As my kids have and are? transitioned on to adulthood, what spices and herbs they should have in their kitchen, the Essential Herbs & Spices, comes up a surprising number of times. And not just with my kids, but with their friends, too. Many don’t cook much, but get settled into their own places and realize they have to start doing some cooking at home or their budgets don’t stretch too far. At the same time, they don’t know what they need to have around at home to start – and have minimal to no budget to work with.
Then they start looking online and find great charts and explanations of the various herbs and spices, but that doesn’t tell them just what they want to know. How to determine what to buy for the simple dishes they know how to make and ones they might want to make.
There are lists out there. One on “Real Simple” of 20 essential spices included Cream of Tarter and Whole Nutmeg, but I’d hate to see a couple of kids making minimum wage, determined to try to cook at home run out and use that list. Unless they are planning on making a lemon meringue pie in the near future or have a burning desire to grate whole nutmeg over something. I’m not picking on Real Simple. There were all kinds of these lists!
So here’s a list of Essential Spices & Herb, starting with the basics; I call it the Down & Dirty List. Then in steps in the second tier. That’s your Expansion Pack! From there, pick up specialty spices as needed. Those are like your extra power. Then take a look at Spice & Herb blends. Having mixes like that are kind of like your energy packs. You can sprinkle that $^&# on everything & save a lot of time.
Down and Dirty Basics of the Essential Herbs & Spices:
Salt: Start with basic table salt, and think about others after you’ve stocked your essentials. Sea salt is used to add a finishing sprinkle on top of dishes where you wish to have “sparks” of flavor. Kosher salt can be added if you wish to brine things like pork chops, chicken or turkey, although table salt is fine for short brines. Morton has a great conversion chart to substitute one kind of salt for another.
Pepper: Buy a basic box type pepper, and add a pepper grinder and peppercorns when able, after you’re done stocking your essential spices. I still use both and frankly if a recipe calls for a teaspoon of pepper, I don’t have the patience to grind forever! Pepper can be cracked or ground in a number of ways (see below for photo) and there are also small plastic grinders at the store filled with pepper (and some other spices) and they’re handy but pricey and often not refillable.
Garlic Salt or Powder: Chefs will generally stay away from garlic powder or garlic salt, but many recipes call for one or the other. So yes, it may be a “looked down upon” ingredient in culinary circles, but it’s great to have on hand for all those recipes and adding into soups, chilis, burgers, any barbecue type rubs or other recipes that need a garlic kick. If I’m not using fresh garlic, I just use a little garlic powder and a bit of salt. No brainer. That way I have my garlic powder on hand to use as I wish without worrying about the salt content. 1/8 teaspoon of garlic powder = 1 small clove garlic is about 1/2 teaspoon of garlic salt (but that garlic salt will have about 3/8ths teaspoon of salt in it.)
Onion Powder: Not only can it be used for onion in a pinch in many recipes, but many older recipes also call for onion powder. A seasoned cook may just use onion, but frankly, cooks starting out may not to want to bother and a young, budding cook may not always have onion on hand or great knife skills. I also use onion powder a lot in my own spice and herb blends. One medium onion is about a teaspoon of onion powder.
Thyme: One of the most common herbs, sometimes I think it is almost overused, but you can count on thyme to bring it for an amazing number of dishes. I’d guess that Thyme is probably the most used herb on the Food Network. Use it in blends, soups, casseroles, stews, salad dressings, spice and herb rubs and blends, pan sauces, gravies. It goes well with chicken, fish, pork, and beef, and is used in many types of cuisine.
Oregano: Commonly used in recipes, Oregano is probably most famous in Greek cooking. You’ll find Oregano in Mediterranean, and Eastern European dishes and it’s is pretty much essential in many Italian dishes as well as Mexican dishes (where it is used as a substitute for Mexican Oregano) as well as in herb blends for barbecue or Cajun dishes.
Basil: Used in my kitchen mostly in Italian dishes and soups, Basil finds itself in a lot of dishes and casseroles, often paired with tomatoes. You’ll see it in Italian and Mediterranean cuisine as well as in many American dishes. Fresh Basil has become extremely popular lately, and dried is not always a good substitute. If fresh is an essential part of the dish, like in a Pesto, or is used because it’s leaves are adding a fresh ingredient to the recipe, you’re better off fresh, but when it is an ingredient “inside” the recipe, like in a soup or sauce, dried is perfectly fine.
