Intimidated by the spice and seasoning aisle at the supermarket? You’re not alone. It’s hard to tell what you really need and what (realistically) you’ll use once or twice on an exotic recipe, and end up throwing months later when mold starts growing in the bottle. (Ick.)
Here’s a list of spices and seasonings that many professional chefs keep on hand in their kitchens. These are versatile (and used in many different kinds of cuisines) and pack a lot of flavor.
1. Whole peppercorns
This is much better than pre-ground pepper. Try to get one that combines different kinds of pepper, which all have their own flavor. Together, they create a deeper kind of flavor—subtle, but trust us, you’ll know the difference when you taste the food.
2. Chili powder
Aside from adding a nice “kick” to the food, it has what some chefs describe as a “low, earthy bass note.” Uh, whatever. In any case, in small amounts it can add a hint of heat (nice for fried chicken or even your pasta sauce) and in large amounts… well, let’s just say that you might want to serve a cold pitcher of water with your food.
Fresh oregano is great, but it’s nice to have the ground stuff when it’s winter. Add to tomato sauces, dressings, and gravies. It’s also a common ingredient in spice rubs, used for grilling and roasts.
This is one of the easiest herbs to grow, or buy it fresh from the supermarket. Ground thyme pales in comparison. It’s great on stews and stocks, and is often used with chicken and fish dishes.
5. Bay leaves
Again, it’s best to buy this fresh. Dried bay leaves can work, but crush it in your hand before throwing into the pot to release its flavor. It’s used in making the classic bouquet garni and is frequently added to bring out the flavor of fish and vegetables. It is sometimes used in making custards!
6. Cinnamon sticks
While you can find ground cinnamon, the sticks lend a sweeter and more peppery dimension to a dish.
Most people think cinnamon is used for baking (like the famous cinammon bun) but the herb is often used in savory dishes especially in Asian and Middle-eastern cuisine. It can also enhance the flavor of tomato sauces. (Try adding a small pinch to your spaghetti sauce and you’ll understand what we’re saying.)
Home cooks will fall in love with this herb, which is great for roast chickens, baked potatoes, sauted vegetables, and even creams and soups. It is especially good at enhancing the flavor of tomato-based, egg-based, and citrusy-dishes, and is an essential component of herbes de provence.
This is essential for anyone who’s interested in Chinese cuisine. It’s got a flavor similar to licorice, and can really add a special touch to sauces, stir fries and roasts. It is used in making five-spice powder.It can also be used in place of anise (used in many Western dishes) which makes it a versatile addition to your spice rack.
9. Smoked paprika
Paprika should be part of everyone’s spice rack (it’s used in sauces, stews and casseroles—and is incredible when sprinkled on potato salad!). However, smoked paprika takes it to a whole different dimension entirely. It adds a little kick or heat, but has an oak-smoked aroma.
Used in Asian (especially Thai and Malaysian) cuisine, as well as Italian and Mediterranean. Fresh is best. You can add the leaves to salad, grind it into a pesto sauce, steam it with fish, or add to an Oriental stir-fry. However, dried basil is much better than being caught without any! Add to pasta sauces or spice rubs for grilled or roasted meat.
You should also have, on hand, garlic powder, onion powder, and sea salt or kosher salt. While no self-respecting cook would be caught dead without fresh garlic and onion, the powdered versions are great for spice rubs and marinades, or for “fixing” a dish when you realize that you didn’t sauté enough. Sea salt or kosher salt, while not technically a spice, helps bring out all the other flavors of the dish.
It’s also important to mention that this spice list is by no means complete, and you probably have your own pantry favorites that weren’t mentioned here. For example, turmeric and cumin are amazing spices that are absolutely essential for Eastern and Oriental cuisine—but they won’t see much action if you tend to cook “Americana” most of the time. If you do buy those spices, look for small sachets rather than big bottles. Spices tend to lose their potency over time—which is why, for the “regular” cook, this top 10 list is the most practical. You know you’ll use it somehow, and can substitute it for other herbs in a recipe (like rosemary instead of sage).