If you're just setting up a kitchen and wondering what essential spices, herbs, and seasonings you should stock your pantry with, it's easy to go online and find lists of ingredients that are supposedly essential. Some of them boast 30 to 40 items—surely all of them can't be essential!
And they're not. At least, not for everyone. That's because pantry essentials are different for every cook. What's essential for one person, another may never use.
So the first step is figuring out what your essential spices and seasonings are. And to do that, think about what you cook? Or, what do you want to cook? And not just once, but regularly?
If you like to cook a weekly batch of chili, you'll need things like chili powder, garlic powder, cumin, and paprika. If you crave curry regularly, you'll need coriander, turmeric, and garam masala. If you plan to bake, spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves might be among your essentials.
The point is, figure out what you want to make. Study recipes for those dishes, find out what spices and seasonings those recipes use, and buy them. Those are your essential spices.
Is Stocking Up Even a Good Idea?
Another reason for not looking up a list of essential spices online and simply buying everything on it is that supermarket spices, especially ground spices, have a limited shelf-life in terms of their potency. Ground spices lose much of their flavor and aroma within months as the essential oils break down and evaporate.
So buying a bunch of spices you don't actually use, or use rarely, means that not only are you wasting money and shelf space, when you do eventually use that ingredient, it's already stale.
Instead, consider shopping in the bulk spice aisle of your supermarket, not to buy large quantities but to buy small quantities. If a recipe calls for half a teaspoon of allspice, do you really need a whole jar? Maybe you do, if you're planning to make that recipe again and again. Otherwise, just buy a tiny bit! You can always buy more if you decide to make the dish again.
With all that in mind, here are a few spices and seasonings that most home cooks use most often, and will crop up in all kinds of recipes.
But please don't think you need to rush out and buy everything on this list. Instead, think of these items as suggestions. Over time, you'll figure out which ones you need and which ones you don't.
The True Essential Spices
But first, let's mention salt and black pepper. These two ingredients are the only truly indispensable seasonings. With salt, you might end up with several kinds: Kosher salt for most cooking, table salt for baking, and a flaky sea salt for garnishing. Freshly ground black pepper is certainly best. But if you make spice rubs, you'll need the pre-ground stuff, since grinding large quantities can be time-consuming.
Spices for Savory Cooking
- Crushed red pepper (aka pepper flakes): One of the most versatile—can be used on pizza, in pasta, veggies, stir fries, and so much more.
- Chili Powder: For homemade chili, dry rubs, enchiladas, and tacos.
- Cumin Powder (aka ground cumin): Used in Latin American, Middle Eastern, African, and Indian cuisines
- Oregano: To go onto pizza, in pasta sauces, and olive oil-based dishes
- Cayenne Pepper: Pure heat, use sparingly
- Paprika: Many varieties, including sweet and smoked
- Italian Seasoning: Blend of various dried herbs.
- Garlic Powder: Get the expensive kind.
Spices for Sweets
- Cinnamon: You'll use this everywhere
- Nutmeg: Get a whole nut and grated
- Vanilla Extract: Not strictly a spice, but you'll definitely need this
- Ground Cardamom: Pairs well with anything featuring cinnamon
- Ground Ginger: Popular in cookies and cakes
Next-Level Essential Spices
Note that if you're only using something once in a blue moon, it probably doesn't matter if you buy the best quality, most expensive version of it. But suppose you've figured out that you're regularly using, for example, cinnamon, cumin and nutmeg. Now you can take it to the next level by buying those ingredients in their whole form and either grating or grinding them yourself.
With cinnamon, that means buying whole cinnamon sticks and grating them with a spice grater. Same with a whole nutmeg. With cumin, you'll buy whole cumin seed and grind it in a spice grinder (aka a coffee grinder). Doing this helps your spices stay fresh longer, since they last longer in their whole form as opposed to their ground form.
But in some cases, like cinnamon, it can be tedious to grate a teaspoon of the stuff from a cinnamon stick. So consider having both on hand: pre-ground for baking and whole for garnishing, or for recipes that call for smaller amounts.
You'll also notice that our essential spices list features very few dried herbs. Fresh herbs are almost always superior to dried and these days popular recipes increasingly call for fresh herbs rather than dried.
But having some dried herbs on hand can be helpful. Oregano is likely the most common dried herb that's called for in recipes and a blend—whether it's Italian or French (e.g. Herbes de Provence)—can be added to a lot of dishes, especially marinades, salad dressings and the like.
The one thing jarred spices have going for them are the actual little jar, and if you buy from the bulk aisle, all you get are those little baggies. But you can purchase empty spice jars. These not only make storing your various spices more orderly, they also protect the spices from exposure to heat and oxygen, so that they stay fresh longer.
But if you do decide to keep your spices in the baggies, store them in a container with a tight-fitting lid. And be sure to label the bags! (Same with the jars.)