Learning about spices can be overwhelming, and for the uninitiated, you can find yourself face to face with an endless variety of bland dishes, flavorless sauces and ruined meals.  It doesn’t have to be this way!  After reading this article, you will be armed with a basic array of our favorite foundational spices that will instantly transform your cooking and subtly introduce you to the nuances of flavor.  Welcome to the inner circle.

Here are the basic spices you need for building flavor:

  • Curry
  • Cinnamon
  • Cumin
  • Nutmeg
  • Smoked Paprika
  • Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
  • Ginger

 

We chose a whole bunch of different spices that run the gamut of bitter, tangy, colorful, smoky, and… well, spicy!  Scrupulous readers will recognize that this isn’t a complete list.  Good on you.  We’re here to arm you with the basics so that you can quickly get started on the road to flavor and learn how to easily and successfully incorporate these classics into your cooking.  From there, it’s all up to you.

A Few Quick Notes

Before we dive into each spice individually, lets quickly go over a few pointers when it comes to working with spices in general.

First and foremost, you will notice that salt and pepper are not on this list.  That is because these stalwarts are so important for seasoning that they require their own separate article.  Until then, it should be a given that they are always a necessity in every kitchen at all times.  Also, other key items are left off the list because they are considered Herbs and will be covered in an upcoming post.

Second, use spices sparingly until you are comfortable with them.  This means using each one individually from time to time until you learn the nuances of its flavor and how much you actually need in a dish.  Start with a minuscule amount at first, and work your way up to heightened levels of flavor until you reach your own personal taste level nirvana.

Third, season to taste.  You’ve heard it on shows and read it in recipes, but what does it mean exactly?  Well, basically it means adding a little bit at a time, ideally at different stages of the cooking process – beginning, middle and end – until you reach flavor freedom.  So, as an example, let’s use salt.  Add some salt at the beginning of the cooking process, then take a taste as it starts to cook.  Can you taste the salt?  Is the flavor still bland?  If so, add a little more salt, continue to cook, and take another taste.  How is it now? Perfect?  If so, you’ve just seasoned to taste meaning you’ve reached your own personal taste level.  Congratulations!

Additional Considerations

Keep in mind that while some spices work really well together and elevate your dish, not all combinations compliment one another.  So don’t start mixing and experimenting until you are comfortable with each one on a personal and intimate level.  Start with the list above before you start branching out and open the door to a new spice frontier.

Spices enhance their flavor as they’re cooked and give off a unique aroma that can fill the room and create feelings of nostalgia, bliss and excited cries of, “Wow, what is that?”

Using spices properly is not only extremely important, on a fundamental level, but you should also take care how you store and work with them is as well.

Tips On Storing Your Spices

Newsflash!  Spices, like other food items, do expire.  Many home cooks leave spices sitting in their spice rack for months, or [gasp] years on end.  This is a no no.  Spices will go stale and become more and more bland over time.

As a general rule of thumb, we recommend replacing your ground spices every 12 months.  However, a few spices like nutmeg and cinnamon may last longer.  In the UpGood Testing Kitchen, we place white stickers on the sides or top of spices with the date of purchase just so we know when it’s time to throw them out.

Note: Unopened and whole spices have a longer shelf life.  Make sure you check the expiration before use.

When picking a location in your home to store your spices, try to avoid hot and humid areas.  Ideally, you want to find a place in your kitchen that is dark and cool like the inside of a cabinet.  Not a spice rack sitting in front of a sunny window.

Blooming

While spices may taste great as is, blooming will unlock a whole new level of flavor.  Blooming basically means very gently heating or toasting the spices in a pan.  You can add a little oil, but that’s optional.  To bloom properly, cook on medium-low heat until you can smell the spices circling the air around you.  The warm, fragrant aroma indicates that the blooming process is complete and your spices are now ready to rock.

Please be careful not to overcook or burn the spices.  A dark brown color, funky smell, or bitter taste means trouble.  Also, you don’t always have to bloom, but when you do, please bloom responsibly.  All kidding aside, it’s an important process from time to time to unlock more flavor, but isn’t always required.  So bloom on my friends.

Further Down Spice Road

  • We always recommend buying spices whole if possible.  The process of grinding unlocks their essential oils, aromas and potency
  • You can use an electric grinder, coffee grinder, handheld manual grinder or even a mortar and pestle if you want to get back to your hunter gatherer roots
  • Grind spices as finely as you would like.  We prefer a more coarse (larger) grind so you can really taste it in your food
  • Fresh is always best

Foundational Spices That Belong On Every Rack

Alright!  Let’s get into it.  Our list of the essential spices you need to start with.  Again, this is not a comprehensive and all-inclusive list, but these are, without a doubt, some of our favorites and a great stepping stone in your culinary journey!

