black peppercorns are the most common, providing a slight peppery heat and is easily one of the most versatile seasonings out there. They are also the strongest, compared to green, white or pink peppercorns.
Pink peppercorns come from a Brazilian pepper tree, which have a more sweet and citrusy pepper.
Szechuan actually comes from a completely different plant, and they have a unique lemony spice to them. Although the spice itself isn’t overpowering, the Szechuan peppercorns do provide a slight numbing sensation.
Garlic Powder is just dehydrated and finely ground garlic cloves.
When roasted, garlic possesses a nutty, slightly pungent, but mild flavor. Garlic powder is just finely ground, dehydrated garlic cloves. It provides a pretty similar flavor, but because it’s granulated, it tends to blend that flavor in with the whole dish, rather than being spread in little bits across the dish, when using crushed garlic. Not always an advantage, but it’s a great addition to the spice pantry for its famous flavor.
One teaspoon of garlic powder results in similar levels of garlic to about 2-3 cloves depending on your powder.
A secret to using garlic powder: If you’re ever midway through a cook and want to add garlic to the stir fry or to sauces, guacamole, or anything really, you can’t very easily add more raw crushed or fresh garlic. This is because you usually roast the garlic to bring out its flavor first, otherwise it can be quite pungent. Garlic powder is the perfect option here, as it spreads more evenly, it’s easily able to add the garlic flavor you want.
Mustard powder comes from the dried seeds of various mustard plants.
Mustard can be in both powders or seed form and provides a hot and sweet flavor. The seeds go specularly well with vinegar, which is why they are popularly paired in vinegar for a slaw or pickle with a depth of flavor.
In powder form, they help provide a more mellow spiciness than chili, and marry well into a dressing, glaze, sauce, or in soups or marinades. You can even try adding a bit of mustard into your flour mix when you’re next cooking fried chicken!
Nutmeg comes from the seed, mace, and seed covering of the nutmeg fruit from the Myristica fragrans tree.
Similar to clove or cinnamon, nutmeg is a great spice to use to jazz up your baking. It brings a nutty spice to the food, without actually making it spicy. Although nutmeg does come powdered, it’s much more potent and zingy when it’s kept whole, and only finely grated just before use.
Other Great Spices & Seasonings:
An intensely fragrant herb, pairing nicely with meats, tomatoes, beans, or with eggs. Using it fresh as a herb, you tend to add the whole sprig, whereas dry thyme is more often just the leaves as they hold the majority of the flavor.
Tarragon is a bitter and sweet, licorice-like spice mainly used in French cuisine. It is widely used in vinaigrettes and sauces, to compliment savoury poultry and fish.
Sage is well known for its earthy and herbal fragrance. Sage is often likened to a holiday flavor, as it’s most commonly found complimenting roast or smoked turkey or chicken. Especially if you pair it with your favourite wood for smoking turkey.
Saffron is the most expensive spice, as the process behind how it’s grown and harvested is intensely strenuous. The small red stigma can turn a whole dish a golden hue, and is usually added to paella or in other rice dishes.
The fragrant evergreen herb provides a piney and tea-like aroma, perfect when roasting potatoes, chicken, beef, steaks, fish, lamb, the list goes on and on. Although rosemary is greatly aromatic when it’s fresh, dried rosemary can be used as a supplement in stews or casseroles.
Basil is part of the mint family, and is rather versatile in the kitchen. It provides a sweet and aromatic flavor that goes excellent with tomato based sauces, such as for pasta, pizza, or soups, it’s great for salads or for garnish on savoury breakfasts.
Sourced from the inner seeds of the vanilla bean or as vanilla essence. It gives a unique sweetness. Mainly used in baking.
You can cook with either dill leaves or seeds, but cooking with leaves is more common. It brings a bright and sweet flavor, most commonly used to compliment fish, potatoes, or chicken.
The beautifully pungent star-shaped spice which is distinctly licorice. Commonly found in Chinese five spice, or in Indian or Thai cooking
Unlike the name suggests, allspice is actually powdered from a dried unripe brown berry of a tropical fruit tree. Similar to clove, or nutmeg, it’s primarily used in baking, as a spice to balance off the sweetness.
Cardamom is actually the seed pod of a similar plant as ginger. Often used whole in rice or curry dishes to release their slightly sweet flavors but they can also be powdered.
Most Popular Spice Blends
Five-spice powder is a fragrant blend, traditionally having cinnamon, star anise, fennel, pepper, and cloves. You can grind it in a blender yourself, or you can buy fresh powder. It’s normally used for complimenting braised or roasted meats.
Cajun is a savoury, spicy mix of various blends of spices. Usually, cajun will have a blend of onion, garlic, chili, salt, and peppers. Cajun makes for a kicker of a coating for fish, potatoes or poultry.
Most famously used in the recipe Jamaican jerk chicken, this spice blend includes a mix of onion, chili, ginger, clove, sugar, salt, cloves and allspice, with some blends containing a variety of other spices too.
Great for adding into any mix of meat for tacos, nachos, enchiladas, or other popular Mexican dishes. It’s predominantly cumin, onion, garlic, pepper, and paprika, but it can vary from blend to blend.
There are too many dry rubs to count, but everybody always has a favorite. It does depend on personal preference, cut of meat, and style of barbecue, but you’ll usually find a solid base of salt and pepper, sugar, onion, garlic, and chili.
You can really get creative.
Tips For A Spiced Up Kitchen
Keep Them Sealed
Just like any food, exposing spices to the air will make them lose their aromas and flavors. If you’re using containers, make sure they are always sealed tightly, and have as little air in them as possible.
Keep Them Stored
When storing your spices, make sure you have a nice dry spot that’s out of the direct sunlight. You’ll find your spices keep all their best qualities when they are stored properly, like in a pantry, draw, or cupboard. It can also be useful to have a spice rack to keep them organized and stored well.
Keep Them Fresh
Although spices may be safe to consume for years, generally you’ll find a lot of spices start to lose their aromatics and vibrant flavors after 3-12 months depending on the spice. You don’t need to go overboard, but when a spice stops smelling as fragrant it may be worthwhile replacing it.
Although you can get great value for money when buying in bulk, it’s best to consider how much you’ll need for a 3-6 month period, and buying smaller quantities to keep it at its freshest.