The Spices of Life
Perhaps you’ve just moved into your first apartment (congrats!). Or maybe you’re sick of eating carry out and frozen dinners (I feel ya!). Or, maybe you want to add a little spice to your culinary life by creatively seasoning your food (now we’re talkin’). These are all great reasons to invest a bit of time, energy, and money into adding spices to your pantry, or your kitchen cabinet, or wherever. Let’s chat about which basic spices to purchase, where to buy, how to store, and shelf life. In other words, let’s get spicy!
“Spices are the friend of physicians and pride of cooks.”
— Charlemagne, first emperor (800–814) of what was later called the Holy Roman Empire
Basic Herbs & Spices
Online searches for a list of basics does not provide a definitive list as taste is deeply personal based on your preferences – do you like spicy? Herbal? Heat? So this list is also personal – my preferences. I am admittedly a spice junkie with some 75 containers on stepped racks filling an entire three-shelf cabinet, so the list below is what I’d consider necessary if stranded on a desert island (with a full kitchen LOL).
My spice obsession certainly did not come from my mother-in-law, who only had seldom-used salt, pepper, and paprika in her kitchen. We never looked forward to eating at her place because the food was so bland and so boring. My mom has a decent selection of spices, but she still has containers she got when she first married in 1952. Some of her are so old, it’s like adding dust to food. No, my passion is self-curated.
A must have. Kosher salt is less salty than the iodized version, so it’s easier to control the salty taste. It does not, however, contain iodine, which is essential for good health (in moderation). Iodine does not taste great, so get it from something other than your salt. Sea salt comes in many varieties and can be very nice for finishing. Think chocolate chip cookies dusted with sea salt. YUM.
There’s a huge difference in taste and freshness between the pre-ground stuff you find in pepper shakers everywhere and freshly ground pepper. Invest in a pepper grinder and never look back. There are many varieties of peppercorns; start with black peppercorns, preferably Indian Black Tellicherry. Some black peppercorn jars include their own grinder, perfect when you’re just starting out, and until you decide to go big. Try freshly-cracked pepper crusted steak for a restaurant experience at home.
Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
Oh, how I love the punch red pepper flakes add to just about everything. I once brought a large bag home from an adorable little market in Siena, Italy (pictured above) and made little gift pouches for my favorite cooks. All it takes is a pinch. Crushed red pepper flakes will lose their heat over time, so add just a bit and then add more if you’d like more heat.
Can’t make a pot of chili without it! But there’s so much more you can do with cumin. Toss some wedges of sweet potato with salt, pepper, cumin, and olive oil and roast until crispy for an excellent, healthy side.
Use the tiniest bit when making buffalo chicken wings and chili to add a different kind of peppery kick.
Also a must have for chili. Smokey and spicy, Chili powder is commonly used in traditional Latin American dishes like enchiladas and tacos. But a spoonful also adds a welcome kick to grilled meats, stew, soup, a pot of beans, and vegetables.
While fairly tame compared to other pepper-based spices, paprika adds warmth and earthiness to a dish. You’ll find that there are many different versions, some with a smokier or “hotter” flavor than others. This spice adds vibrant color to any dish. It can be sprinkled as a garnish over deviled eggs or potato salad, or used as a flavoring for meat rubs. It has a sweet pepper flavor, without any heat. Smoked paprika is delicious.
Cinnamon mixed with sugar on buttered toast (heaven!) is not the only use for this spice. It’s great sprinkled on your latte, and an excellent addition to certain savory dishes such as chili, tomato sauces, and other savory dishes as well as in sweet treats like gingersnap cookies or banana bread.
If you like to bake or enjoy Asian or Indian foods, ground ginger is great to have on hand. It’s the predominant spice in gingerbread and gingersnap cookies and is also used in many sweet spice mixes like pumpkin pie spice. Ground ginger is also used in savory applications like spice rubs, tagines, and marinades, and is part of the Japanese spice blend shichimi togarashi. A note here: for use in savory dishes, buy a knob of fresh ginger and finely mince it or grate it on your microplane. (TIP: peeling fresh ginger is a snap using a spoon.) It’s hot and spicy in every good way.
Garlic powder is a recent addition to my spice larder. I absolutely prefer fresh garlic, but the powdered version can quickly add a garlicky flavor without the harsh bite of fresh.
Thyme may be my favorite herb. It’s woodsy, lemony, and can be used in so many dishes. It’s wonderful to use either fresh or dried. And paired with chicken? Sublime.
