Here’s a handy guide to the most important herbs and spices to have on hand when you start putting a kitchen together with the intention of cooking. You can always add more over time, but these are the ones that are guaranteed to tickle your taste buds and woo your guests! I’ve included some conversational tidbits about the history of some of these spices,too.
Garlic comes first. I like to have some fresh garlic on hand. Buying it already minced in a jar is fine. I also keep garlic powder on hand. If you enjoy Chinese, Italian and Mexican foods, garlic is a must. The spice originated in central Asia and there are references to suggest that is has been around more than 5000 years. The Egyptians worshiped it and fed it to their pyramid builders. The Greek athletes even ate it, believing it gave them strength.In the U.S. it was first grown by French settlers around New Orleans, but it was the missionaries to took it to California, the main grower of garlic in the U.S. today. Stock up. You’ll never have enough.
Second to garlic, onion. Fresh, granulated, powdered. They all add a lot to even the simplest dishes. Again, have some fresh onion on hand, but always stock some powdered onion as well. It was good enough for King Tut (they found some in his tomb!), so it should certainly be on your shelf, too. Even Christopher Columbus wouldn’t travel without it and brought a stash with him to America.
Pepper. There are so many kinds, but if you’re starting out with spices I’ve got two suggestions. Black pepper is an essential spice. It’s actually the berries that are grown on vines that can reach ten feet tall! Most of the growing goes on in parts of Asia, especially India. There’s white pepper, green and pink peppers, but black is your basic, tasty add-to-everything pepper. What a history its got,too. Alexandria and Venice are said to attribute much of their economic success to pepper, and in the Middle Ages pepper was used to settle debts, It was exchanged as a currency in rent and dowry transactions,too. As a second, extra tasty pepper, I would recommend chipotle. It has a rich, smoky flavor that just rolls around in your mouth.
Dill is another must-have. Though its indigenous to the Mediterranean and southern Russia, today it is grown in the U.S. and India. The word comes from the Norse word “dilla” which means “to lull”. Its been used in places such as Scandinavia to lull colicky babies to sleep.Wonderful for fish dishes, anything with cucumbers, dips, sauces,etc.
Cinnamon is great to have on hand. Not only is it used in most desserts (puddings, pies, muffins, cakes), but you’ll be surprised to see it show up in soup and stew recipes,too.Originating in China, the Egyptians stepped in here,too, and started importing it. At times it was also regarded as a major motivator for exploration. And Nero put down his fiddle when his wife died and burned a year’s supply of the valued spice at her funeral.
Oregano is fairly new to the U.S. Actually it was barely known here until the advent of pizza after World War II. Soldiers who experienced the joys of a good pizza pie while overseas came home singing the praises of both the pie and the spices. As you might suspect, it originated in Greece and Italy and is used in any dish that needs a little Mediterranean boost such as sauces and soups, as well as marinades of all kinds. Any other Italian herbs and spices that smell good to you, belong on your shelf…basil, rosemary, thyme,etc. They may not be as essential as oregano to start with, but you’ll grow into them as your cooking expertise increases.
I always recommend keeping some bay leaves on hand. Anything that has to simmer for a while, like a soup, sauce or stew, can only taste richer after letting a few bay leaves float around in the mixture while it cooks. Bay leaves come from the Bay Laurel tree. It was the laurels from this tree that the ancient Greeks and Romans used to crown their victors. The Romans also thought it had certain powers and that it would protect them against plagues.
Then there’s Vanilla. Even the word is yummy. The Aztecs, back in Mexico, knew what they were doing when they added it to their chocolate drinks. It remained in Mexico until the Emperor Montezuma shared his little secret with the explorer Cortes who took it back to his native Spain in the 16th century. I dare you to find a cookie recipe that doesn’t need vanilla.Frankly, any time I make anything sweet, I add some vanilla whether it’s in the recipe or not! I’ll use any excuse to open that precious bottle and take a whiff. I even had a friend who wore it as perfume, and why not?
If you want to add a few more little joys to your spice collection, you might consider a Cajun or jerk seasoning. Any fish or chicken recipe will thank you. Also, gumbo file is great and relatively unknown. It’s made from crush sassafras leaves and has special powers. Anytime you’ve got something soup-y and you want to thicken it a bit, add about a teaspoon of gumbo file and your soup-y mixture will soon turn into a yummy sauce-y mixture.
A few last thoughts turn to suggesting a steak-related mixture of spices. It can tun a mediocre piece of meat into an upscale tasting delight. You’ll find these mixtures in catalogs, such as Penzey’s, as well as on the supermarket shelf. And lastly, for the adventurous palate, I suggest an ethnic blend of spices. I like a good Greek or Turkish blend. They can be used on meats or chicken, as well as in soups and sauces. It adds a bit of the unusual and will have your guests marveling at your expertise in the kitchen.
Start out with these suggestions and try experimenting. I always suggest tasting a bit of what you’re preparing, then smelling one of the spice/herb jars. If the two go together in your head, they should go together in your mouth as well. You’ll be amazed at the fun you can have with your mysterious little jars and bottles of spices and herbs.
1. Basic Spice Checklist | Real Simple
2. What are the Top 25 Spices Every Kitchen Should Have – Spices Inc