Spices and seasonings can transform your cooking. Especially if you’re working to build your culinary skills, learning how to use dried herbs and spice powders can bring your dishes to the next level in terms of flavor and nutrition.
A hit of cinnamon can elevate a vanilla custard from one-note to warm, comforting, and fall-scented. A dash of cumin in your guacamole deepens the layer of flavor beyond avocado and lime. And the right sprinkle of dried herbs over a simple pasta can bring it from basic to refined.
The good news is that you don’t need to go on a full-on shopping spree to equip yourself with the best herbs and spices. While the possibilities are truly endless, with new bright and fragrant spices showing up every year on grocery store shelves, we’re covering the top 10 most important spices for a well-stocked pantry.
How To Buy Spices
Before we get cooking, here are the best tips to keep in mind when you’re buying spices:
- Buy spices in small quantities. Unless you’re planning to whip up a huge batch of cinnamon coffee cake, look for the smallest jars possible. Spices lose their potency over time, so it’s best not to store them for longer than 6 months.
- Choose spices from a store with a high turnover and high-quality products. There’s a big range when it comes to quality in spices and seasonings. At a store where things aren’t exactly flying off the shelves, it can be hard to know how long the jars have been sitting gathering dust. It’s best to spend an extra dollar or so on a higher-quality, fresher spice jar. Your food will speak for itself.
- If possible, buy spices in the bulk section of the grocery store. That way, you can buy just the amount you need. Plus, you can get a whiff of the spice before buying. If it doesn’t smell pungent and bold, pass.
- If you have a spice grinder or mortar and pestle, buy whole seeds, rather than ground spices. Once they’re ground into a powder, spices lose flavor faster. So if you’re enthusiastic about enhancing your cooking, a spice grinder is a worthwhile investment. Just be sure to keep your coffee beans and spices in separate grinders, unless you want your morning joe to taste like cumin seeds.
Keep your spices in well-sealed jars in a dark space in your kitchen. If you bought them in plastic or glass jars, those are fine for storage. If you bought them in bulk plastic bags with a twist tie, it’s best to transfer the spices to a clean, dry jar with an airtight lid for storage.
Keep the spices away from direct light as much as possible. And use them often! Spices don’t last forever, so look for a drawer or cabinet in your kitchen where you can display your spices front and center. The more easily you see them, the more likely you are to use them.
Organizational tip: store your spices in alphabetical order so you know exactly where to reach for the basil when you’re in the middle of a recipe.
How Long Do Spices Stay Fresh?
Technically speaking, spices are classified as a shelf-stable product. According to the FDA, they never expire. However, they do lose potency, flavor, and aroma.
Ground spices are generally past their peak flavor about 6 months after opening. Whole spices can last several years, and even up to five.
The Top 10 Spices Every Pantry Needs
Here are the first 10 spices to reach for when you’re stocking your pantry.
- Black peppercorns. It’s hard to find a Western recipe that doesn’t feature ground black pepper. And buying whole peppercorns will add a much bolder taste that you can’t get from pre-ground pepper.
- Cumin. This is an essential spice in many world cuisines, from the Middle East to India to Mexico. It’s tasty with lime, cilantro, curries, lamb, and mint. Buy whole seeds for more flavor.
- Red pepper flakes. Like your favorite hot sauce, crushed red pepper flakes add heat to any dish. From Chinese stir-fries to Italian tomato sauce, this is a neutral spice that adds spice without overpower other flavors.
- Oregano. Dried oregano is fragrant and savory. It adds herbal notes to Mexican and Mediterranean dishes, including salad dressings, and marinades for meat and vegetables.
- Curry Powder. This is actually a pre-mixed blend of spices, including turmeric, cumin, coriander, chili powder, ginger, and pepper. It ranges in flavor, heat, and power, so try a few different brands if you don’t love it at first. You can also make your own at home with your newly stocked spice drawer.
- Cinnamon. This is a warming spice that’s often used in American and British baking recipes, though the most famous cinnamon comes from Sri Lanka. It’s also a healthy spice that’s anti-inflammatory and is tied to lower blood sugar levels. It’s a fairly mild seasoning that you can add to coffee, tea, yogurt, or even popcorn.
- Paprika. This bright spice comes in many forms, including smoked and sweet. Both versions are a vibrant red, and add a pop of color and flavor to Spanish, Hungarian, and other cuisines. It adds richness to meat dishes like goulash, and pep to chilled recipes, like deviled eggs. It’s mildly spicy and fairly sweet tasting.
- Chili Powder adds a kick to South and Central American meals, as well as Tex-Mex specialties like breakfast tacos. Not as spicy as cayenne, it adds smokiness and is often a blend of several different dried peppers. This is another spice that varies quite a bit between makers, so try out a few different brands before choosing your favorite.
- Basil is a classic dried herb to add to vinaigrettes, pasta dishes, soups, and sauces. It doesn’t have an especially bold flavor but adds a nice background note wherever it’s added.
- Saffron is a totally unique and sought-after spice. It bleeds a beautiful golden yellow color into everything it touches (including white counter tops, so beware). And while it might be pricier than the other spices, saffron is a sure-fire way to upgrade a dish. It’s intensely flavorful and rich, so a tiny pinch goes a long way. Just be sure to “bloom” the saffron before cooking by soaking it in warm water, oil, or broth for 20 to 30 minutes. This ensures that you get every ounce of flavor out of those golden threads.
Recipes Featuring the Top 10 Spices
Now that your kitchen is stocked with a beautifully organized spice collection, it’s time to put them to use!
Here are some of the best recipes featuring dried spices:
- Vegetarian Fajitas with Green Peppers gets tons of flavor from a blend of cumin, dried oregano, chili powder, and smoked paprika.
- Salsa Veggie Burgers are spiced with cumin and crushed red pepper flakes for a kick.
- Sweet Corn Salsa has a Mexican flavor profile, thanks to cumin and smoked paprika.
Don’t forget, the world of spices is infinitely large and packed with flavor. Use this list of the top 10 spices as a springboard to experiment with more flavors, and enjoy!