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So you’ve got all the pots, pans and gadgets from my Top 25 Kitchen Must-Haves, but your spice collection just isn’t up to snuff? The KB’s here with an in-depth look at dried herbs and spices—a home cook’s fail-safe solution for adding flavor and pizzazz to everyday dishes.
Take a look at your dried herbs and spices. Have you had them for more than a year or two? Is your basil looking brown instead of green? Does your dill no longer smell like dill, but like cooking oil? It’s time to throw those old bottles out and re-stock.
I wholeheartedly endorse purchasing your dried herbs and spices from a local spice merchant or The Spice House, a Chicago mainstay with a great online selection at thespicehouse.com. Why buy from a local spice house? For a number of reasons: price, freshness, and quality.
When you buy herbs and spices at the supermarket, you have no idea when the jar was packaged—or how long it has sat on the shelf. At a local spice shop, spices are freshly ground and packaged, and there’s high turnover since that’s what people come there to buy. Second, shop owners almost always keep the most high-quality herbs and spices, and often offer certain spices, like cinnamon, saffron, and peppercorns, in a variety of price ranges.
Lastly, you can’t beat a local spice shop’s prices. Because they freshly grind, package and bottle the spices on-site, the bulk savings are passed on to consumers. For example, I recently went to The Spice House in Chicago and spent around $60. If I had gone to the grocery store and purchased the exact same items, I would have spent between $150-$200. How about them apples?
Furthermore, you can buy herbs and spices with handy glass bottles, so next time you can simply purchase a bottle refill instead of a new bottle. Besides being cost-effective, it’s also more environmentally friendly because you’re not purchasing plastic bottle after plastic bottle from McCormick.
Below are the spices and herbs any serious cook should have. I’ve broken them up into categories: Baking, Pantry Staples, Spice Blends, Specialty Spices, and Whole Spices. A good spice collection takes time to acquire, but with each new addition you’ll encounter amazing new flavors to add to your cooking repertoire. So, go ahead, spice it up!
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To get the best baked goods, you need to use the highest quality ingredients you can find. Most of the cinnamon you find in the United States isn’t actually cinnamon, but cassia, which has a less delicate flavor than true cinnamon. However, you can find high-quality cassia cinnamon, like the one I use below, and it works well in all types of baked goods.
Cinnamon — I use a China Tunching Cassia Cinnamon. Outstanding flavor.
Cinnamon Sticks—Can be used whole or ground. Go for the real “true” thing here.
Ginger Powder — Great for baking and Asian and Indian savory dishes
Pumpkin Pie Spice — Great in fruit pies and tarts.
Whole Nutmeg — Grate into cheese or cream sauces for that special je ne sais quoi.
Cream of Tartar — great for meringues and whipping egg whites
Pure Vanilla Extract—None of that imitation stuff.
Pure Almond Extract and/or other flavorings if desired
Dried herbs will last about 1-2 years in a cool, dry place in your pantry. If your herbs are brown, crusty and lack smell, then it’s time to replace them. To use dry herbs in place of fresh, use half the amount called for because dried herbs have a more concentrated flavor.
Bay Leaves—For flavoring stocks, sauces and stews. Remove before serving.
Cayenne—For a nice spicy kick, add a pinch of cayenne.
Chili Powder—This is actually a blend of sweet chile pepper, cumin, garlic, oregano, and red pepper. Obviously used to make chili but also great in burgers.
Chives—Fresh is best, but the dried still adds great color and flavor to eggs, soups and salads.
Crushed Red Pepper—They’re in every pizzeria, so besides pizza, they can add a little heat to spaghetti, soups, sauces, marinades, and meats.
Cumin—Cumin is a key ingredient in chili powder and central to the cuisine of almost every culture, including Asian, Latin American, Middle Eastern and African.
Dill Weed—Very popular in Eastern European cooking, it’s often used as a sauce for fish or potatoes. Good with yogurt or sour cream as a vegetable dip.
Garlic Powder—Great for getting garlic flavor without the actual cloves.
Greek Oregano—A pungent but sweet herbs that pairs well with tomatoes, sauces, stews, veggies, cheese and red meat.
Hungarian Sweet Paprika—More than just a garnish, this paprika has a sweet peppery flavor that’s great on eggs, potato and pasta salads, baked fish or chicken.
Mustard Powder—Often used in potato salads, meatloaf, and dressings. Can also be used to make your own mustard.
Parsley—No kitchen should be without this do-it-all herb. It has great a mild, sweet herby flavor and beautiful green color.
Rosemary—One of my favorites. Great on lamb, chicken, potatoes, stews, sauces, veggies and on fresh breads.
Rubbed Sage—Only need small quantities to get full flavor. Great with chicken, turkey, stuffing or pork chops.
Thyme—This lemon-y herb is a great complement to rosemary. Used in hearty roasted or baked dishes or with vegetables.
Peppers & Salts
Sea Salt—This fine salt is often used as a finishing salt
Kosher Salt—My favorite, and most chefs’, everyday salt. It has a larger grain than table salt and no additives.