Dried basil is delicious in sauces, like tomato sauce or pizza sauce, and as seasoning on chicken or other meats. Basil is an herb that tastes best fresh if using in uncooked dishes like caprese salad.
Dried Rosemary is a must for French and Mediterranean cooking. It is earthy, woodsy and piney. Rosemary can be an acquired taste for some, but it does give your dishes a one-of-a-kind flavor that helps them stand out from the crowd.
Nothing says Italian quite like Oregano does! A little dried oregano will give your tomato sauce a real Italian vibe, and it’s great sprinkled on pizza. It can also be a pungent add in for Greek and Mexican dishes. Oregano is one herb I prefer dried over fresh.
Just a dash adds so much flavor in both sweet and savory dishes. It is a must for bechamel sauces and other cheese dishes. However, you’ll probably use it most often in sweet treats that contain cinnamon. Buy the seeds whole as they last forever; but you’ll need a little grater. If you’d rather not stock your kitchen with specialty tools, you can use your microplane grater instead (a kitchen essential!).
Okay, this is a good start! While these herbs and spices will be a nice start for your spice cabinet, base your selections on the flavors and foods you most enjoy. No sense buying something you’ll never use. Then slowly expand your spice collection and add more flavors so you can enhance the overall taste and profile of everything you cook.
When you’re just getting started, it won’t matter so much how you organize. Once you have a larger collection, however, think about the best way to organize so it’s easy to find what you seek. My cabinet is currently organized by type – herbs, spices, seeds, specialty blends, baking and, quite frankly, it’s a hot mess. Perhaps alpha order would be a smart rainy-day project.
There are almost as many ways to store your spices as there are spices! Stepped spice racks, pull-out units, and lazy susans work great for in-cabinet storage. If you have an extra drawer (is that an oxymoron?!?), jars can be laid down or – if you label the lid tops – lined up inside. There are wall shelves, fridge magnet storage, and wheeled storage. Figure out where you have room and how much storage space you’ll need, then organize away!
Jars of spices over the stove might sound convenient, but because herbs and spices deteriorate when exposed to heat, light and moisture, it’s not the most ideal place to keep them.
The best storage temperature for herbs and spices is one that is fairly constant and below 70 degrees Fahrenheit. This means your herbs and spices must be kept away from the furnace, stove, and the heat of the sun. Temperature fluctuations can cause condensation and eventually mold. If you store spices in the freezer or refrigerator, return them there promptly after use.
A good storage system keeps herbs and spices dry and in the dark as well. Amber glass jars with airtight lids are ideal. You might also keep them in a cupboard or drawer. Cover the jars with large opaque labels or use a cloth to cover them when not in use.
In summary, store your herbs and spices in clean, airtight containers, away from heat and light and handle them thoughtfully.
Write the month and year on the label every time you add an herb or spice to your collections. Some spices in particular have a tendency to outlive others. Frequently used spices are exposed to air more frequently and will need to be replaced sooner.
Use Your Sniffer
Don’t just look at ‘Sell By’ dates. Take the cap off and smell it. Since some expiration dates can be arbitrary or confusing, it’s OK to use your best judgement by using your senses: sight, smell and touch. The spice itself should be bright and fragrant. If it doesn’t have any smell, it likely isn’t strong enough to flavor your food. If stored in a cool, dark place, a spice should be OK to use as long as it holds its vibrant color, too. However, a spice stored in an area that gets a lot of light will show discoloration much more quickly and lose its flavoring power.
Ground or Whole?
Pre-ground spices might be more convenient but whole spices last the longest because the essential oils are kept inside and that’s where the majority of the flavor is. Whole spices can last three to four years, which will ultimately save you money. Once spices are ground, however, there is more surface area and they will quickly lose their “chemical compounds” that make them such great flavoring agents. In general, ground spices may last one to two years maximum, while dried herbs can last up to three years. But how does one grind spices you ask? You can purchase a small spice grinder, or get a mortar and pestle.
WHERE TO BUY
Thankfully, herbs and spices are readily available in grocery stores, big box stores, on line, and in specialty stores. When buying new additions for your cabinet, consider the container size. When I’m trying something new, or something that I may use only occasionally, I rely on Penzy’s Spices online store. They offer little jars and have an amazing variety. They also offer big bags of items you may use a lot of, like salt and pepper.
“He who controls the spice controls the universe.”
— Frank Herbert, Dune
Now go add some spice to your life and enjoy every moment.