The spice cupboard is one of the best places to turn to when looking to add flavour to a dish. Here’s what everyone should keep on hand and why.
WHY BOTHER WITH HERBS AND SPICES?
Before I answer this, let me begin by saying that I have a major problem.
I’m a spice hoarder.
I have 68 spices in my collection, including spice blends, but excluding variations.
For example, I have two kinds of saffron in the spice cupboard: quality saffron and cheap saffron.
Why on earth do I have so many herbs and spices?
Well, for one, herbs and spices can add depth and flavour to a dish.
They bring excitement to the table and allow you to experiment with different flavours, letting you taste the world in your kitchen.
Fresh garlic and herbs are two of my favourite flavour enhancers, but in the cold months when I’m too frugal to spend money on fresh herbs?
I turn to the spice cupboard again and again.
THE SPICE CUPBOARD VIDEO
Join me as I go through what’s almost my entire spice collection on camera. Warning: I’m a spice hoarder. If you like what you see be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel for more videos!
This post may contain affiliate links, meaning that if you choose to purchase something after clicking on one of the links in this post, I may earn a small commission at no additional cost to you.
BLENDING THE SPICE CUPBOARD
When one keeps a respectable spice collection, combination options open up which leaves room for a whole lot of play.
I, for one, cannot get over how many spice blends are sold in stores. They’re so easy to make at home and are cheaper and healthier to boot!
The spice blends found in grocery store aisles are often full of anti-caking agents like calcium stearate and calcium silicate, not to mention yeast extract.
There are high-quality blends out there, mind you, but they’re not usually in aisle 5 and they cost a pretty penny. I say make your own!
WHAT SHOULD I KEEP IN THE SPICE CUPBOARD?
With over 60 herbs and spices, I’ll do my best to keep it to the basics.
There aren’t really substitutes for things like fresh lemon juice, garlic, and parmesan cheese, so in addition to everything I’m going to list out, try to always keep these things on hand to brighten your meals.
Anyhow, I’ll begin with…
HERBS TO KEEP IN THE SPICE CUPBOARD
I believe in growing fresh herbs and think that every modern-day victory garden should grow them, either indoors or outdoors.
In the summer, fresh herbs make a steady appearance in my dishes, but as the plants hit their peak, I harvest and preserve them for winter use.
Here are the essentials:
No other herb sees as much use in my kitchen than parsley.
Parsley gets added to sauces, soups, egg dishes, seafood, pasta and stews.
Fish loves parsley and so do dishes that include chicken, pork, clams, tomatoes, eggplant and potatoes to name a few.
It’s a beautiful herb to use because it gets along with just about everything and makes a great addition to herb blends.
The only thing I wouldn’t use parsley for?
The truth of the matter is, nothing beats fresh basil and there are some dishes where dried basil just won’t do.
However, it’s still something the spice cupboard won’t want to be without.
Reach for this herb when you’re frying up bell peppers, making omelets, pizza or anything Italian.
Basil is a match made in heaven with ingredients like garlic, olive oil, tomatoes, and zucchini.
This is my second-favourite herb because I can’t get enough of its fresh, clean flavour.
I try to keep a bag of dill in my freezer, but when that isn’t available, I’m reaching for the spice cupboard where I keep both dillweed and seeds.
It does a really excellent job of complementing dishes like cucumbers, eggs, fish (especially salmon), tomatoes, and yogurt.
This is another herb that grows in my garden, so I’m grateful gardening season is almost upon my zone, because I’ll be out of my homegrown oregano soon!
Sadly, it doesn’t play very nice with dill or cilantro, but it works well with parsley, rosemary, sage and thyme.
When you’re preparing dishes with beef, bell peppers, chicken, eggs, fish, pasta, tomatoes and other summer vegetables, call upon oregano.
Greek, Italian, and Mediterranean cuisine, in general, wouldn’t be the same without oregano, nor would Mexican cuisine.
Rosemary seems to be the only herb I can successfully keep alive all winter. It has a noticeable flavour that makes a statement in most dishes.
Use it when you’re baking bread and when you’re cooking beans, chicken and fish.
When you’re grilling or roasting meats, think of rosemary.
