Any cook can tell you how easy it is to overstock the spice cabinet! You try a new-to-you recipe and buy an ounce of this and a pinch of that, but what do you do with the rest of the jar? Well, search a good cookbook or online recipe source for more options.
But if you’re stocking a new kitchen, or you want to pare down to basics, here’s Pepper’s list of essential dried spices. (Okay, it’s mine, but we’ll pretend she isn’t fictional for a few minutes.)
Of course, your preference and how you like to eat play a big part. If you enjoy Mexican dishes, add more peppers and some dried cilantro. If you eat a lot of Italian, add rosemary. If you love making soups and stews, you need bay leaves.
And of course, blends are a great way to add a lot of flavor in a hurry.
In alphabetical order:
Cinnamon (ground, but sticks are great, too)
Paprika (sweet or spicy; smoked is a fave in our house)
Red Pepper Flakes
Plus a good sea salt* and black peppercorns and a grinder.
What’s the difference between sea salt and table salt? Sea salt is formed by evaporation of ocean or lake water, with minimal processing, while table salt comes from underground salt deposits. (“I’m going to the salt mine,” my father used to say before descending to his basement office.) Each has a different crystal structure. In addition, most commercial table salts also include iodine, which before the early 20th century, was often difficult to get in a diet, particularly for Midwesterners. That’s no longer the case, with changes in how we eat and where our food comes from. Table salt can oxidize to form iodine, and give food an acrid flavor.
If you bake, you’ll want kosher salt, so named because it’s used to draw out water in the koshering process. It’s got a coarser structure than sea or table salt, and is particularly good for baking. I have read that professional bakers prefer Diamond Crystal over Morton’s, that lab tests have shown it to be more consistent in structure and therefore salinity, and that most recipes are written expecting the cook to use Diamond Crystal. So that’s what Pepper and I do!
Why didn’t I mention garlic? Because you should use fresh when you can, though the chopped garlic in a jar is a lifesaver, as is jarred ground ginger. But dried minced garlic and garlic powder have a place, too, unless you’ve got a super-small kitchen!