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17 Must-Have Spices for Your Kitchen

Make sure your spice rack is stocked with these classics.

Are you feeling like your dishes have been lackluster lately? When I first started learning to cook, I felt like something was missing that kept my work from stacking up to that of friends and family.

Spices and grains in matching spice jars on kitchen counter

It took a housewarming party at a friend’s place for me to realize the difference wasn’t my cutting skills or baking temperature. It was what spices I used, and when.

My tacos didn’t taste like the Mexican restaurant down the street because I was using a pre-blended mix instead of my chili, garlic, and cumin. My faux Chinese takeout lands flat without adequate ginger. 

Essential Spices

After years of trial, error, research, and experiments, the following are seventeen spices I absolutely could not live without. 

Garlic Powder

Some people say that however many cloves of garlic are in a recipe, you should double it.

I disagree; if you’re missing that garlic flavor from fresh bulbs the answer is not in adding more plant matter but rather in concentrating it.

That distinct garlicky flavor comes from its high presence of allium. Other plants with high allium include onions, leeks, shallots, and chives.

The concentrated flavor of garlic powder can be one of your greatest allies for savory dishes. 

From rubs to rouxs, garlic powder has practically unmatched versatility. Use it on pasta, fish, or roasted veggies for a delightful dimension of flavor.


Cinnamon

Some newer cooks may only be familiar with cinnamon in baking. Cinnamon is a powerhouse in the dessert world, lending warmth to sugary treats and lightness to denser dishes. 

But cinnamon is more than an actor opposite sugar. Cinnamon has broad applications for savory meals as well. Have you ever enjoyed cinnamon apple sauce?

Then you should consider braising pork with that sauce for a warm, sweet dinner. Pulled pork also takes on the heat of cinnamon well. 

For soups that are falling flat, cinnamon can give a thick, creamy broth a heat and heartiness that lifts it off the spoon. 


Dried Oregano

You may know oregano as wild marjoram. The green of the oregano is an aesthetic boost, let alone the crisp flavor that makes it a necessity for any spice rack. 

With dried oregano on hand, you’re ready to whip up a pesto in no time. Roasting vegetables or chicken with oregano is a guaranteed method of creating rich aromatics certain to please guests and chefs alike. 

Spaghetti, pizza, ravioli, garlic bread- I’m reaching for the oregano every time I make Italian food, or even anything Italian inspired.

Not only is it a cornerstone of American-Italian fusion, but oregano also prominently features in Mexican cuisine. Pozole and black beans wouldn’t be the same without this pungent spice. 


Crushed Red Pepper Flakes

Crushed red pepper flakes are a go-to topping for my pizzas, right next to parmesan. But they’re also perfect for adding a bit of heat and vibrant color to any dish. 

Pale kinds of pasta, like a fettuccine Alfredo, are easily lightened up with a dash of red pepper flakes.

Toss a handful of red pepper flakes into a crockpot meat dish to make a dish that’s been cooking for hours to taste like it’s fresh off the range. 

Toast red pepper flakes in neutral oil to make the flavors and colors pop. These toasted flakes are great in Asian-inspired dishes like teriyaki salmon or spicy crispy tofu.


Mustard Seed

I can’t get enough of mustard. Pork dishes are bolstered by the gentle spice of mustard.

A splash of mustard on cold lunch sandwiches makes them taste fresh long into the workday.

For everything that mustard pairs well with, mustard seeds are a nonperishable, concentrated alternative. Add mustard seeds to a salad to get a strong mustardy flavor without making the greens soggy. 

Pickle mustard seeds to make a tangy condiment perfect for fish, pork, roasted vegetables, or sandwiches. Altering the pickling solution can open up a world of possibilities.

Pickle in dissolved honey for a sweet mustardy condiment. Cilantro and mustard, on the other hand, make a perfect topping for Mexican-inspired dishes.


Ground Ginger

Ever had a cold that made your whole head feel clogged? Mayhaps ginger tea or a gingery broth helped clear those sinuses and the cloud of illness.

