Spices. They’re essential. There are a million and one of them out there, and it’s easy to go overboard. For any avid cook, spices are what make or break a dish. Not having the right ones on hand won’t ruin a dish, but it can significantly impact the final product. Having the right spices at your disposal gives you true culinary creative freedom. Follow me as I go through my essential list, as well as a few additional lists for certain types of regional cooking that I enjoy.
Spices, herbs, seasonings, salts, peppers, etc. They’re all essential to good cooking. There are literally thousands of them, and I think that where most people struggle, especially if they’re just getting started cooking for themselves, is knowing what to get, things you’ll use all the time, and what to avoid. Also there are common questions like “should I buy fresh or dried”, “how long does this stay good for”, “how much should I get”, and many more. I will answer those here, and get you started with my recommendations for an economical, affordable, yet diverse and capable spice cabinet.
When we cook, we use seasonings to impart specific flavors to foods. It’s helpful to understand just in brief theory a little bit about what we’re doing when we add seasonings to our food. Essentially, we’re appealing to our taste buds in unique and different ways. As far as science goes, most will agree that humans are able to distinguish between five different types of tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and savory (or umami, as it is sometimes called). Unofficially though, there are many other terms we use to describe how something tastes. Spicy, minty, creamy,
We use seasonings to exploit the many different types of tastes we can register, and also the myriad of combinations as well. With the right seasoning, even the most poorly prepared food can taste good. It may not have the right texture, but if you’ve flavored it well, then there’s something to be said at least for that.
Salt & Pepper
Salt and pepper are essential seasonings. In fact, they’re the only seasonings that I recommend someone have more than one type of. Salt and pepper typically are stored in containers used to dispense them, but also may be stored in grinders. I generally like to have a supply of salt and peppercorns in the pantry or my cabinets. Many people like to have a grinder or shaker set out on the table, but I have never really found the need for it. In fact, I’ve even been to restaurants before that do the same thing, believing that it is an insult to the chef (no, I am not kidding) for a guest to season their own dish, as if the chef is not capable of properly seasoning it themselves.
Salt. It’s been around forever. It’ll be around forever. It is essential to almost every type of life form on the planet, especially humans. It’s a natural mineral, present in the soil, and in our oceans, and even in some land-locked bodies of water. Sodium has gotten a bad wrap for a number of years because of the great excess that we consume in our diets and science trying to find ways to explain how our problems are caused by that, however over time we are coming around to different understandings of it. I say, all things in moderation. Too much isn’t a good thing, but without it, we would perish.
Salt is a rather simple ingredient, but comes in a number of different forms. You’re probably accustomed to basic white table salt, which is usually enriched with iodine, another essential mineral. There’s also kosher salt, sea salt, fleur de sel, pink Himalayan salt, Celtic sea salt, and many others. You can read article upon article about the best type of salt from a nutritional perspective, and somehow you will always come away with a different idea on what to get. Since I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist, I go based off of my own opinions, and ultimately, since this is a cooking blog, the taste!
I’m not picky with my general everyday salt. I generally use a finer-grain sea salt and a coarser grain kosher salt. The biggest differences between different types of salt are the salinity, the size of the crystals, where it comes from, and the mineral makeup. Salinity essentially is what percentage of the weight is actually salt versus other trace minerals, something you can usually see on the back of the container as it describes how many milligrams or grams of sodium is in a given measure. When using different salts in a recipe, you might need 1 teaspoon of one type of salt to get the same taste as 2 teaspoons of another type of salt. Always use less, and increase to taste.
Sea salt tends to have finer crystals than kosher salt. Pink Himalayan salt varies, and can sometimes be more coarse grained, sometimes finer. The finer the crystals are, the more dense a specific measurement of salt is going to be, and therefore the more actual salt it will contain. Finer crystals dissolve much better into a liquid or mixture, but if sprinkled can sometimes be harder to control. Coarser crystals do not dissolve as well, but are easier to spread and sprinkle, and avoid certain areas of dishes being much saltier than others.
Sea salt comes from the sea. It’s literally sea water that has been evaporated so that all that remains is the salt in it. Kosher salt is any type of salt that is coarser and can be used in curing or “koshering” meat; it can be mined, or from the sea. Pink Himalayan salt is unique in that it is pink due to the high mineral content of it, with over 80 minerals naturally occurring within it. It is mined from modern day Pakistan.
