The first time I walked into a favorite spice store in Seattle, I felt like I’d wandered into my culinary home away from home. The sweet, smoky, and spicy blends surrounded me invited me to taste each one, experimenting with what new combinations I could create from ingredients I had at home. I could step from one shelf to the next and read descriptions of the flavor profiles and suggested pairings, and I could smell a dish of each spice. A few months later I leaned against the glass display of endless bulk spices in New York’s Chelsea Market and breathed in the colors and scents, choosing a few select spices to buy and take home to explore. Being able to vary the flavors of proteins and produce helps us stretch our culinary budget, and it gives us the opportunity to create a richer “everyday welcome” for our family and our guests. Building variety in flavors has been an important part of my journey as a homekeeper, and I thought you might enjoy some of my tips for building your spice collection!
A good friend recently asked me to help her create a lesson for some young students in how to build their own collection of herbs and spices. (Side note, I’m always amazed when friends, who so impress me with their own talents and skills, ask for my help. It’s a cool merry-go-round of gifts and gift-giving!)
Here are a few tips for building your spice collection.
First, taste everything.
Seriously, all the (edible) things! In order to get a feel for what you love, you need to try different flavor combinations. Eat out when you can, at different types of restaurants, and try different dishes. Small, locally owned places often have “signature dishes” that have family history or a local flare. Ethnically diverse spots can introduce combinations you’ve never known. Even when you eat at a familiar place, order something new and try to determine what ingredients were combined to create the flavors present. Many of my favorite “original” dishes were inspired by something unique I tasted at a food truck or little hole-in-the-wall restaurant.
Stop and smell the spices (and herbs). Our sense of smell is powerful, and can influence whether we like a particular flavor before we take a bite. Often when I’m experimenting with basic ingredients like a meat and vegetables, I’ll pull down several bottles and sniff them to determine what to add together. There is a downside: some spices and herbs don’t smell the way they taste. It took me years to use turmeric in a dish, because I couldn’t stand the smell of it. Two things changed that bias – I got my hands on fresh turmeric, and I found a recipe online that looked too tantalizing, and promised excellent benefits, and I couldn’t pass it up. That’s when “golden milk” or spiced milk, became a favorite warming drink in our house, and when my fear of turmeric ended.
Try using one basic protein and a couple vegetables (chicken, onion and potatoes, for example, or ground beef or turkey and onion and peppers), and cooking them with different techniques, or even the same technique and different spices and herbs, for a variety of different dishes.
It’s important to have an arsenal of spices and dried herbs, but in my humble opinion, fresh herbs and spices win out every time. If you can grow your own basics like parsley, rosemary, mint and basil, you’ll always have a few options on hand. We keep a few pots near our kitchen windows so even up-north-in-the-winter, we have a few fresh herb options! Fresh herbs add a brightness and an elegance to a dish not found in dried, and their flavor is undoubtedly more pronounced. If using fresh herbs in a long-cooking dish, be sure to save them to add at the end to preserve the most of their flavor. Likewise, when you can, crack or grind spices fresh as you use them; they have much more flavor this way. Good examples are peppercorns instead of ground pepper, and whole nutmeg grated as you use it.
Don’t keep spices and herbs in bright light, and don’t keep them longer than 2 years. If they look faded, pitch and replace them.
Store your spices in a way that makes sense to you, so that you can find them for familiar recipes and to experiment in new ways. I keep what I call the “sweet” spices on one shelf, even though I use many of them in savory dishes. On the next shelf, I keep the herbs and spices that I use most in those savory dishes, and I group them by the profile I use together most frequently. For instance, I use basil, marjoram, oregano and rosemary together frequently in Mediterranean influenced dishes, so those go near each other. We do taco night often and my husband would travel miles barefoot in the heat of summer for Mexican dishes, so my cumin, chili powders, pepper flakes and coriander live together on the rack.
Here is a list of some of my favorite spice “essentials.”
