How to Stock Your Pantry: Spice Rack Essentials
First of all, I want to say that fresh herbs and spices are always best, so if you can buy the ingredient fresh, you should, especially mint, parsley, tarragon, and basil. End of story. But, if you don’t have access to fresh ones, your new mantra is, “Buy whole herbs and spices then grind them yourself.” I can’t stress this enough! Buy a dedicated spice grinder (not the one you use to grind coffee beans), and use it regularly. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Every cook worth their salt (pun intended) should have a group of basic herbs and spices on hand in the spice rack at all times. This is a guide to help you determine what your particular selection of herbs and spices should be.
Let’s start with what I call the elemental herbs and spices, those that are not mixed with other things, those that you’ll likely use no matter what style you’re cooking. So, have a good supply of the following in your spice rack:
Salt – There are so many types of salt, from table salt to to kosher salt to fleur de sel. Stay tuned for a blog post about the different types of salt and their suitable uses.
Black Peppercorns – Here’s where that mantra comes in. Buy whole peppercorns and grind them as you need them. You owe yourself a good quality grinder and the flavor of fresh-ground pepper. Pre-ground pepper loses its flavor in the can or jar fairly quickly and tastes flat.
Allspice – A dried berry that has notes of other baking spices such as cloves and cinnamon, this versatile spice (grind it yourself!) is common in Carribean and Latin dishes.
Bay (laurel) leaf – A rather large, dried leaf that enhances soups, stocks and stews. Be sure to remove the bay leaf before serving. It is a choking hazard!
Cayenne – This moderately hot, spicy powder kicks up almost anything. Be careful in using it; know its heat and when to stop adding it. Different brands have different heat levels, and the older powders tend to lose some heat as they age. I use organic cayenne, and it’s much hotter than the usual supermarket stuff.
Ground cinnamon – Here’s an exception to the grind-it-yourself rule. It’s somewhat difficult to grind cinnamon sticks, but do yourself a favor and buy the good ground cinnamon. I prefer Ceylon cinnamon; it’s flavor is more floral and subtle, but you can’t come close to its flavor with cassia cinnamon, the other main category. Plus I’ve read that cassia cinnamon isn’t very healthy, so do some research before you decide which cinnamon to use.
Stick cinnamon – Keep a few whole cinnamon sticks on hand for hot cider and mulled wine. They lend a little flavor to hot beverages, you can use them for stirring, and they look great in the cup!
Cloves – Grind these yourself, of course, and use them in baking plus Indian and Mediterranean recipes. They can be very strong, so mind your measurements!
Cumin seeds – These are easily toasted in a dry skillet for a few minutes until they become fragrant. Then they can be ground to use in your recipe.
Dill weed – It’s what gives dill pickles that flavor. Buy the freshest you can find.
Garlic powder or granulated garlic – Those of us with real or imagined Italian DNA know we MUST have this on hand! I have both powder and granulated; powder goes well in dressings and things that need it to dissolve readily. Granulated, to me, has more flavor, and is suitable for heating.
Nutmeg – Again, buy the whole nutmeg and grind it as needed. They are tough to grind and will need a nutmet-specific grinder. Worth it!
Onion powder – Go easy on the amounts with this one, but it’s an easy way to add onion-y flavor without using actual onions. The fine powder helps it dissolve into whatever you add it to.
Oregano – A green, savory herb that is available fresh, so try for that first, although the dried version is fine to use in any case.
Paprika, sweet or smoked – My favorite is Hungarian sweet paprika, but there are many other varieties, including hot.
Red pepper flakes – These are crushed dried spicy red peppers. I’ve also been known to buy the dried red peppers and coarse grind them myself, but my tear ducts got a workout. Also, I’ve found that organic red pepper flakes pack more of a punch than others.
Rosemary – A relative of lavender, this strong herb is said to improve memory. So remember to look for fresh rosemary first!
Sage – Another savory green. Ground or rubbed sage is best for the dried version.
Thyme – Delicate thyme comes in several varieties. I’m partial to French, but you experiment to find your fave.
Vanilla beans – These aren’t herbs or spices, but your spice rack should have vanilla beans. You should also have vanilla extract, which is best homemade. If you don’t make your own, get the highest quality extract you can find.
Of course, feel free to additionally stock the many spices and herbs required for specific cooking styles, such as saffron and cardamom for Indian dishes or turmeric and sumac for Mediterranean recipes.
Next is a list of herb and spice mixes to have on hand. I might mention that you can search the interwebs for DIY mix recipes, which is what I’ve done for years. I used that knowledge to concoct my herb and spice mixes in the Iron Chicken Kitchen Shop.
Chili powder – Of course, I think Iron Chicken Kitchen’s Chili Powder Blend is the best. But you can find other brands on the shelf. Just be sure it’s as fresh as possible, and I’d advise buying chili powder from a higher-quality supplier like Whole Foods or Penzey’s.
Apple or pumpkin pie spice – Again, Iron Chicken Kitchen’s Holiday Spice Fusion is best here. But a high-quality supplier will have some good options. Or DIY it, too!
Depending on what style of recipe you are making, you’ll need to stock some style-specific items, such as pork or poultry rub for barbecue, garam masala and curry powder for Indian fare, or epazote and chipotle powder for Mexican dishes. Also, herb and spice mixes tend to trend, and right now, harissa and za’atar are very popular. However, you can usually find a good recipe online to mix your own, and then you can grind the whole herbs and spices involved to create an even tastier combination.
Second mantra: “I will replace my dried herbs and spices on or before their expiration dates.” You’ll thank me!