Ginger is a natural anti-inflammatory, but that’s not the only reason to have it on hand. 

Ginger is a warm spice ready to bring any dish to life. In soups, ginger bolsters the flavors of meat, vegetables, and dairy. Ginger and garlic are natural teammates.

Toasted ground ginger and garlic powder in a pan before cooking steak lends the meat a deep, rich flavor. 

Ground ginger can bring a homey tang to cookies and cakes. For me, nothing can beat a carrot cake with ginger powder in the flour. It gives the sweet, moist a delicious spice that can’t be beaten.


Bay Leaves

Yes, whole bay leaves. Bay leaves will transform your long cooking performance.

Slow-cooked meals, pressure-cooked meals, soups, stews, and roasts all sparkled with the help of a bay leaf.

Bay leaves are beloved across the world. Indian cuisine, Mediterranean cuisine, Greek cuisine, Filipino cuisine, and Thai food are all notable examples of realms where bay leaves shine.

Throw a bay leaf into the rice cooker to give the rice a rich, aromatic flavor that complements entrees and vegetables. 

The biggest thing to remember when using a bay leaf in recipes is that it is just that- a single leaf. Make sure to fish it out at the end of the cooking, especially for soups you plan on blending.

Though they lend dishes a great flavor, bay leaves themselves are quite bitter when ingested. 


Cumin

Whether you prefer cumin powder or cumin seeds, cumin is a must-have in your arsenal. After black pepper, cumin is the second most popular spice in the world.

No curry is complete without cumin. Tandoori pairs well with neutral yogurt to create a cool counterpart to the heat of the cumin.

For chili, burritos, enchiladas, pozole, tacos, or any variety of Tex-Mex fusion, cumin is essential to give the dish that iconic earthiness. Aromatic and warm, cumin lends heat without the scorch of peppers. 


Paprika 

Paprika’s primary function is to lend color and visual appeal to dishes. I love to add it to soups.

There is something so appealing about taking the dark red of a tomato soup and making it vivid with a shake of paprika. Paprika is also an excellent source of Vitamin A. 

Hungary is the world’s greatest exporter of paprika and is even the national spice of the country. Paprika can be found in goulash and Hungarian sausage.

There are many types of paprika, ranging from sweet to spicy. Some paprikas are even classified as delicate. 

Paprika can be used on virtually any dish, with the flavor profile informing the final product. 

Smoked paprika is not the same as paprika nor do they serve the same functions, but I highly recommend having both in your kitchen. 


Nutmeg

The nutmeg plant is also the plant which mace is derived from. But never fear, though nutmeg is a powerful spice in the kitchen, the only thing it is capable of destroying is blandness.

Nutmeg is warm, sweet, and with a whiff of pungency, a tiny dash can go a long way in baking and cooking alike.

Nutmeg has been used since the times of ancient Rome as a fragrant plant. When making Indonesian cuisine, nutmeg is essential for flavoring soups and stews.

In Indian cuisine, nutmeg is an element of garam masala, a cornerstone of the continent’s flavor. 


Cardamom

Cardamom is an aggressively warm spice particularly delightful in wintry treats, such as apple cider.

It is popular in European pastries and South Asian entrees. Cardamom also features prominently in African cuisine. 

Cardamom is often confused with one another, but cardamom is a much stronger compound. In chai tea blends, cardamom is one of the most prominent aromas.

Other major components of a chai mix are ginger, star anise, and cinnamon.


Anise

Anise and star anise are not the same spice, though both are excellent in sweet bakes and tapioca puddings. I love anise in herbal teas and pastries.

Anise can also be used on pork dishes. I like to make a ham with anise, nutmeg, ginger, fresh pepper, and molasses during the holidays.

It pairs so well with the more herbaceous side dishes and warms the palate so pleasantly without weighing it down for heavier meals. 


Peppercorns

Black pepper is the most popular spice in the world. However, using pre-ground black pepper in your cooking may well be an unconscious act of sabotage on your food. 

