It’s reference day here at Betsylife! A while back I asked my readers if there was anything specific they wanted me to write about. My friend Oriana wanted to know what I thought the essential spices for any kitchen are, which spices are used in which types of cuisine, and which are the easiest to grow at home. Great idea Oriana! This post is for you.
We’ve all been in the place where we want to try a new recipe, but don’t want to pay $10 for a spice we may never use again. My #1 tip is try to find a store that allows you to buy spices by weight. Sprouts market by my house (shown above) allows you to buy pretty much any spice in the amount you need for your recipe. If it doesn’t register on the scale, they’ll usually only charge you 10 cents! I realize that stores like this don’t exist everywhere, so for those who don’t have this option, check out my guide below, and buy the spices that are essential for those cuisines you make most often. If you want to try something new, ask your neighbor for a teaspoon, or see if they want to split a bottle of a certain spice with you.
Let’s start with my essentials. Honestly, I have every spice. I cook all the time, I’m constantly trying new things, and I feel as though I waste very little. However, there are a few spices that I stockpile because I go through them very quickly. They are
1. Garlic powder: add it to anything plain (potatoes, rice, quinoa) to give it a boost
2. Cumin: great for mexican cooking and chili
3. Ginger: Its pretty much my favorite flavor. Great for asian foods and baking
4. Crushed red pepper: The Hubs puts this on EVERYTHING
5: Chili powder: we are a SPICY family. This goes in everything from tacos to bloody marys
Living in Southern California, Mexican is our main cuisine. If you find yourself cooking Mexican food a lot, or wanting to cook it more, you’re going to need to following spices.
1. Cayenne pepper: Gotta keep it spicy
2. Cumin: I don’t think most people realize this is essential in Mexican cuisine
3. Oregano: I have Mexican oregano, but regular oregano would be fine too.
4. Crushed red pepper: can you tell we eat a lot of Mexican?
5. Chili powder: Not just for chili
Italian food is a favorite of a lot of my Chicago friends, and my friends in Seattle, but it doesn’t cross our table too often here in San Diego. However, if you cook Italian frequently, you’re going to need
1. Parsley: Very universal spice, it goes well in most types of dishes but its also easy to grow yourself**see below
2. Rosemary: My friend Val says, “rosemary tastes like pine needles” Italian is all about that herby flavor
3. Oregano: See! Just because my oregano is Mexican, doesn’t mean it can’t be used in Italian cooking
4. Thyme: More herbalicious goodness
5. Bay leaves: another universal spice
6. Ok, I cheat and buy Italian seasoning blend and use that most of the time. It gets the job done.
Some of my favorite foods to cook and eat are Thai dishes and Indian Curries. Although my curry is not yet perfect, its still a favorite in this house. Asian cooking generally requires a lot of things not found in the spice rack like miso paste, fish sauce, and rice wine vinegar. Keep that in mind if you’re looking to cook more Asian foods. For the essential spices, you’ll need
1. Crushed red pepper: It goes in everything!
2. Curry powder: I know real curries need way more than just curry powder, but its a good starting point
3. Ginger: an essential Asian flavor
4. Basil: another universal, yet easy to grow at home spice
5. Sesame seeds: I have black and white, but for most purposes you can just get one or the other
Another not-so-popular-in-our-house type of cuisine is french. In fact, I rarely make anything French, but I’ve still got all the spices!
1. Fennel: kind of tastes like licorice. See why I only have a small size?
2. Tarragon: another strong herb flavor. A little goes a long way
3. Rosemary: back to the pine needle……
4. Thyme: Like Italian food, French is all about getting that rich, herb flavoring
5. Basil: If basil can go from Asian to French, its definitely an essential
6. Marjoram: another small size. This one barely gets used
If you bake a lot, there are a few essential spices that you’ll need too. In addition to a good vanilla extract, flour, sugar and butter, you may want to get
1. Cream of tartar: great for stabilizing egg whites in meringue and for getting that extra rise out of cakes
2. Cinnamon: Who hasn’t used cinnamon at some point in their life? Great for all types of fruit pies, breads and breakfast foods
3. Nutmeg: its got that “holiday” flavor. Great for eggnog too!
Besides my essentials listed at the top of this post. I have a couple spices that I consider “bonus spices” that I always have on hand, but aren’t REALLY essential to any specific type of cooking. They are
1. Chipotle chili powder: for those who love spicy food and want to get that smoky flavor in there too
2. Celery salt: We drink A LOT of bloody mary’s and this is key to getting that perfect flavor
3. Pumpkin pie spice: This is about to get a workout now that fall is here. Its actually a blend of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, and chinese 5 spice. Another multi-tasker like the Italian seasoning blend above.
4. Old Bay seasoning: The quintessential seafood flavor! I’m addicted to this stuff
With all that being said, certain herbs are super easy to grow at home, and 9 times out of 10, fresh herbs are better. Plus, you don’t have to keep buying them over and over. The easiest herbs to grow at home are
1. Parsley: make sure you prune from the bottom to ensure full growth
2. Basil: When it wilts, give it some water and it will perk back up. You have to snip the flowers though or the leaves will become very small
3. Chives: I don’t use chives enough in my cooking! I’m overrun with chives right now!
4. Mint: mint is an awesome and unexpected addition to most salads
With growing herbs, its important to read about lighting and watering preferences before planting. I see a lot of people who plant all their herbs in one pot, then the rosemary dies (it prefers dry soil) while the basil flourishes (it prefers wet soil) Plant herbs that like simliar conditions together in a pot. I grow parsley, basil and chives together. Thyme in its own pot and oregano in its own pot. I’ve never been able to grow rosemary for the life of me.
All that being said, the MOST important spices anyone needs in their kitchen is a good kosher salt, and a pepper grinder. If you never buy another spice, you must buy salt and pepper, otherwise, I can guarantee your food tastes bland. Besides salt and pepper, there’s no “right” spice essentials for everyone. Decide what you and your family eat the most often, and just buy those. If you get stuck with a recipe, google “oregano substitutions” or whatever, and you’re sure to find that you already have on hand something you can use. Cooking is very free form, so don’t get hung up on exactly what a recipe calls for.