It pairs especially well with fish, garlic, lamb, olive oil, onions, pork, potatoes and tomatoes.
Even strawberries get along nicely with rosemary!
Thyme is not one of those herbs that steal the spotlight (I’m looking at you, rosemary!).
Toss it in chowders, soups and stews. If you’re making anything with mushrooms, onions, potatoes or tomatoes, consider adding a pinch of thyme.
The same thing goes for herb blends.
Thyme was made to complement bay leaves, basil, chives, dill, lovage, marjoram, parsley, oregano, rosemary, savoury and tarragon.
You will rarely go wrong with a bit of thyme.
This is one herb that can really stand up to cooking. It’s rare that I cook a pot of beans without slipping in a bay leaf or two.
These laurel leaves are valuable when you’re making soups, stews and homemade broth.
Try it out in your fish dishes, pot roasts, or rice.
If you have a pot of tomato sauce simmering on the stove, add a bay leaf for extra big flavour.
Be sparing with bay leaf though. One or two leaves are more than enough!
There are two kinds of savoury: summer and winter.
The rule of thumb is to use each in its own season, but I only keep summer savoury on hand because that’s what I grow in the summer.
Add savoury to bean dishes, chicken, eggs, and fish.
Lamb and lentils love savoury and so do mushrooms and potatoes.
Include it in stuffings and whenever Mediterranean food is on the menu.
Tarragon has a flavour that’s reminiscent of licorice (which is why I don’t use it very often), but it’s excellent added to white sauces like béarnaise.
If you don’t mind the licorice taste, experiment by adding it to beets, carrots, chicken, egg salad, fish, mushrooms, and tomato dishes.
Just avoid mixing it with basil, oregano, rosemary, sage and savoury.
There are more herbs out there that others would probably call essential.
Marjoram is one. It usually comes with one of those herb and spice gift sets that are given away at Christmas. I have never used it and have been managing quite well without it up to now.
If you love marjoram, please change my mind in the comments below. I’m a spice hoarder, it won’t take much convincing.
Sage is another herb that’s beloved by many but hardly sees any action in my kitchen. I have it, but it will probably never see any use unless I start growing it.
SPICES TO FILL THE SPICE CUPBOARD WITH
Now we’re getting into the heart of the spice cupboard.
Spices are what add depth, warmth, and sometimes mighty powerful heat to a dish.
Again, I’m going to limit this to only the essentials, but I’ll include a full inventory of what I keep in my spice cupboard at the very end.
Fresh ground black pepper goes on just about everything when I’m cooking. I use it daily and generously.
Whenever I go to my mother’s though, I’m at a loss because not only does she not have a pepper mill, but her pepper is usually in the back of the cupboard! What’s it doing there? It should be at the forefront, ready and waiting for action.
I need to start travelling there with my grinder.
Pepper is a shining star and a staple. If you have no other spices, at least have pepper!
CHILLI POWDER, CHILLI FLAKES & CAYENNE
I was raised to love spicy food.
When I was little, I would watch my father heartily sprinkle his plate of pasta with red chilli pepper flakes. By the end of the meal he would be sweating, but he loves the heat and so do I.
I’ve eaten salsa that burns my mouth and makes me cry, but it’s so delicious that I don’t care.
Without chilli powder, my slow cooker chilli wouldn’t be the same, nor would any of the Mexican food I whip up.
It’s essential when making blends like taco and fajita mix.
As for chilli flakes, I mostly use them on pizza, pasta and marinades, but I’m not opposed to adding them to vinaigrettes, guacamole, and anything I want to add a zing to.
Give me a tin of smoked Spanish paprika and I’m a happy woman.
I love this spice so much that I give it out as gifts come Christmas because I feel like everyone should have a tin in the spice cupboard.
Whether it’s sweet or hot, Spanish or Hungarian, you really can’t go wrong.
Needless to say, paprika is found in both Spanish and Hungarian cuisines.
Use it on meats, like this paprika roast chicken, and on vegetables.
I adore paprika sprinkled on breakfast potatoes and in spice blends.
The best herbs and spices to pair with paprika include cinnamon, rosemary, black pepper, cumin and oregano.
