5 Must Have Spices for your everyday cooking and how to make the best use of them.
I am a spice hoarder and cannot help but collect spices of all kinds - whole spices, pre-mix packets, and ground spices. If you are looking to cook more often at home, a well-stocked cabinet allows for many possibilities and adds amazing flavors to the dish (without relying on just salt). Spices are also a good source of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and some have medicinal/herbal benefits. I am writing this post to encourage you that cooking healthy, delicious meals at home doesn't require a large spice collection. A small collection of my “5 Must Have Spices” will go a long way and you should take time to build you own collection based on what you really like or use more often in your cooking. I am also sharing few practical tips for proper storage and best use of your spices.
Black Pepper : Everyone should have black pepper in their kitchen. Get it whole and grind it using a coffee grinder. Ground or crushed black pepper are convenient to have on hand for quick use. Basic everyday meals like scrambled eggs, omelet, steamed or roasted veggies can be seasoned with just salt and pepper.
Cumin seed or powder : What Southeast Asian doesn’t have cumin on hand right? It’s a quintessential spice and I like to have both whole cumin seed and cumin powder. I prefer the taste of freshly toasted and grounded cumin for recipes such as chicken kebabs and korma paste but a generous sprinkle of cumin powder on roasted veggies, salads like Everyday Lentil Salad, Sprouted Fenugreek Salad elevates the dish to a whole another level.
Cinnamon : Cinnamon (bark & powder) can be used to flavor both sweet and savory dishes. A dash of cinnamon powder with morning oatmeal, homemade granola, and baked goods adds a warming touch to the dish. I add cinnamon to stews, esp those with chickpeas! If you are looking for something for decadent, this challah with brown sugar and cinnamon is one of the tastiest thing on earth.
Italian seasoning : The combination of different dried spices such as marjoram, thyme, rosemary, sage, oregano, and basil are typically found in an Italian seasoning. If you don’t use these individual spices regularly, I strongly suggest getting a pre-packaged Italian seasoning from the grocery store. They are typically sodium-free and works great on pasta dishes, baked chicken or fish, and roasted vegetables. I sometimes add Italian seasoning to my vinaigrette for extra flavor.
Talking about pre-packaged seasoning, have you tried the Trader Joe’s New Everything But the Bagel Sesame Seasoning yet? If not, add this savory-crunchy seasoning to your popcorn, dips, chicken eggs, and panko-breaded anything!
Red pepper : If you are into spicy food, red-pepper flakes or chili pepper are an absolute must to your pantry. There are different types of peppers and heat levels like cayenne, paprika, chipotle, Kashimi chili, peri peri powder etc. We use the term chili and chile interchangeably but there is a difference between chili and chile. Chile powder is made of pure ground dried chile peppers and usually has no additives. Chili powder, on the other hand, is a blend of chile peppers and other spices, including cumin, peppercorn, oregano, and salt.
Spices are not cheap and more often than not, we buy too many spices only to use them in one dish before they disappear into the never ending mess. Recently, I organized my spice cabinet after almost a year and it was a complete chaos. The general rule of thumb with spices is to go through them every 6 months and check for their freshness. For whole spices, crush a small amount in your hand and if the aroma is not full and immediate, it has probably lost its potency. For ground spices, check for any clumping (which happens when spices absorb moisture and start to lose its flavor) and smell.
If you are new to cooking, I’d suggest you stock up on these 5 Must Have Spices. Bulk bin section is a great place to start shopping for spices (in small quantity) and Aldi’s have a reasonable price with a large selection of spices. If you are looking for spices in bulk (like cumin, turmeric, and red chili peppers), Indian grocery stores are the best!
If you already have these spices and want to add few more to your repertoire, I’d like to introduce you to curry powder, furikake, and Za’atar.
Curry powder is a mix of different spices such as turmeric, chili powder, coriander powder, cumin powder, cinnamon, cloves etc. Depending on the brand or family recipe, everyone uses a slightly different ratio of each spices in curry powder. It is similar to garam masala, which has a lot of warming spices and no turmeric in the mix. If need be, you can substitute curry powder with garam masala in recipes. I buy pre-made curry powder from the store and use in my Weeknight Chicken Curry, Samosa Bites, and anything that needs a dash of Indian flavors.
Furikake is a dry Japanese spice mix with sushi nori (seaweed), sesame seeds, dried tuna flakes, ground shiso leaf, salmon flakes, powdered soy sauce or miso, and dried egg. There are different flavors of furikake and it adds a irresistible umami flavor to rice, eggs, and avocado toast. I buy them at Asian grocery store.
Za’atar is a Middle Eastern/Mediterranean spice blend with sumac, sesame seed and herbs like dried oregano, minced fresh thyme, and marjoram. You can make your own blend or buy pre-made Za’atar mix. It’s a very aromatic and versatile spice blend for flavoring roasted and sautéed veggies, fish, and meat. I love to sprinkle za’atar on hummus and jazz up my salad dressing with it.
What are some of your go-to spices for everyday cooking?