Rosemary: Used in my kitchen mostly in Italian and European dishes and soups, sometimes in salad dressings. Rosemary can be very strong and doesn’t appeal to everyone, so be careful, especially when rosemary is brand new. It’s a hard herb, dried, and I usually crush it a bit before I add it to anything.
Chili Powder: Essential to have on hand for Chili, but also goes in a number of other dishes to add a bit of heat, including some Mexican or Southwestern foods, casseroles, sloppy Joes, noodle dishes. Basic chili powder is a blend and usually contains other ingredients. Those interested in specific cuisines may like to branch out and buy certain chili powders as they are able, which are generally one specific chili dried, toasted and ground (or make their own) but a new cook starting out should buy the basic, grocery store chili because that’s what is called for in most of the recipes out there.
Cumin: A must have for Chili and for Mexican or Southwestern foods, but also used in recipes that are grilled, barbecued or those recipes that are supposed to be (like barbecue recipes done in a crockpot) as well as in Indian, Asian and Eastern European foods. Cumin may not be used as much as some of the other spices, but there is no substitute and a dish may be really lacking in that certain “something” without it. Cumin is included in a lot of spice blends and rubs, too.
Red Pepper Flakes: Yes, those little packets that come with Pizza. Used in many recipes, it can add heat or just a bit of elusive flavor. You’ll find just a pinch of it in many American type casseroles and dishes as well as in Mexican, Italian and Asian dishes. It’s a great substitute to have on hand when a recipe calls for a particular pepper and you don’t have it on hand, but need to bring a bit of heat to a dish.
Cayenne Pepper: Ubiquitously used in a number of dishes, often in small amounts to bring flavor rather than heat, it’s also essential to many recipes when heat is wanted. Cayenne is another spice that is often used in blends and is found in a number of cuisines, from Mexican and Southwestern dishes, Cajun, Barbecue recipes, some Indian recipes as well as many soups, casseroles, noodle dishes, hamburger dishes, etc. A lot makes something hot and the little adds just a faint, elusive touch; a little sumpin’ sumpin’.
Paprika: You’ll probably want basic, grocery store paprika and smoked paprika in your cupboard. The grocery store Paprika is what is usually called for in spice and herb blends & barbecue rubs and many basic old school recipes like chili. Smoked paprika is a trending item for many recipes and is often used in place of regular paprika in blends and barbecued items.
There are recipes in which certain types of “specialty” Paprikas are used, mostly Eastern European and Spanish recipes. If you’re using a recipe like that, for best results, make sure to get the right Paprika. They vary in flavor and heat level.
A lot of basic American recipes call for Paprika, and in a lot of those recipes, it’s not really essential. For decades it was standard practice to sprinkle Paprika over food items, and if the paprika is called for just for that purpose, it can be pretty much ignored.
Second Tier of Essential Herbs & Spices:
Bay Leaves: Most often used in all kinds of slow-cooked dishes and braises, like soups, stews, chilis. Sometimes, even I’m not sure if they make much of a difference…and in an absolute pinch can often be left out, which is why I’ve moved this usually ‘essential’ herb into the second tier. There is a difference between Turkish and California Bay leaves. Unless you’re a purist when you’re first starting out and just want to cook, go for the larger packets of leaves at the grocery store and put them in a glass jar.
Celery Salt and/or Seed: Often used in casseroles, salad dressings (think cole-slaw,) celery seed is called for now and then and celery salt more often. I keep the seed on hand, and crush it into a powder and use it instead of celery salt when celery salt is called for. That way, I can control the salt content and not have to buy and store an extra product. I also generally saute up my own celery for recipes rather than using celery salt. Celery salt is probably most famous for lining the rim of a Bloody Mary glass.
Cinnamon: Essential for Cinnamon toast, mix Cinnamon and Sugar rather than buying! Also used in a lot of baking recipes, hot mulled tea, and wine, it’s also used in Indian cooking and some Mediterranean cuisines, as well as others. Most recipes call for plain old powdered cinnamon, although now and then one will call for stick cinnamon, so while doing the initial stocking, buy the powdered. Add the cinnamon sticks when you decide to make a recipe that calls for them. (They can be found at great prices at craft shops, of all places, around Christmas.)
Curry Powder: Can be used in simple, basic cooking to add curry flavor to a dish or casserole, with the explosion of recipes easily available in the last few years, there are many other options, like making your own, bought curry pastes, etc. If you’re leaning toward Indian or Asian cuisines, it’s well worth investigating other options as your skills grow. If you just wish to throw together a simple curry now and then or use curry in a casserole (it pairs very well with egg dishes, like egg salad and many chicken dishes) or another recipe, curry powder can be a great item to have on hand.
