What Herbs and Spices do I Need?

As my kids have and are? transitioned on to adulthood, this subject of what spices and herbs they should have in their kitchen has come up a surprising number of times, both with my kids and their friends. Many don’t cook much, but get settled in to 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.

spice shop

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 dishes they don’t yet know how 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 plan 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 – I saw this kind of thing on a number of lists I checked.

While spices and herbs should be looked at as an “investment” and added to as needed, there are some that you will need over and over. And these may not be the same herbs and spices that great chefs or “foodies” (the people you might think to ask for advice from) use. Just like a great painter may mix his or her own paints from only the best supplies, a chef does the same; but when a painter is asked advice from a novice on equipment or supplies they’re likely to give simple advice on what to start out with and what they might want to work up to getting as they get more into painting. I think cooks should do the same.

So here’s my down and dirty basic list to start with, and a second tier of items that are great to have on hand. Branch out and up from there as you build your confidence and repertoire of dishes.

Down and Dirty Basics:

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, and there are also peppers sold in small plastic grinders at the store.

Garlic Salt or Powder – Chefs will generally stay away from garlic powder or salt, but many recipes call for garlic powder or salt – 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 or other recipes that need a bit of 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 (which for me is rubs and blends) without worrying about salt content.

Onion Powder – Not only can it be used for onion in a pinch in many recipes, many older recipes 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. I also use onion powder a lot in my own spice and herb blends.

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 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.

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 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 crock pot) 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 – A lot of basic American recipes call for Paprika, and in a lot of those recipes, it’s not really essential. For years 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. Paprika can be a bit confusing because 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 and some are smoked. If a recipe just says Paprika, get the standard, grocery store Paprika. The grocery store Paprika is what is usually called for in spice and herb blends.

 Second Tier:

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 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, dried is perfectly fine.

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 ‘essential’ spice 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.

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.

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 the Rosemary is brand new. It’s a hard herb, dried, and I usually crush it a bit before I add it to anything.

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 one might not realize until one tastes mustard powder in a recipe. Seeds are often used in Indian cooking.

Celery Salt and/or Seed – often used in casseroles, 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 a bit 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.

Blends – A great many blends can be bought or made. If you’re not to the point where you wish to make yours, it might be worthwhile to have a few on hand, and a few are pointless. 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, I’ve yet to crack the code.
  • 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: I personally don’t use it, but I do know a number of youngsters that swear by it and sprinkle it on all kinds of things in sometimes very inventive ways. It seems to be a rather generic item for using on just about everything that needs a little something extra.
  • 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 perhaps a bit of oregano.

Branching out:

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, 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.

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 buying it in a whole form – it can then be used whole in recipes when called for and you can crush or powder it if the recipe calls for ground. A fancy spice grinder isn’t needed – spices can be grated, crushed, or blended in the blender or food processor, with a mortar and pestle, or placed in a pan (to contain them) while they are crushed or ground with another pan or heavy object.

Here’s an example of crushing peppercorns, although if I wished for a powdered form, I would have just processed a little longer. The same principle applies to almost any whole spices. Most will last years in a dark cupboard while a spice bought already ground will deteriorate more rapidly. You may need to use less of a freshly ground spice than is called for in a recipe because it will likely taste stronger than a spice bought from the store, already ground.

From upper left, clockwise, pepper done with Blender, Mortar, Spice Grinder and Pan
From upper left, clockwise, pepper done with Blender, Mortar, Spice Grinder and Pan

 Investment:

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 may be much more well spent and well used than the same few dollars on any of the number of things we “waste” a few dollars on here and there:

  • You’ll be likely to use it 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 for 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 said item. I couldn’t do that if I didn’t have a well stocked spice cupboard.

By the way, one of my favorite cooking sites is the 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.

2 thoughts on “What Herbs and Spices do I Need?”

    1. Hey, Mark, good to hear from you.

      I think the “pat” answer is that most Americans are overweight and eat too many processed foods, so for the vast majority of us, cutting back on salt is healthiest option. Being overweight, over 50, having edema, a heart condition, high blood pressure as well as a plethora of other conditions means we should be watching how much salt we use. I use very little salt, and even in many of my recipes, try to remember to write them in such a way that it’s understood salt isn’t required…salt to taste, etc.

      Some foods just don’t taste good without salt, but it seems the trend is to add more and more salt to foods. I do think herbs and spices can help a lot with eliminating excess salt, and I often find a sprinkling of vinegar on foods like greens, or in soups brightens the flavor, too. I’ve found that using a small sprinkling of sea salt on some things eliminates the need for using a lot of salt in the actual recipe. A teensy bit of salt in the form of the larger flakes in a prominent position on the food can actually trick you…

      Restaurants and food companies add a lot of salt to products to make them taste “better” and those used to eating a lot of salt find dishes lacking in “something” when the salt isn’t there. I have had many recent experiences while eating out where my dish was so salty, it was overwhelming to me while my dining companions noticed nothing amiss at all.

      The taste for salt seems to be like many other things: the more you eat, the more you’re used to eating, and the more you want. Cutting back means you’ll probably miss it a bit until you’re tastes normalize.

      At the same time, too little salt can be a dangerous thing, as well. I found out this the hard way years ago when I had a job that had me working outside…because I followed a pretty healthy, natural diet and tried to follow all the recommended guidelines, including cutting salt from the diet. I literally found myself dizzy and weak…and started collapsing and passing out, and was taken to the hospital. Blood pressure too low and the tests showed a depleted sodium level. The Docs were stumped. They couldn’t figure out what was wrong and sent me for a whole battery of tests and specialist after specialist. The heart specialist put me on pills to raise my blood pressure…the pills contained sodium and a few other ingredients. My partner who regularly had a lunch of a deli meat sandwich and fritos had no such problem! I put two and two together, ditched the pills and started to use modest amounts of salt. No problem since.

      The CDC has a very good article on Salt Guidelines: http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/news/20140402/cdc-salt-guidelines-too-low-for-good-health-study-suggests

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