College Cooking: Chapter 5 - The Spice Rack

Variety is indeed the spice of life. However, having spices in your cabinet that you will never use is a waste of money and precious space. Pretty sets with fancy containers are nice, but will you ever really use caraway, chervil or mace? It is best to start out with herbs and spices that you are familiar with and will use. These are the herbs and spices* we find indispensable:

  • Allspice - Mainly used in Caribbean jerk seasoning, these dried berries have a flavor said to be a combination of nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves.
  • Basil - You'll quickly learn how well basil and tomato go together. It works wonders in Italian dishes and on pizza, so give it a try.
  • Black Pepper - The world's most popular spice is the dried berry which grows in grapelike clusters on a climbing vine native to India and Indonesia. It enhances almost every dish by stimulating the appetite and giving food a gentle warmth.
  • Cayenne or Crushed Red Pepper - A very useful and versatile spice, you can add it to just about anything (even hot cocoa) for a nice kick of heat.
  • Cinnamon – Made by grinding the inner bark of a tropical evergreen tree, cinnamon has a warm, sweet flavor and works well in baked goods and drinks, but cinnamon also works wonders in stews and sauces.
  • Cumin - adds an earthy and warming feeling to food and is a common addition to adobos, garam masala, curry powder, and bahaarat.
  • Garlic powder - Garlic is both tasty and good for you. Of course, fresh is best, but when it is not available, add garlic powder instead for
  • Ginger – The ground dried rhizome of the ginger plant lends a spicy zing to gingerbread, cookies, cakes, ginger ale and ginger beer. Ginger is a common ingredient in Asian and Indian cuisines.
  • Nutmeg - It's delicately warm, sweet flavor to milk or cream-based dishes, fruits and vegetables like potatoes, spinach and squash, and baked goods such as pumpkin pie.
  • Oregano - Known as the “pizza herb,” oregano combines well with spicy foods, which makes it popular in southern Italy where it has been used for centuries to flavor roasted meats and fish.
  • Paprika - The flavor range of paprika ranges from mild to pungent and hot and its color from bright orange-red to blood-red. Made by grinding aromatic sweet red pepper pods, it is a great seasoning and garnish for savory dishes and the main ingredient in goulash and paprikash dishes.
  • Rosemary - Highly aromatic with hints of both lemon and pine, rosemary is fabulous for marinades and grilled meats (especially lamb and pork) and makes a beautiful garnish for autumnal vegetables and soups.
  • Seasoning blends - It is a good idea to keep one or two of your favorite spice mixes on hand. They are a good quick way to season foods just the way you like them. Cajun spices, Steak seasoning, an Italian blend or any of the other numerous options can be used to season steaks before grilling, sprinkle on vegetables and soups or even to flavor popcorn.
  • Thyme - Often used in French cuisine, thyme’s pungent, slightly lemony flavor is great in vegetables, poultry and fish dishes, soups and cream sauces.

*Please notice that this list does not contain salt, which while important to cooking, is a mineral. Read more about this essential seasoning in our post SALT: The Flavor of Necessity.

Spices are susceptible to grain weevils and pantry moths the same as flour, pasta, rice and beans. The best way to avoid an infestation is to buy herbs and spices from a reputable purveyor and to check them regularly. If you are using them frequently, you will have the opportunity to check them often. We purchase our herbs and spices in bulk at DeKalb Farmer’s Market where they are quite inexpensive and fresh. Because old spices lose their flavor and potency, once each year we remove all the spices from the cabinet to discard and replace any that are more than 6 months old. This is also a good time to evaluate which spices we actually use and those that shouldn't be restocked.

There are some herbs that are best used fresh; where the dried version just does not compare. These include parsley, chives, cilantro and mint. Luckily, these are all wonderfully easy to grow. We have tucked herb plants into the landscaping of our yard, but even the most space-deprived cook can grow a small pot or window box of fresh ingredients.

Seasoning Suggestions:
This list is meant only to suggest possible combinations, not to exhaust them. Do not lose sight of the fact that good ingredients taste good before seasoning. Spices are meant to enhance the flavor of a dish, not to overpower it. That said, the right spice in the right dish is a lovely thing.

  • Asparagus: dry mustard, thyme
  • Avocado: cilantro, cayenne, garlic
  • Beans, dried: cumin, oregano, parsley
  • Beef: allspice, cayenne, cloves, garlic, onion, oregano, paprika, parsley, rosemary, or thyme
  • Broccoli: dill, garlic, oregano,
  • Brussels sprouts: dill, mustard seed
  • Cabbage: caraway seeds, oregano
  • Carrots: allspice, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, dill, ginger, mint, parsley and thyme
  • Cauliflower: dill, paprika, parsley, sesame seeds and tarragon
  • Cheese: caraway, cayenne, parsley, thyme, nutmeg
  • Corn: cayenne, cumin, garlic, paprika
  • Eggplant: basil, chili, garlic, oregano, thyme
  • Eggs: basil, cayenne, chives, cilantro, curry, dill, oregano, parsley, tarragon, thyme,
  • Fish: basil, dill, paprika, parsley, rosemary, tarragon, thyme,
  • Green Beans: dill, nutmeg, parsley, sesame seeds
  • Lamb: bay leaf, curry, garlic, mint, mustard seed, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, thyme
  • Lima beans: mint, parsley, sage
  • Meats: allspice, chili, curry, garlic
  • Mushrooms: basil, garlic, oregano, thyme
  • Onions: caraway, cloves, curry, nutmeg, tarragon, thyme
  • Peas: basil, cloves, mint, parsley, thyme
  • Pork: cloves, garlic, mustard seed, parsley, oregano, rosemary, thyme
  • Potatoes: dill, parsley, rosemary
  • Poultry: anise, basil, cayenne, cilantro, curry, garlic, ginger, parsley, rosemary
  • Rice: anise, chives, cilantro, curry, garlic, parsley, saffron, sesame seeds
  • Sweet potatoes/yams: allspice, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, thyme
  • Stews: allspice, basil, bay leaf, cloves, garlic, parsley, oregano, thyme
  • Tomatoes: basil, cayenne, cilantro, dill, garlic, nutmeg, oregano, parsley, tarragon, and thyme
  • Turnips: allspice, caraway seeds
  • Zucchini or Summer Squash: basil, cilantro, dill, garlic, tarragon, thyme

Homework: Familiarize yourself with different spices by going through your spice rack at home and smelling and tasting the contents. A good way to test the flavor of spices is to try them on plain rice. Start paying attention to the spices served on your favorite menu items when dining out.