Herb and Spice Basics

Bulk SpicesHerbs and spices are to cooking what fuel is to your car. Without them, you won’t get very far in the kitchen. Having a well-stocked spice rack means you can create numerous meals without the need to visit the store for ingredients. The same goes for a well-stocked pantry, freezer and refrigerator. In this article I use the terms “spice” and “spices” as a general description.

Below is a list of basic spices that you should have on hand at all times. Following that is a list of related items that you should also have.

If you’re just starting to build your spice inventory, compare this list to what you have on hand, crossing off each one you already have. Then prioritize your list starting with the items you think you’ll need most. Buy one or two at a time until you have all of them.

Basil – very aromatic, with a sweet, warm flavor. May be used whole or ground. Use with beef, fish, lamb, vegetables and dressings.

Bay leaves – Strong flavor, so generally only one or two (depending on size) should be used. Always remove leaves before serving. Works well in stews, vegetables and seafood.

Black pepper (fine ground) – While I often use pepper grinders, it’s always a good idea to have a can of fine ground pepper around for larger recipes.

Well stocked spice rackBullion cubes (chicken, beef) – This dried cousin of broth and stock is often used in basic recipes.

Cayenne pepper – Hotter than black pepper, cayenne is a quick way to heat up a dish. A must for Mexican recipes, it’s also great in other dishes.

Chives – A cousin to the ubiquitous onion, chives are milder and sweeter. Works very well with salads, soups, fish and potatoes.

Chili powder – Obviously, chili powder (ground chili peppers) is a must for Mexican recipes. Some varieties (e.g. Mexican or Texas) include other spices, such as cumin and oregano. I prefer to use straight chili powder and add other spices to my own taste.

Cinnamon – Sweet and pungent, most people think cinnamon is limited to sweets and hot drinks. But it’s also a great addition (in small amounts) to savory recipes, such as chili and stews.

Crushed Red Pepper – Also known as pepper flakes, you often see crushed red pepper in pizzerias to add heat to a slice. But you can also use it with many other recipes to add a different layer of heat.

Cumin – Used in spicy dishes throughout the world, this earthy, mildly hot spice is most often used in ground form, but some recipes also call for cumin seeds.

Dill – Dill seeds and leaves are both available, but the leaves are most commonly used. You can use the leaves as a garnish, or in recipes for fish, soups, eggs, dressings, potatoes and beans.

Fennel – Again, you will find seeds and leaves, which have a sweet, slightly hot flavor. Good with fish and (in small quantities) in some desserts.

Magnetic spice rackGarlic powder  – To me, garlic is one of the most important spices in my rack. I like to keep crushed and minced varieties in the fridge, as well as fresh bulbs on the counter. However, it’s sometimes better to use garlic powder in certain recipes, so I always keep some handy.

Ginger  – This root can be purchased fresh and is often best that way. However, many recipes call for powdered ginger, so it’s a good idea to have some around.

Marjoram – Great for adding flavor to fish, poultry, omelets, lamb, stews and more.

Mint – Very aromatic, with a cool, refreshing flavor. Mint’s many uses include beverages, fish, lamb, soups, vegetables (such as peas and carrots) and fruit desserts.

Mustard (dried, prepared) – Hot and spicy, dried, ground mustard is an excellent addition to marinades, rubs and more.

Nutmeg – Available whole or ground, nutmeg adds an earthy flavor. Great for soups, cheese recipes, fish, chicken and veal. Also great for desserts, such as custards, puddings, cakes and pies.

Onion powder – Great for times when you need a bit of onion flavor, but don’t want to cut one up.

Oregano – With it’s familiar flavor and strong aromatic odor, oregano is used around the world in a vast array of dishes, including fish, poultry, beef, eggs, omelets, chili, stews, and of course, pizza and Italian dishes.

Paprika – Another member of the pepper family, paprika can be found in sweet and hot varieties. Great for meat and vegetable recipes, soups and stews, as well as a garnish for potatoes and salads. Also used to add a bit of color to lighter meats, such as pork and chicken.

Bulk spicesParsley – Most often used as a garnish, parsley is best fresh, but the dried variety will also work well.

Rosemary – Very armomatic, with a distinct flavor. Goes well with beef, lamb, poultry, fish, potatoes, eggs and more.

Sage – Usually the leaves are used – fresh or dried – but the flowers may also be used in salads. Great for poultry (and stuffing), beef, cheese spreads, breads and more.

Salt (sea salt is my favorite) – I prefer sea salt for its alleged health benefits. In addition to normal variety, I also use sea salt grinders.

Soy Sauce – This is the salty sauce you can’t cook Asian without. Also used as a condiment at the table.

Tarragon – Pungent odor and slightly hot taste. Use in sauces (e.g. Bearnaise), salads, fish, tomatoes, fish, carrots, green beans and eggs.

Thyme – This one is great for seasoning fish or poultry before grilling. Or throw some leaves on the coals at the end of grilling meats.

Vanilla extract (REAL, please) – Yes, you can save a bit by getting vanilla flavor, but your recipes will suffer. Do yourself a favor and invest in a high-quality pure vanillla extract. A small bottle lasts a long time.

Worchestershire sauce – A savory sauce that works great in beef recipes. Some manufacturers sell a lighter version specifically for poultry.

Yeast – If you bake rising breads, you’ll need yeast. If you don’t bake (yet!), you can skip this one.

Related items:

Light brown
Dark brown

revolving spice rackOptional sweeteners:
Sugar in the Raw (or similar) – It has an earthier taste that many people prefer, but will slightly alter the taste of your recipes.
Honey – It’s not just for tea anymore!
Maple Syrup
Agave syrup (lighter is better) – A must-have for the perfect margarita!
Pink, blue or yellow sugar substitutes – I don’t use them – But you might.

Dried chili pepper pods – The key to the best chili recipes, I like to have several varieties on hand.

Apple cider
Red wine

Wondra flour – Great for gravies and the like. To me, it’s just – dare I say it? – wondraful!

I realize this looks like a huge list, but it isn’t. In fact, there are many spices I’ve left off because I don’t use them. As I said in the beginning, compare this list to what you already have on hand, then add one or two at a time until you have a well-stocked spice rack.

Have fun, and until next time,

Play with your food!


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About Lane

Lane Baldwin is a an internationally-acclaimed singer, songwriter, author and food lover. He wasn't trained in France, and he doesn't have his own TV show. He just loves to cook, and loves sharing what he's learned over the years. In his "real life," Lane has toured the world, bringing his special brand of Blues-infused Americana to millions of fans. At home he leads a quiet life filled with good books, good food and good friends.