When I was a beginning cook, um, some decades ago, there simply weren't many choices beyond salt, pepper, oregano and the ubiquitous Lawry's Seasoned Salt. This is how my generation learned to mistake saltiness for flavor. Times have evolved and so did I - enough that I now have favorite herb and spice purveyors, and prefer Greek Oregano (over the Mexican, Italian, Syrian or Cuban versions).
In this post, I'll give you what I think every basic herb and spice collection 'should' have, plus a few recommendations for those who are ready to venture further.
Let's begin at the beginning. Salt and Pepper.
I recommend you do 99% of your cooking with Diamond Crystal Kosher salt. It's harder to 'over salt' with this one as opposed to the Morton salt. Really. The individual crystals in the Diamond Crystal product are not as closely packed, with more 'space' between them. Therefore, it's 'lighter' and more 'forgiving'. Keep it handy in a salt box or salt cellar rather than a shaker. Shakers are silly. You'll either over salt or under salt. Learn to use salt in 'pinches'. You'll see that I keep Sea Kelp flakes handy. Because the salt is not 'iodized', I generally add a pinch of sea kelp to add the necessary iodine to our diet. Oh, and you don't need a bunch of different 'exotic' salts. That's so '90's. We're over it. Just have something similar to the Maldon Flake Sea Salt for 'finishing' at the table - for salads and such.
On to pepper. I only buy whole peppercorns. I store the extra tightly wrapped in the freezer along with my extra herbs and spices. You really do need a pepper grinder, and if you buy black, green and white peppercorns in 'bulk' packages, you can create a blend that suits your palate. I also add red pepper flakes to my grinder mix. I prefer white pepper for many vegetables - particularly potatoes, and for creamy soups and gravies. The green peppercorns play nicely with stronger vegetables like cabbage or broccoli. Then the black peppercorns are nice in heartier dishes like stews.
BTW: I recommend a pepper grinder that you can see through. Picking up your wood pepper mill to finish off that great salad only to find it empty .... well, it's annoying. I've used the one below for years.
Now, let's talk about onion and garlic. Granulated powders. Do not buy onion or garlic salt. That's so 1950's. We've all got the memo that we should cut down the amount of sodium in our diets, and the biggest problem is 'hidden' sodium, such as in those onion and garlic products. These are one of the easiest to find for pennies in bulk bins. I keep a small bottle in the spice rack and the rest in the freezer for re-filling. When you feel like getting 'fancy' go for shallots ... like for anything French.
What about those 'leaves'? Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme ... as the song goes.
I have some ground sage in the collection, but don't actually use it much. It's one of the herbs that I'll put in Seitan, or 'meatless' meatloaf or lentil loaf, to give them a 'meatier' flavor profile. Rosemary? I don't really use that much either.
But, I do use a LOT of French Thyme - even in my fruit galettes. Seriously, add a pinch of thyme to baked or stewed apples. Beyond that, thyme is so fragrant and versatile, you won't want to be without it.
Then, I also couldn't live - or cook - without parsley, basil, oregano, bay leaf, savory and marjoram. I cook a lot of legumes and those are essentials with beans and lentils. And, of course, you've gotta have the basil and oregano for Marinara sauce. Oh, and Fennel seeds. I like freshly ground Fennel (and that subtle Anise flavor) in my Marinara sauce.
Oh, and you really should have dried Bay Leaves. The dried leaf of the Bay Laurel plant, they're essential to slow-cooked soups, sauces and stews. You remove the leaf before serving. I keep whole dried leaves as well as the ground version.
Red pepper flakes find their way into a lot of my dishes - from the peppercorn blend to sauces, soups, stews and even salads. They add a subtle 'zing' and a bit of color.
If you're really tight for space, and just can't go into the whole spice rack thing, then you can't go too wrong with Old Bay Seasoning. It's such an all-round seasoning that I even keep it in my salt cellar. Just be careful adding any additional salt with this product since it does have salt in it. It's especially nice on roasted vegetables.
If you've been reading my recipes, you've no doubt noticed that I use some blends from various herb and spice purveyors.
My Favorite Herb and Spice sellers:
Salty-Savory-Sweet The Spice and Tea Shoppe
I've been buying online from Penzey's and The Spice House from close to 30 years. Their products are without exception excellent, at fair prices. Here in Reno, Nevada, I like to support Salty-Savory-Sweet The Spice and Tea Shoppe - and they sell online. I know the owners, and they are great people, selling high quality, hand-crafted herbs, spices and teas.
The Lake Shore Drive Shallot & Herb Seasoning is the new 'look' of what used to be 'Sunny Paris'. I haven't changed the label on my bottle. It's my 'go to' blend for that certain, um, je ne sais quoi flavor profile that, for me, denotes France. A squeeze of fresh lemon juice and you'll be whisked away to a Parisian bistro. I keep one (or two) of the 8-ounce bags in. my freezer stash at all times. Yes, I go through it like that. It's great on vegetables, sauces/gravy, and plant-based salad dressings.