This spice is vital in Mexican and Moroccan cuisine and is a delicious addition to curries. Use it on potatoes and rice, couscous and chickpeas.
Coriander is relied on all over the world for its cooling, yet pungent qualities.
Bake with it or cook with it, coriander is one of those spices that can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes.
If you’re using cumin in a recipe, consider adding a bit of coriander.
The Flavour Bible will give you a bunch of ideas on how you can use coriander (and any spice, really) if you’re intimidated.
The first thing that comes to mind when I think of cinnamon is hot pots of oatmeal.
Cinnamon is a warm and cozy spice, which is why it’s associated with the colder months.
A stick of cinnamon gets steeped to mull hot drinks like wine, apple cider, and warm healing beverages.
Ground cinnamon is popular in baking and a sprinkle of it will add a little something extra to coffee and hot chocolate.
It can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes.
Like cinnamon, nutmeg is a warm spice that’s especially popular in the autumn and winter months.
I adore nutmeg and always include a pinch when I’m making mashed potatoes.
Sprinkle it in your apples when seasoning them for a pie or a crisp.
Add a dash to cream-based sauces, Indian dishes, lamb, pumpkin, squash, rice and spinach.
I almost always include nutmeg in the fold when I’m making a gratin.
Nutmeg is best when it’s freshly grated as needed, but ground nutmeg is also widely available.
These sweet and pungent flower buds will add warmth to whatever you’re making, which is why it’s favoured in the cooler months.
Add whole cloves when making apple cider, or ground cloves to apple-based desserts.
Cloves pair well with chocolate, cinnamon, ginger, baked ham, lemon and red wine. They’re also a key ingredient in the Indian spice blend, garam masala.
My favourite form of ginger is when it’s fresh, but dried, powdered ginger certainly comes in handy, too!
Ginger works with so many baked goods and dishes and it’s appropriate year-round. It’s especially beloved in Chinese and Japanese cuisine and as a result, plays nicely with ingredients like soy sauce, green onions, chilli peppers and fish.
Without ginger, Chinese five-spice would be Chinese four-spice, and gingerbread would lose all meaning.
In the past, I have always bought curry powder, not realizing that it’s a blend of spices.
It gets its bright yellow colour from turmeric and flavour from ground coriander, cumin, ginger, chilli powder, and pepper.
I have all of these spices on hand, so guess what? I’ll be making my own curry powder in the future!
Curry powder gets used when I’m making German currywurst, lentil soups, cold salads and Indian food.
It’s not for everyone, but I would certainly hate to be without it!
HOW LONG DO HERBS AND SPICES KEEP FRESH FOR?
If you watched the video above, you will know that I do not adhere to the rules when it comes to herbs and spices.
I know better, but my spice hoarding tendencies have a hard time parting with expired herbs and spices.
It’s not that herbs and spices expire, per se, but they do lose their potency over time.
Therefore, it’s best to buy them in smaller quantities to ensure your collection offers the best possible flavour.
Here’s the approximate shelf-life for each grouping:
Whole spices (ex. whole cloves, nutmeg, peppercorns, etc): 3-4 years.
Ground spices (ex. ground ginger, coriander, nutmeg, etc.): 2-3 years.
Herbs: 1-3 years.
Seasoning blends: 1-2 years.
CURIOUS TO SEE WHAT ELSE I KEEP IN THE SPICE CUPBOARD?
In addition to everything mentioned above, I also have the following herbs and spices on hand. I won’t include everything, but I thought it might be interesting for you to see!
Allspice (ground and whole)
Cardamom (ground, whole, and pods)
Dukkha spices (an Egyptian spice blend with nuts)
Banglé (dried Balinese ginger)
THANKS FOR POPPING BY THE KITCHEN!
I don’t know where I would be without herbs and spices.
They are so much fun to play around with and have the potential to make every meal interesting.
If you don’t know where to begin with experimenting, then I highly recommend The Flavour Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, which dives into individual ingredients, showing you what they work best with.
I heavily rely on this book when I’m building recipes and it’s on my top ten list of essential kitchen reference books.
What are your favourite herbs and spices to work with? Do you grow any of your own?
I hope you let me know in the comments below!
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Love and gratitude,