Curry Powder

Curry plays an important role in many Indian and Thai cuisines.  It’s a spice mix, so you can make it at home using various ingredients like ginger, turmeric, cayenne pepper, and even cinnamon.  However, it’s much easier and convenient to just buy it already blended.

In general, curries can range from mild to hot and also come in different colors.  Common types you’ll recognize at the store are yellow and red.  The yellow powder contains more turmeric and is typically sweeter and mellower than the red which leans on the use of red chilies.  There are many versions and varieties, but for now, just stick with a common yellow or red curry blend and you’ll be good to go.  Chicken curry here we come!

Careful: it’s super aromatic, can have a strong taste, and is prone to staining

Cinnamon

Cinnamon is one of those nostalgic spices that takes you back.  Where???  Usually the holidays, but you may end up somewhere different.  That’s ok.  It has a unique flavor profile that can be used in both sweet and savory dishes.  It’s strong, but not in a hot way, so you won’t really burn your mouth unless you’re doing the Cinnamon Challenge [not recommended].  It definitely has a more piercing feeling against the tongue if eaten raw.

Have some on hand for dishes like apple pie, roasted carrots, and even pineapple-ham pizza.  Cooking cinnamon will get rid of the sharp, bitter flavor and leave you with a more reduced impact that still has that warm hug flavor.  You can also sprinkle some on hot chocolate, coffee, or ice cream.

Cumin

Cumin is definitely one of those spices you should consider buying whole. It’s a flowering plant that is contained within a fruit and dried before consumption.  It’s also the second most popular spice in the world.

A common component in Latin American, Middle Eastern and Indian dishes.

Cumin has a distinctive earthy flavor that feels both satisfying and ancient.  Grind some up at home and use it in rubs, marinades, taco seasoning, and other hearty dishes.

Nutmeg

Another holiday flavor!  Eggnog anyone?  It’s very similar to cinnamon in terms of the experience, so the two go hand in hand most of the time.

Nutmeg is another spice you need to buy whole. They look like tiny, uniform walnuts and have a very intense flavor that is slightly spicy, sweet, nutty, and bitter.

Nutmeg is also versatile and can be used in sweet or savory dishes.  It’s not just for baking.  For example, you can safely use it in hot cocoa, but you could also step outside your comfort zone and add it to a decadent mac and cheese or alfredo sauce.

Smoked Paprika

Paprika is a delicious spice, and you should always buy it smoked!  It’s rich, red color really stands out and it is a welcome addition to the lineup.

Since the peppers are usually smoked and dried over oak wood, this process really gives the spice a boost in terms of color, flavor and smell.  It’s a tad spicy and almost sweet with more distinctive flavor than, for instance, cayenne which really just adds the heat.

A staple in American cooking and barbecue that can also be used it in stews, salads, and roasted potatoes.

Not just for deviled eggs anymore!

Crushed Red Pepper

This is a must-have!  Crushed red pepper or red pepper flakes are a delicious spice made from crushed red chili peppers. You can definitely crush these yourself.  Just make sure you don’t go too fine, and keep those seeds.

Red pepper flakes are definitely spicy, but not overly so. They go great when sprinkled on a fresh slice of pizza or cooked into other Italian goodness like pastas and raviolis.  You can lightly toast then (see Blooming above) or fry in oil with garlic and black pepper to enhance the flavor and boost your dish to new heights.

A great entry level or “gateway spice” to more advanced options like Chili Powder and Cayenne.

Ginger

Last, but definitely not least, our friend ginger!

Ginger packs a powerful punch, and is often used in a variety of ways with Asian dishes to Eastern medicine.  Ginger has a very strong flavor that is sharp and almost cold.  Pungent, aromatic and slightly spicy it will definitely add a zig to your zag.  At the same time, it’s also sweet, wholesome, and delicious.

This spice is extremely flexible in that you can pickle it, make a paste, or reduce it into powder form.  Make anything from gingerbread cookies to ginger salmon to sweet ginger shrimp and beyond.

Last Words

We could go on and on here, but remember, this is just a starter list.  Take it slow and savor every culinary adventure.  Over time, you will add to this list and discover other wonderful spices that you’ll enjoy using on a more regular basis.  Try out some of the dish ideas above and figure out for yourself which of these spices you like the most.  It’s all about the journey, and this list will get you on your way!

– Have Fun In The Kitchen