Generally speaking, the more pure white any salt is, the more devoid it is of other minerals. Pink Himalayan sea salt has its unique pink color because of Avoid plain table salt if at all possible; it is typically mined from underground deposits, cleaned, bleached, stripped of minerals, and has additives like anti-caking compounds to keep it stable so it doesn’t clump.
I use sea salt. It’s a great all-around salt to use in cooking. It is one of the more natural types of salt, obviously coming from the sea, and tends to impart a solid, rich flavor to cooking. Sea salt is richer than normal table salt, as it typically will contain a more diverse mineral profile, and also does not usually include iodine, which can give a metallic taste as in normal table salt. It’s a great all-purpose cooking salt, and one that I use on a daily basis.
Kosher salt is another nice one to have on hand. The “kosher” in its name refers more to the size of the crystal than anything else. It may come from the sea, or mined from deposits underground. It is a coarser grained salt that is particularly useful in curing meats, as it does a good job of drawing out moisture without soaking into the meat and changing the flavor. It does not dissolve well, and since it does not measure as densely as a finer grain salt, does not contain as much salt measure for measure as any finer grain salt. Due to it’s larger crystal size, it is better for sprinkling than finer grain salt, and helps to avoid certain parts of dishes being over-salted.
There are other types of salts, but for the most part they do not offer any benefits over sea salt and kosher salt, the two essentials I believe any kitchen should have. Pink Himalayan salt has become quite popular over the past few years for its color, and its higher mineral content, but there is no real evidence that using this salt in lieu of any other type provides benefits that can’t be gained by eating a balanced diet to start with.
When we talk about pepper, as in salt and pepper, we’re normally talking not about ground or powdered peppers like one might think, but peppercorns. The two are actually quite a bit different, every type of pepper you’d normally think of being a member of the capsicum genus, while ground pepper is a member of the piper genus.
The ground pepper we know today, peppercorns, are actually the fruit of a flowering vine. Peppercorns typically come in an array of colors, which have to do with their maturity and preparation. Black, green, white, and red are the official types, with pink “peppercorns”, which are actually a berry of a South American shrub.
- Black are the most common, and are actually just underripe green peppercorns that have been cooked and then left out to dry.
- Green peppercorns are underripe, and are usually freeze dried or sold in some type of a brine.
- Red peppercorns are fully ripened peppercorns, and are somewhat rare to find,
- White peppercorns are black ones that have had their skins removed.
For most cooks, black pepper is really all you need. Occasionally, white pepper is also nice to have, if you’d like to add a little softer heat to dishes without all the spice. I recommend a black pepper grinder, and a small container of ground white pepper. If you want to go all out, you can buy a grinder or two, and buy your peppercorns in bulk containers. Peppercorns generally have a shelf life of 3-4 years.
Herbs, Spices, & Seasonings
Herbs and spices – two different names for the same thing? Not exactly. All herbs, spices, and seasonings are plants, in some form or another, but herbs are leaves, whereas spices come from roots, barks, or seeds. There are many other seasonings that don’t even fit that criteria either. This isn’t a biology course, so what I’m going to focus on is not the taxonomy and organization of all of these things, but on their importance to cooking, their taste, the best forms, and storing and using them.
Everyday Herbs, Spices, & Seasonings
- Garlic – While it’s not an herb, and is typically something I use fresh-ish from a tube, garlic powder is an incredibly useful thing to have when it comes to adding the taste to soups, sauces, and also for seasoning meat. Don’t bother buying garlic bulbs unless you like added work.
- Onion – While it’s not technically an herb, onion powder is a very effective substitute for the taste of onion when the actual ingredient itself is not required. Especially useful in soups, sauces, and for seasoning meats.
- Basil – Fresh basil is nice to have, but dried basil does just as good a job, without all the waste of buying fresh, using some, and having it go bad. There are at least four different types: sweet (Genovese) basil, Thai basil, lemon basil, and holy basil. The most commonly used is sweet basil, and is most of the time referred to simply as basil. It is a member of the mint family, although does not share much in common with most types of mint we are familiar with. It’s used in a number of Italian dishes, as well as Chinese, Thai, many poultry and seafood dishes, as well as desserts and cocktails.
