I firmly believe that the key to great, flavorful, “OMG can I get that recipe” cooking is a solid working knowledge of your spice cabinet. If you can season food well, you can make just about anything taste good. Herbs and spices are also vital in unlocking all sorts of ethnic cuisines. You can take a basic bowl of rice and beans to Mexico, Jamaica, or Louisiana, all just by switching up the spice blend!
Unfortunately, some spices can also be costly additions to your kitchen, and if you’re working with a small kitchen like mine, they can be pretty difficult to store. (However, I did recently get one of these for Christmas last year, and it’s made storing spices infinitely easier.) That’s why I’ve compiled a list of my top ten go-to, always-use-em, can’t-live-without-em herbs and spices that any budding cook should have at arm’s reach!
This is the first part in a series called Kitchen Essentials, throughout which I’ll be exploring some of the most important (and accessible!) components for any kitchen and any budget.
You’ll see some old standbys on this list, but you may be surprised by some of the others. I’m confident that if you pared down my spice collection, which is about 30 spices more extensive than this at the moment, to these 10 herbs and spices (plus salt and pepper, of course), I’d be able to keep cranking out tasty food with tons of variety. So, without further ado, let’s get to the list!
1. Garlic Powder
Ah, good ol’ GP. I honestly don’t use garlic powder a whole ton in my own cooking, but I’m pretty sure Kyle would flip his lid if we didn’t have it in our kitchen. What I do use it for is quick, delicious snacking—sprinkle it on popcorn, toss it on roasted chickpeas or nuts—and building my own spice blends. I make my own taco seasoning that would be seriously subpar without a healthy dose of garlic powder, and my favorite breakfast sweet potatoes (recipe coming soon!) just wouldn’t be the same without that savory, garlicky bite. That said, I don’t really do onion powder; I know the two typically go hand-in-hand, but I hardly ever use the latter and don’t really like its flavor. Garlic powder, on the other hand, is delicious and savory and I love it so very, very much.
Y’all really think I’d put together a comprehensive, non-negotiable spice list without cinnamon?! Pardon my French, but I put this shit on everything. It’s my secret ingredient half the time. If I’m baking, I add more cinnamon than the recipe calls for. When I’m making a pot of chili, I throw in cinnamon. Stirring up a curry? Add some cinnamon. Chipotle seasoning for tacos? CINNAMON. You’d be amazed at this quintessentially sweet spice’s ability to skew savory.
3. Crushed Red Pepper
Everyone’s favorite sprinkly pizza topping is also one of the most game-changing ingredients on the market. I’ve heard it said that adding garlic and crushed red pepper to everything you make is the sign of an uncultured cook, but if loving a tiny kick of spice in everything is wrong, then I definitely don’t want to be right. You’ll notice that a lot of my recipes call for just a pinch of crushed red pepper, and I find that you rarely need more than that. Unless I’m purposely trying to make something spicy, I just use a few flakes of this stuff to round out other flavors and add a very sexy complexity to most everything. Big big fan.
4. Chili Powder
Chili powder is everyone’s friend. The ultimate extrovert. You don’t usually see him alone; he’s typically hanging out with someone else, like cumin or paprika or garlic powder or all three. That’s because he’s best in a group. The name suggests that chili powder might be all you need to make a good pot of chili, but that is most certainly incorrect. While chili powder is an indispensable ingredient in lots and lots of dishes, I think he needs friends to be the best version of himself. Even still, I love him just the same, because he adds a savory, spicy, warm flavor to every dish he befriends.
Cumin: smells like an armpit. Tastes like a miracle. Don’t you dare make Mexican or Indian food without it. I feel like that’s all I need to say.
6. Smoked Paprika
C-C-C-CURVEBALL! I would put smoked paprika on this list ten times if I could. You’ve probably heard me rave about it, especially if you saw this post—I seriously adore smoked paprika. I’d buy smoked paprika ten times over before I bought regular paprika. Lemme tell you why. This stuff is sweet, smoky, and just the tiniest bit spicy. It’s everything good about a barbecue chip, but in a spice. It’s readily available, totally affordable, and plays well with other spices. Two Thanksgivings ago, I seasoned my turkey with smoked paprika and orange zest, and it was one of the first actually-good-tasting turkeys I’ve ever eaten. If you don’t own it already, BUY IT. I promise it’ll be worth it.
7. Curry Powder
Neither of my parents like curry powder. I don’t understand how that is possible, but it’s true. It’s right up there with cumin in the kinda-smells-like-an-armpit-but-tastes-like-a-miracle category. If you’re like me and grew up in a meat-and-potatoes household, I STRONGLY encourage you to branch out into curryland. One of my favorite curry recipes is going up soon, and once you taste it, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Ah, basil. The sweetheart of the Italian herb world. She’s sweet, she’s spicy, she’s earthy, she’s got it all. She’s also amazingly easy to grow in a pot on your patio, so if you have any semblance of a green thumb, go get yourself some seeds and soil. If you kill plants just by looking at them, then just stick with dried. And if you ever make your own pasta sauce (which I highly recommend because it’s way better than jarred and literally is not hard at all — I have a recipe here) make sure you put a hefty spoonful of basil in there.
I LOVE THYME. If there weren’t already approximately one billion fledgling food blogs out there with thyme puns in the title, I would’ve named my blog in honor of this cutie pie. Something about thyme just tastes like home to me, probably because it’s a mandatory addition to classic comfort dishes like pot pie and clam chowder. I also add it to pasta sauces, mushroom bourguignon, vinaigrettes, and just about everything else. It takes savory food and makes it savorier. It is a beautiful little workhorse. That said, it is entirely possible to go too hard in the paint and ruin an entire dish by adding too much thyme. I never add more than half a teaspoon. Less is more.
Last but not least, oregano. One of those herbs that I’m always meh on until I realize I’m out of it, oregano is amazingly versatile. It’s got a reputation as an Italian-only herb, playing nicely in salad dressings and pastas, but it also has a remarkable ability to backbend into different cuisines. It’s absolutely indispensable in my homemade taco seasoning, which I’m posting the recipe for very soon.
And that’s that on that! These are my top ten desert island herbs and spices, the ones I literally cannot imagine cooking without. With that being said, though, I encourage you to explore the rest of the spice aisle too. Buy something you’ve never heard of and find something to make with it. I guarantee that herbs and spices will take your cooking from meh to magnificent!
Interested in seeing a full tour of my spice cabinet? Let me know in the comments below, and don’t forget to tell me what your favorite herb or spice is!