Pepper mills may seem like another kitchen gadget that can be foregone for the convenience of prepped pepper.

However, the difference in taste between freshly ground pepper and pre-ground pepper is night and day. I keep both black peppercorns and tri-color peppercorns on hand to be ground on-demand as needed. 

Freshly ground pepper is perfect for just about everything done in the kitchen. My favorite application for freshly ground pepper is over a creamy stovetop mac and cheese. Nothing livens up a cheesy bechamel-like fresh pepper.

Not only does making ground pepper fresh for each dish elevate your cooking, but the peppercorns themselves can be used like bay leaves.

When slow cooking, roasting, or grilling, use whole peppercorns to give the dish an even, earthy, warm essence. 


Chili Powder

Chili powder is not to be confused with any pre-blended spice mixes. Those often include garlic powder, cumin, salts, and other additives. 

Chili powder can be derived from multiple varieties of chilis, meaning it may take some trial and error to find the perfect variety of chili powder for your palate and dishes.

But it is worth it, as chili powder is a cornerstone of Thai, Mexican, Indian, Chinese, Korean, and American foods

From its eponymous role in American chili con carne to lending heat to fiery Thai dishes, chili powder brings the simplest of dishes alive with an unmistakable crisp warmth.


Dried Rosemary

Dried rosemary keeps the delightful aromatic nature of the fresh plant while stripping the herb of its bitterness. Rosemary shines on poultry like chicken and duck.

On Thanksgiving, I like to make a citrusy, herbaceous turkey. It prominently features rosemary and lemon, an incredible combination that heightens the moistness of the bird. 

Rosemary also accentuates seafood in a way that is sure to intrigue guests. Rosemary vinaigrette scallops make an excellent hors d’oeuvre.

Tomato-forward dishes like bruschettas and red sauces also greatly benefit from the herbal influence of rosemary. 

Rosemary can also make a delightful accent in cocktails. A lemonade sangria with rosemary is one of my favorite ways to cool off in the summer.


Coriander

Many people do not realize that cola drinks are spiced. Coca-Cola, for example, has nutmeg, coriander, neroli, and cinnamon.

What consumers often describe as the ubiquitous taste of Coca-cola may be the presence of coriander providing a quiet note of warmth in a drink often served chilled. 

The leaves of coriander are the source of cilantro. Coriander differs from this relative in that it is an aromatic often used to mask bitter tastes.

I love to use coriander in stews and beef dishes. Steaks seasoned with coriander take on a delightful earthiness that highlights the juiciness of the cut.


Cayenne Pepper

Rather than the less specific chili powder, dried cayenne pepper has a distinct profile beloved around the world.

If you’ve ever used crushed red pepper, that was likely cayenne peppers. 

While there are some milder varieties of cayenne, most cayenne peppers are delightful hot.

I love using cayenne pepper in Mexican and Thai food, especially when serving with crema fresca or coconut milk.


Essential Spices

  1. Garlic Powder
  2. Cinnamon
  3. Dried Oregano
  4. Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
  5. Mustard Seed
  6. Ground Ginger
  7. Bay Leaves
  8. Cumin
  9. Paprika 
  10. Nutmeg
  11. Cardamom
  12. Anise
  13. Peppercorns
  14. Chili Powder
  15. Dried Rosemary
  16. Coriander
  17. Cayenne Pepper

Final Thoughts

The uses for these spices are as myriad and diverse as the cultures that love them. It takes time and practice to develop your artillery of spices, one that will likely stretch far beyond this list of seventeen.

Spices are tools, and just like tools in a toolbox, each has a function only it can do. If you’ve fallen into a rut of using salt and pepper on every dish, start by imagining what could be done to elevate the dish. Wherever your cooking journey takes you, make sure to keep exploring.

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Written by Erin Elizabeth

Erin lives in East Passyunk and enjoys checking out the local restaurants in South Philly and beyond. Her favorite restaurants are those with spicy food and outdoor seating so that she can bring along her dog, Miss Piggy.