Ginger: Used in baking, it also shows up in many Asian dishes and other cuisines. While I keep it on hand in its powdered form for baking and quick, throw together dishes, I usually buy Ginger root for cooking and keep it in my freezer. If you’re interested in cooking Asian food, it is very worthwhile to use fresh.
Mustard Powder or Seeds: A key ingredient in many dressings, for salads or cole-slaws, mustard powder also used in barbecue dishes, rubs and blends. Mustard powder is often overlooked and underutilized, and it’s one of those things that you might not “get” until you taste it in a recipe. Seeds are often used in Indian cooking.
Vanilla: If you bake, almost every recipe for a dessert of any kind will call for vanilla. It’s considered as an essential flavor in many vanilla recipes (like vanilla pudding) but is also used in many other recipes not so much for its flavor on its own but how the flavor combines in a recipe with the other ingredients. Vanilla extract is the basic, although vanilla comes in other forms like vanilla paste or beans.
Spice Blends & Flavor Packets to Think About:
A great many blends can be bought or made and I have a whole menu of Homemade Spice Blends. If you’re not to the point where you wish to make yours, it might be worthwhile to have a few on hand. A few spice blends are pointless to buy, they are so easy to toss together. Here’s a couple worth discussing:
- Cajun: Great to spice up fish, chicken, pork or steak, sprinkle on potatoes like oven fries or fried potatoes.
- Curry: discussed above
- Montreal Steak Blend: A great ingredient for sprinkling over hamburgers or steak.
- Pie Spices: Things like pumpkin or apple pie spices are easily made at home.
- Poultry Seasoning: Very easy to make and often seldom used; many cooks pull this out once a year at the holidays. Make your own.
- Seasoning Salt: This can be prinkled it on all kinds of things, sometimes very inventive ways. It’s a generic item for using on just about everything that needs a little something extra. Check my homemade blends (linked above) to make your own.
- Taco, Chili and Fajita type seasoning packets: I usually just whip up my own; they are almost always some blend of Chili powder, paprika, salt, pepper, and maybe oregano.
One of my favorite cooking sites is Cook’s Thesaurus, and not just for spices (which are included under their ‘flavorings” tab, but for all kinds of cooking questions.) They have a great section on making your own spice blends.
Branching out Beyond Essential Herbs & Spices:
As your cooking becomes more sophisticated and you’ve got all the basics and a few extras, you’ll notice that certain cuisines rely on some basic spices you have and some specialty spices you don’t. You’ll also notice that there is an amazing amount of overlap in different cuisines.
If you start to think geographically and know a bit about history, it’s easy to see how spices and herbs (and the dishes made from them) started out in one area of the globe and spread across countries and continents, a process that is still happening today.
You may find yourself wondering if it’s worthwhile spending money on a spice or herb for just one recipe. Look it up, and you may very well find all kinds of recipes that call for it. If you’re thinking of buying Fennel, for instance for an Italian dish, you’ll realize that Fennel is used in many different types of cuisines, often clustered around Italy; Indian, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and on to Asia. If you like that kind of food, go for it.
When an “obscure” spice is called for that you’ve never used before and you’re not sure how often you may use it, consider either:
- Buying a small amount, just what you need from the bulk aisle is your store has one.
- Buying it in a whole form Most spices and herbs keep well for years if in seed or pod form and can be grated, crushed or blended as needed. You don’t need a spice grinder. Just toss in a blender and pulse, use a mortar and pestle, or placed in a pan (to contain them) crush with another pan or heavy object.
Here’s an example of peppercorns crushed using different methods. Of course, you can crush or blend them as finely as you’d like.
Think of the Essential Herbs & Spices as an Investment:
Lucking, the most basic Essential Herbs & Spices are all inexpensive ones. Picking them up might be a bit of an investment, though, especially if you’re starting from scratch.
As you start to think of spices being an investment, think about it this way: paying a few dollars for a spice or herb may be an initial outlay, but it will enable you to make the foods you love at home. While it may be easy to “balk” at the price of herbs and spices, a few dollars on a spice or herb is usually money well spent.
- You’ll be likely to use herbs or spices over and over for a certain recipe, and for many others.
- You’ll be able to make a dish that you may spend more money on if you had it while eating out.
- You’ll very likely be able to control and customize your flavors to your own taste.
- You’ll be able to conveniently cook with a well-stocked cupboard.
Personally, I love the idea of seeing a recipe online or tv, and stepping into my kitchen and making it. I couldn’t do that if I didn’t have a well-stocked spice cupboard.
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