Allspice – a single spice that is similar to cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg combined
Cinnamon – woody and sweet, warming spice, good in both sweet and savory dishes
Cloves – strong, spicy spice with a sweetness often used in baked goods and milled cider
Ginger – spicy and sweet – rich flavor great in Asian savory dishes as well as comfort foods and baked goods
Nutmeg (whole, with a grater, is best, but ground is good) – warm, sweet spice wonderful in baked goods and cream sauces and gratins
Star Anise – a warming spice similar to licorice, delicious used in warm drinks; use in moderation
Chili Powder – spicy kick without too much heat, great in southwestern and Mexican cooking
Chipotle Pepper – a smoked pepper that adds depth of flavor and a little heat
Coriander – the seed of cilantro plant has a lemony, almost metallic, bright flavor
Cumin – spicy and almost smoky, adds deep pungency to southwest flavors
Paprika – slightly peppery and sweet, adds great color to dishes (bonus: smoked paprika has a richer flavor and adds tons of smokiness to a dish)
Peppercorns (black) – grinding your own pepper is 100% worth it
Red Pepper Flakes
Sea Salt – choose this over iodized salt for flavor and health value
Basil – sweet and light, with almost a licorice scent
Bay Leaves – woodsy flavor whole leaves, great for adding depth to soups and stews
Cilantro – bright and citrusy, bold almost metallic herb
Dill – bright, light, and feathery, wonderful on fish and salads and making refrigerator pickles
Garlic Powder – fresh garlic is preferable, but adds great flavor to butters, meats and stews, used in a variety ethnic cooking styles, a “foundational” flavor
Fennel – adds a slightly sweet, licorice-like taste; a classic flavor in sausage and Italian dishes
Oregano – spicy and bold
Rosemary – woody, piney, and warm, wonderful in roasted foods and mediterranean
Sage – often used in chicken dishes, red meat and sausage, has a strong herbal fragrance
Thyme – very mild flavor and slightly minty, common in Italian cooking
Extracts – choose pure extracts, rather than artificial flavors
(I love hazelnut, and I also experiment with food-grade essential oils like cinnamon and peppermint!)
A few of my favorite combinations:
Sliced tomatoes and cucumbers tossed with apple cider vinegar, sesame oil, and fresh dill.
Small cubed sweet potatoes, sautéed into a little cooked bacon or olive oil, with dried rosemary and cracked black pepper. Or take them southwestern with cumin, coriander, chili powder and garlic.
Chicken – roast it with rosemary and whole garlic cloves, or pan-fry it in an iron skillet with butter and olive oil, sprinkle with garlic powder and thyme, and drizzle with lemon juice and fresh lemon zest at the end of cooking.
Cut up zucchini and yellow squash and sweet onion in similar sized pieces, and toss with olive oil, salt and pepper, then roast them. Use rosemary, sea salt, lemon and cracked pepper, or try dill, lemon, and at the last minute, toss with butter.
Combine fish sauce, lime juice, honey, garlic, ginger, and basil. Rub onto steak and marinate for 4-8 hours. Grill and serve with slaw seasoned with dressing made from ginger, garlic, lime juice and zest, cilantro, and sesame seeds.
Brown ground beef, turkey or venison with chopped onion (and red peppers, if you like). Add garlic, cinnamon, tomato sauce and tomato paste, oregano and salt and pepper for a quick chili. Or use that same meat and make into patties with salt and pepper, fennel, a little red pepper flakes, and you have a quick sausage to freeze and/or fry up.
My last tip:
Make it pretty! You may buy jarred spices, but if you buy them loose (and maybe even if not!), it’s so much more pleasurable to have pretty jars and labels for your ingredients while you’re cooking. Here are a few free printable labels I’ve found around the ‘net for your kitchen pretties.
Lia Griffith makes a pretty kraft paper and chalkboard version of free printable spice labels. She also gives a super cool tip for organizing spices.
These apothecary-style labels from eat drink chic are so chic, they make me want to redo my whole spice cabinet. Check out the tutorial and free pdf template!
These illustrated, hand-drawn spice labels from consumer crafts are so artsy and fun!
If you prefer to keep larger quantities of spices on hand (if you buy them in bulk or go through them quickly), these mason jar labels are big and crafty!
Spoon Fork Bacon has created super whimsical watercolor labels that are color coded to easily find spices. I’m melting…
These labels aren’t free, but in my opinion, their hipster-cool style is totally worth the small price to order the Mignon spice labels ready made (and make me want to re-bottle all my spices, now).
Here are some of my favorite “just for fun” blends that have become favorites in my kitchen:
Northwoods Seasoning from Penzeys Spices. This smoky blend is wonderful on grilled or roasted meats, and it adds a woodsy depth to soups, as well. It has salt, paprika, black pepper, thyme, rosemary, garlic and chipotle pepper. I love to add it to chicken and simply roast it on a pan with large cubed vegetables.
Cake Spice from Penzeys Spices. There’s nothing this spice isn’t good on, I’m pretty sure. I especially love to sprinkle it on coffee in the morning, or in almond-flour pancakes with blueberries and lemon zest.
Orange Peel – wonderful to add to baked goods like waffles, skillet cake or muffins.
Below are are some great articles on flavor combinations and building your spice collection.
Real Simple – basic spice list
The Kitchn – Emma Christensen for The Kitchn on common spice combinations
The Kitchn – A wonderful extensive list of spices, herbs, and their descriptions along with suggested use.
Dean Coleman – an incredible in-depth description of multiple spices, their origin, and common uses
Chef-Menus – A great printable list of herbs and spices with descriptions.
Spices, Inc – This post is an interesting list of 15 sensory characteristics of spices, with a list of specific spices that fit each description.
What’s your favorite way to “mix up” the flavors of a single main-dish item? How do you use spices creatively, and what are your favorites? Leave a comment below!
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