If your spice cabinet is anything like mine, it's a fun house. I love browsing through my collection and being surprised by what I find (hello, Urfa pepper!). But when I'm actually cooking, I definitely have my go-tos. Here are the 15 essentials every cook should keep around.
1. Black peppercorns
Can't go wrong with this classic. Buy whole peppercorns and grind them in a mill, since the pre-ground stuff loses its flavor much more quickly.
2. Cayenne pepper
When you need a teeny bit of heat, a pinch or two of cayenne pepper does you right. It's excellent in many different types of dishes, from roasted root vegetables and corn on the cob to French onion soup.
3. Chili powder
This spice mix starts with cayenne but might also include other dried peppers as well as cocoa, garlic and onion (read the labels before you buy). The good stuff offers complex levels of heat and a wonderful depth of flavor. Go for it.
This key baking spice can actually can go sweet or savory — choose your own adventure. Fabulous in everything from pumpkin pie to Cincinnati chili.
This strong-smelling spice is often used only in small quantities, but the sweet, warm flavor is unmistakable. From homemade chai tea in the winter to barbecue rubs in the summer, it's a year-round fave.
From Cuba to China, the world crushes hard on the hot, slightly nutty flavor of cumin. If you're making a cooked dish, take a moment to toast the cumin to amp up its flavor before adding it in to the rest of the ingredients.
7. Curry powder
Like chili powder, curry powder is a blend of other spices, typically coriander, tumeric, cumin and fenugreek. Look for the signature mustard-yellow color to know you're about to get a hit.
8. Garlic powder
Made from finely ground, dehydrated garlic, it can sub in for fresh garlic in many recipes. It's happy to sit on your shelf for a long time just waiting for the next time you want to make garlic bread, soup or a roast.
9. Ground ginger
Ground ginger has a warm, spicy flavor that shouts holiday cookies. Also an MPV for spice rubs, tagines and marinades. Fresh ginger has a stronger, sharper taste but the ground kind can hang out in your kitchen a lot longer.
10. Kosher salt
There are a zillion kinds of salt, but kosher is probably the most versatile. It has a fairly neutral flavor, which makes it easy to cook with, and the coarse flakes have a real presence when you sprinkle them on a dish.
11. Dried oregano
Oregano has an herbaceous, slightly citrusy flavor that plays well with others. You definitely need it for Mexican and Italian cuisines.
12. Smoked paprika
Its subtly wood-fired flavor gives a little extra complexity to any dish. Try it in chili or even sprinkled on deviled eggs — game changer.
13. Dried rosemary
A staple in a lot of Mediterranean and French cooking, rosemary has a woodsy, peppery, wildly aromatic quality you won't find in other herbs. It's stellar in all kinds of savory breads and baked goods.
14. Dried thyme
Dried rosemary's BFF. This intensely fragrant herb works well with a wide variety of meats, especially poultry, and vegetables. It also finds its way into most stuffing recipes. You basically can't have Thanksgiving without it, so stock up early.
15. Vanilla extract
Vanilla is anything but "plain" and you'll need it if you do even the slightest bit of baking. From homemade ice creams to chocolate chip cookies, you'll find vanilla in there.
Dried spices and herbs have a long shelf life compared to fresh, but do yourself a favor and change them out every 12 months or so before the flavor goes flat. Smell your spices regularly to ensure they're still pungent. It's like free aromatherapy!
When buying spices you probably won't use very much, look for small bottles so you won't waste as much when you change them out.