Tellicherry Peppercorns—According to the Spice House, “Tellicherry whole black peppercorns are left on the vine longer so they develop a deep, rich flavor. Considered the finest pepper in the world, these extra-large berries come from the Malabar coast of India. Black peppercorns are picked from the vine just before they ripen and turn red. As they dry, the berries turn black. This particularly large, more mature, berry has a full, robust flavor described as almost fruity.”
Garlic Salt—Great on bread, eggs, popcorn, chicken, veggies, pretty much anything.
Celery Salt—Essential to my grandma’s stuffing, and great coleslaw, deviled eggs, chicken, potato or pasta salad.
Whole White Peppercorns—White peppercorns are actually black pepper that’s been soaked in water until the black outer shell is easily removed. Great for when you want to add pepper, but not the black color.
Lawry’s Seasoning Salt—This was always a staple in my parents’ home. Great on grilled meats, in burgers, or on potatoes.
Here are a few more exotic, but no less useful, dried and ground spices. If you don’t want to keep whole and ground spices, just keep the whole version around to grind when needed. However, for some spices like cardamom and cumin, I find it helpful to keep the ground around, too.There’s a difference between “chile” and “chili.” A chile powder is one ground from a specific chile pepper. Chili powder is a mix of spices used to make chili, that meaty dish we all know and love.
Cardamom, ground—This unique fresh and sweet herb is often used in Indian cooking as well as in Scandinavian breads and cookies.
Chipotle Chile Pepper, Ground—A chipotle is a jalapeno that’s been smoked. Here it’s also dried and ground. Essential to Southwestern cuisine.
Coriander seed, ground—Sweet and citrusy, coriander is essential to Indian cooking and great with lamb, sausage, roast pork or breads.
Half-Sharp Paprika—This is Hungarian sweet paprika with a nice kick. Medium-level chile heat.
Mexican Oregano—This herb can really stand up to the bold flavors of Mexican and Latin dishes. Add to dishes as you would parsley.
Onion Powder—Ground dehydrated onions, great with ground meats.
Saffron—The most expensive spice in the world, saffron is actually the stamens of crocuses. The intensive labor process is what makes it so costly. However, a little goes a long way. Use a scant few threads to flavor chicken and seafood dishes, soups, cakes and bouillabaisse.
Smoked Paprika—In this paprika, the chiles are smoked over several weeks before being ground into a powder. The blend can be either sweet or spicy.
Sweet Ancho Chile Pepper, Ground—This is the base of chili powder, that all-American spice blend we use to make chili. Great for any recipe you want to have a sweet chile flavor.
Turmeric—This spice is often used for its brilliant orange-red hue. It’s great in curry or mixed with oil and red pepper and poured over cauliflower before roasting.
Wasabi Powder—Real wasabi is extremely expensive, so the powder can be used as a substitute. I think the wasabi pastes are probably a better investment because ti takes a lot of wasabi powder to get that strong wasabi flavor.
Certain dishes call for premixed spice blends. Most of these spice blends can be found at your local grocery store, speciality shops, spice stores or online at thespicehouse.com
Adobo Seasoning — This is a mild, rural-style Mexican spice mixture. Great for giving pretty much anything south-of-the-border flavor.
Cajun Seasoning — A spicy blend made from red and black pepper, paprika, cayenne, onion and garlic powders.
Chinese Five-Spice Blend — A blend of sweet, spicy, hot and sour flavors. Very versatile. Makes for a great stir fry marinade
Curry Powder— Curry is a blend of spices that includes cumin, coriander, turmeric and red pepper. There are a wide variety of blends available. I keep one Maharajah-style (with saffron) blend and one simple sweet curry blend on hand.
Garam Masala — This is a northern Indian Pujabi style of seasoning that differs from curry in that it doesn’t contain cumin.
Herbs de Provence — a traditional blend of herbs from the south of France. Great with veggie dishes, casseroles, baked beef, lamb, fish or roast pork.
Italian Seasoning—A mix of oregano, basil, marjoram, thyme and rosemary. Great in anything Italian.
Taco Seasoning— Great for seasoning ground beef, steak or chicken for tacos.
Whole spices are great because you can grind your own as you need them, which means you’ll be getting the freshest quality. Stored in a cool dry place they will stay fresh for about 4 years. I use one coffee grinder to grind my spices, and another to grind my coffee. If you want to stick to just one, make sure and clean your grinder thoroughly between each use.
Allspice Berries—The main flavor in Jamaican jerk mixes.
Caraway Seeds—Often used in rye bread and in European cuisine.
Coriander Seed— Used in many Latin American dishes, it has a lemony top note. Also used in sauces, corned beef and pickling spices.
Cumin Seed—Grind right before using for freshest quality.
Fennel Seeds—An aromatic, anise-flavored spice often used in Indian cooking.
Poppy Seeds — To maintain that great nutty flavor, refrigerate.
Sesame Seeds— Toast to bring out the oils before adding to your favorite dish.
Star Anise — Used mainly in oriental cooking for an all-purpose seasoning.
Yellow Mustard Seeds—Used in pickling, sausage making, and boiling vegetables like cabbage.