I simply can't think of anything that the Everything But Salt Blend ('EBS') from Salty-Savory-Sweet The Spice and Tea Shoppe doesn't play well with. I keep it in a small pepper grinder right next to the cooktop with my salt cellar and pepper grinder.
As I was preparing to photograph and write this post, I noticed that my jar of Summer Garden Blend was low. Into the freezer I went, and GASP! Oh, No! I was out! I immediately ordered two of the 'flat packs'. This blend - with savory red bell peppers and tomato powder - is my 'go to' for dishes like my Ratatouille, but it's incredible as an all-round, more sophisticated 'Italian' blend. If you want to amp up the 'Italian' volume, just add a bit of Oregano to this and you've nailed it.
You really should have Cumin. I always have both the whole seeds, and as a time-saver the ground version. Cumin provides that nutty, rich, earthy quality that exists in really good chili. But, this spice is one of the most popular in cuisines around the world - next only to black pepper. If you love curries, you should also have cumin on hand. Then, of course, you should have a basic Chili Powder blend. Again, it's for that big pot of chili, or a Sofrito, or a red sauce for the enchiladas. Beware, however, because once you get started on chili powder, there's all these different chilis ... Guajillo, Ancho, New Mexico Green .... etc.
If you like making pickled anything, or intend to dabble in curries, you should have both the whole and ground yellow mustard.
And, speaking of curries ... I find that the Sweet Curry from The Spice House fills 90% of my Indian curry needs. There's plenty of flavor without the heat. I use the Garam Masala for the rest. Garam Masala is actually used in India - unlike most 'curry' blends - and is more 'warming'. I particularly like it sprinkled on top of dishes after cooking - such as rice. Rounding out this arena, is ground ginger (I always have fresh in the fridge) and turmeric. Gotta have both for Indian dishes, but also Chai tea and Golden Milk. A tiny bit of turmeric in green tea is lovely.
Fennel is that 'anise' or 'licorice' flavored spice. I can't make homemade Marinara sauce without it. A small quantity of Cloves are necessary - and they last a long time if you keep them tightly wrapped in the freezer - for things like Chai tea. I also keep a jar of green Cardamon pods for Chai, jams, and other more exotic uses ... I make a 'syrup' for poaching apples or pears flavored with the crushed cardamon, saffron, orange peel.
I keep nutmeg (that small nut-like thing) to grate into white sauces for a hint of 'warmth'. Combine the nutmeg with freshly ground white peppercorns for a typically Scandinavian flavor profile in a white sauce over vegetables like asparagus or green beans.
Saffron is the world's most expensive spice - being the hand-plucked threads from the crocus flower. I used to be able to get the giant 'hanks' of Persian saffron through Iranian friends. Not so much anymore. Just because Saffron is relatively 'expensive' doesn't mean you shouldn't use it. The Spanish Coupé version is very nice indeed, and is what I use now. It gives dishes a glorious color and unmistakeable flavor. And, generally, a few threads is all you need. You've gotta have it for some soups, risottos, rice ... I use it in the syrup I poach pears in. Oh, and it's sublime in homemade herbal tea blends ... Tisanes. Good saffron should taste subtly sweet (like honey) and floral ... nuanced and a bit earthy. Bad saffron tastes metallic. Ugh.
Finally, I keep Pumpkin Pie and Apple Pie spice blends in the collection, in addition to both stick and ground Cinnamon. You probably know that these all come to play with fruit pies, of course, but hot apple cider, pumpkin bread and such are also worth having them on hand for.
As I'm sure you can see from the spice pullout in my kitchen, there's a LOT more there.
I've always been fascinated by herbs and spices, and have too many to catalogue here.
Just in passing, I'd like to mention that I keep a bag of Umami Powder on hand when I need an extra 'umami' kick to a dish ... and it's a great way to amp up sautéed mushrooms in a sauce, for example. I also have a Truffle powder that I add to my plant-based 'poultry' gravies.
Let me end this with a parting shot at those giant containers of herbs and spices you'll see in the Big Box Membership stores. Leave them there. Don't waste your money. All too many times, I've seen cupboards - usually above the stovetop, sigh - filled with sad remnants of well-intentioned 'bulk money saving'. Unless you're running a restaurant, leave that stuff alone. Even given the amounts of herbs and spices that I go through, I don't buy that stuff. I can't use it fast enough. Once opened, those herbs and spices will lose everything that makes them valuable in your cooking. When they've lost all the vibrant fragrances and flavors, you may as well have thrown money out the window.
Instead, buy smaller quantities that are used up in a timely fashion. Few herbs and spices will last longer than 6 months. The way I get around this reality is by tightly wrapping and freezing the excess. And, I practice diligent 'inventory control'. You also want to buy where 'turn over' is highest. I often buy from bins in grocery stores, but only those things - like granulated onion and garlic - that have a really high turn over rate.
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