- Parsley – Parsley is a flowering plant whose leaves are commonly used in European, Middle Eastern, and American cuisines. There are two main varieties; French, or curly leaf parsley, and Italian, or flat leaf parsley. Flat leaf parsley typically has a more robust flavor and is the more popular of the two, while curly leaf parsley is more often used for garnish. With dried parsley, you’ll have no way to know what type of leaf it once had, but chances are it will be the bolder, more useful Italian flat leaf variety. If you need an attractive garnish, buy it fresh and chop it up, but otherwise, dried works just fine.
- Oregano – Oregano, another flowering plant in the mint family, like basil, that really doesn’t taste all that minty. Oregano is staple in Italian cuisine, but is also quite popular in the whole Mediterranean world, especially Greece and Turkey, the Philippines, and also in Latin America, especially Argentina.
- Thyme – You’d think by now that with all of these mint-related herbs, my cooking would taste all the same, but the truth is that it’s a very diverse family of herbs. Thyme is yet another one, and while not so commonly used, it is exceedingly useful in fish sauces, chowders, and soups. It also goes very well with lamb and veal, and is often paired with tomatoes.
- Rosemary – Easily one of my most favorite herbs, rosemary is useful for imparting a warm, earthy, slightly spicy flavor to a number of different dishes. Also a member of lamiaceae – the mint family – I tend to think it to be the least mint-like, given that it really grows in a bush, with woody stems, and looks more like an evergreen tree than anything else. It’s one of the few houseplants I keep. It’s pretty to look at, and being able to pinch off the occasional leaf and savor the beautiful scent is a treat. As an herb, it is used heavily in Mediterranean cooking as a seasoning for lamb, pork, chicken, and turkey.
- Chili Powder –
Occasional Herbs, Spices, & Seasonings
- Dill – Finally, an herb not related to mint. Dill is a member of the celery family, apiaceae. Not quite as commonly used, dill is still an essential herb for many fish dishes, it creates a great creamy sauce, works very well in lots of soups, and is essential to you guessed it, dill pickles. It’s use in Central and Eastern European cuisine is something I enjoy most in things like smoked salmon (gravlax)
- Bay Leaves
- Ancho Chile
- Cayenne Pepper
Lesser-Used Herbs, Spices, & Seasonings
- File Powder
- Curry Powder
- Garam Masala
- Anise Seed
- Caraway Seed
- Citrus Zest
- Poppy Seed
- Porcini Powder
- Star Anise
- Ras El Hanout
Categorization colors – from darker to lighter – must have, occasional but important, rare but still useful – sort in that orderLines – flavor, foods most commonly used in, fresh or dried (maybe?), types of cuisine it’s used in
I’m sure you’ve seen those big master sets with the pretty carousels already pre-filled with all the herbs. They seem like an amazing deal. But did you know that most herbs already come with their own containers, and are invariably loads fresher and higher quality? Yeah. I would skip those, unless you’re going to fill the containers with your own herbs. You really have no way of knowing what you’re getting. I’ve had them before, and have cooked in kitchens that have them. The herbs are always super dry, and flavorless.
Fresh or Dried?
The practicality of having a complete spice cabinet increases dramatically when we use dried herbs. Fresh herbs go bad in a few days to a week. Dried herbs never go bad, and don’t lose their potency for a few years. I love fresh herbs, but the amounts that we use in cooking are often so small and minute, and so hard to plan for, and fresh herbs are expensive and often sold in larger quantities than what we need, that I just don’t feel like the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. I just feel bad throwing away a half-used container of something I got for one dish, when I could’ve used a dried version that is just as good.
The instances where I recommend fresh herbs are so few and far between, that instead of making “Fresh or Dried?” a part of every single entry above, I made a short list that goes over the few instances where fresh beats dried.
Generally speaking, when using herbs to impart flavors to a dish, dried will always work, and will work very well. The only time I will use fresh is 1) when it’s for garnish, or 2) when the herb makes up a substantial part of a dish, is used with other fresh ingredients and dish is not cooked, or is used for more than just flavor. Some examples are pesto, tapenades, relishes, chutneys, etc. Anywhere that the texture of a dried herb would detract from the flavor and presence of a fresh herb, use fresh.
- Basil for pesto, caprese salad, or garnish
- Parsley for garnish
- Rosemary for garnish
- Mint for garnish and cocktails
- Cilantro for garnish
- Chives for garnish