Although the type of spices a kitchen has on hand depends greatly on the heritage, palate, and tastes of the cook that frequents it, there are some core spices that are incorporated into a wide range of dishes from all over the globe. These spices are beneficial to have at a moment’s notice or to experiment with.
1. Black Peppercorns
Invest in a good peppermill, and forgot buying that generic finely ground pepper from the store. Grind your own for a fresh kick to any dish, simmer whole peppercorns in stews, broths, and soups, or crack them pen and press into meat right before grilling. Just make sure to remove whole peppercorns always before eating.
Ground cinnamon can be used in sweet or savory cooking, particularly for Middle Eastern dishes. Besides baking, sprinkle cinnamon into marinades for ribs or steak, stews, fruit salad, or ice cream. A little usually goes a very long way.
Although delicious fresh, dried mint is a great staple for a spice cabinet. It is often used in Mediterranean dishes, along with marinades and sauces. Combine dried mint with olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, and salt for a fast grilling marinade, or else sprinkle over fruit, ice cream desserts, tacos, or fresh fish.
Dried oregano can bring a punch to many dishes, and keep in mind that Mexican oregano is even spicier. Mix into marinades, use in bread dipping oil, sprinkle into pasta or potato salad, and sprinkle on almost every Italian dish.
This is one of those spices that budding cooks may be a little nervous about using—it’s often used but not a common topic of discussion. Allspice is most often used in Latin, Southeast Asian or Caribbean cooking, so use it to give a little exotic twist to dishes. Best used in stews, seafood boils and bakes, spice cakes, and cookies.
This vibrant spice is synonymous with deviled eggs, no doubt. But besides just adding color to dishes, it adds a little nutty flavor to casseroles, soups, stews, and marinades. It is most often used in Spanish and Hungarian cooking. But watch what type of paprika is on hand—varieties range from sweet to spicy.
Chiles come in a variety of styles and types, from flakes to finely ground, to chipotle to ancho. In short, the type chosen all depends on the heat that’s desired. Used often in Mexican, African, and South American cooking, dried chiles are perfect for layering flavors, adding depth to dessert (such as hot cocoa or fudge brownies), and giving such soups as chicken tortilla a kick.
Curry powder is basically a combination of cumin, coriander, cardamom, turmeric, and chiles, along with a couple of other spices. It’s often used in Indian cooking, so add a pinch of this to dishes for an exotic twist. Mix it with Mediterranean style dishes as well, such as a sauce for lamb kebabs or to top gyros.
Well-known in Indian, Middle Eastern, and Mexican cooking, ground cumin is potent and full-flavored, so a little goes a long way. Use it with ethnic dishes and combine them with other spices for unique flavors.
These dried leaves are not to be eaten, but rather to add a hint of flavor and depth to dishes. Add to a marinade, soup, or stew but remove before serving. Bay can be used in a variety of different cuisines. For example, a couple of leaves are added to the French dish Coq a Vin, while a handful can be thrown in with Mexican chili.
Understanding the basic spices to have on hand is a necessary stepping-stone for aspiring chefs or makes cooking much easier for those who just like to experiment in the kitchen.