I know, I know. There are literally hundreds (if not thousands) of herbs and spices you can have in your kitchen. So, I tried to boil the list down (get it? LOL) to the relative few that pretty much every cook needs to have. I think I got it down to thirteen or so...not bad. These are the ones I have found to most useful. The ones I go to over and over again.
And just so you know, yes, technically herbs and spices are different (which is why I used the term “season”) Herbs are the leaves of the plant, while spices come from the roots, bark, and seeds. Or you can think of it this way…any part of the plant that is not a leaf and can be used for seasoning can be considered a spice. Somewhat useless info that's fun to know, right?
So, anyway, here are some of my faves (in no particular order):
It’s hard to imagine an Italian dish that doesn’t have basil, isn’t it. The type we see most often is sweet basil. As a matter of fact, not only will you see it just about every American and Italian kitchen, many French kitchens will have it also. It’s used in the blends known as Herbs de Provence and Fines Herbes. It blends exceptionally well with oregano for pizza sauce, and with other seasonings, most notably garlic, lemon and thyme.
And just so you know, you can substitute 1 tsp dried basil for any recipe calling for 1 tbsp of chopped fresh basil.
In my opinion nothing beats fresh rosemary - which I find really easy to grow. But the leaves (needles really) can be a little tough - so you need to be sure to chop them up more finely or cook them down well in your recipes.
Rosemary’s taste and aroma is unique. It’s taste has been described as “cooling”, “woody”, “minty”, “balsamic”, and a few other things. It’s hard to pin down and describe. And it’s aroma is VERY strong. It’s interesting to know that rosemary is one of those herbs that doesn’t lose any of its flavor or aroma during cooking.
Believe it or not, there are so many plants that are considered “oregano” it’s almost considered a flavor - rather than a single herb. It is one of the most important culinary herbs and its leaves provide the signature flavor. Unlike many herbs, the dried version of oregano tends to be more flavorful than fresh oregano. Weird, huh? It can be a little overpowering, so use it somewhat sparingly.
Oregano is outstanding in egg and cheese dishes (such as omelets, frittatas, and quiches). One great way to use it is to combine olive oil with oregano and brush it on foods for the grill. It is also commonly mixed with other herbs and spices for a salt-free seasoning.
Kosher salt is a coarse salt that doesn’t have iodine added to it. I find it better to season dishes because of the larger crystals. You can pinch them or grind them to whatever size you need. It gives you a little better control over how much you use.
These little guys are a must-have because they provide a nice punch to so many dishes. It’s a good idea to pick the whole version (instead of ground) because the flavor is much better and nicely strong. You can always grind them if you need cracked or ground pepper.
Need I tell you about cinnamon?
Without wading into the whole “true” cinnamon vs “cassia” issue; just make sure you have some cinnamon on hand (especially when you bake). But, yes, they are different. They actually come from different plants and some are more aromatic than others. Just know which type you are using and adjust your recipe accordingly if the oil content of your cinnamon is higher or lower.
The cinnamon oil content of some “true” cinnamons can be very high (4%-6%) which makes the flavor outstanding. By comparison, the most common cinnamon used in America is the cassia cinnamon from Indonesia which has an oil content of 2%-3%.
Paprika is made from air-dried fruits of the chili pepper family. It’s most often associated with Hungarian dishes. The seasoning is also used to add color and flavor to many types of dishes. It can vary from mild to hot - although most are pretty mild and “sweet”.
One of the best variations to have around is smoked paprika (also called pimenton). It adds some great smoky notes, but still remains relatively sweet and not so spicy.
And it looks (and tastes) so great on those deviled eggs!
RED PEPPER (CRUSHED OR FLAKES)
Just so you know red pepper flakes and crushed red pepper are the same thing - just in different forms. They are great for introducing some heat to your dishes. Sprinkle on some red pepper flakes to add some sharp flavor and some heat without overpowering you and your dish.
Substitution-wise you can use ½ teaspoon of cayenne powder (see below) per ¾ teaspoon of red pepper flakes.
Some crushed red pepper flakes are hotter than others, depending upon the chiles used by that supplier, so if you are trying out a new brand, be cautious. You can always add a little more if you want to crank up the spice a bit.
Cayenne pepper is typically reddish-orange in color and may be used in any recipe that calls for ground red pepper. It is about 30,000-40,000 SHU (Scoville Heat Units) which isn’t too, too hot. But still, add only a punch at a time.
By the way, did you know that the best way to neutralize the burn if a dish got way too hot is to drink or eat a dairy-based product like milk or yogurt? Don’t try water! Capsaicin (which gives peppers their heat) is not water soluble so water won’t bring your mouth back to normal.
Chili powder is used in most Mexican and Southwestern dishes. So if you cook them, you just gotta have chili powder on hand! Most people don’t realize that it’s actually a blend of spices—usually chilies, oregano, coriander, and cumin.
I love using garlic powder. It adds that little bit of garlic flavor when I don’t want to use fresh garlic - like some sautés. If I use fresh garlic it can cook super-fast (and brown or burn super-fast), so I might just sprinkle on some garlic powder to give it some of that garlic-y flavor.
And, just in case you were wondering about garlic salt, it’s simply garlic powder plus salt.
Onion powder is just ground dehydrated onions. It provides terrific aroma and flavor, but not the texture of onions. It’s great to add to sauces and gravies, soups, or spice blends. I like to use onion powder if I don’t have fresh onions around and we can adjust the flavor of a dish by adding differing amounts of the dried onion. Anything that has a little moisture can take on onion powder; and kind of rehydrate the onions. If not, consider rehydrating with a little water before using in your recipe.
To substitute for fresh onions in a recipe, use 1 teaspoon onion powder or granulated onion or 1 tablespoon dried onion flakes for one small onion.
Thyme is originally from the Mediterranean region, but is now grown just about anywhere. (I have some in pots on my patio right now.). It grows to about 12”, has a woody root and the stems are a hard, reddish-brown.
Thyme has a strong, fresh, lemony flavor that’s used in the cooking from many different cultures. And it’s very easy to pair with so many different foods. But it IS a pretty strong flavor, so start with a smaller amount. It’s really easy for thyme to overpower a dish. Some recipes call for using fresh thyme (stem and leaves) and then just removing them (especially the tough stem) as the dish cooks.
Often you can substitute other herbs (like basil, marjoram, oregano or savory) for thyme and get a similar flavor.
Substitution-wise if a recipe calls for thyme sprigs you can figure 6 fresh thyme sprigs = 3/4 teaspoon ground dried thyme. And one tablespoon of fresh thyme equals about 3/4 teaspoon of dried thyme.
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I have to say, that I found this to be much harder than I expected. The list kept growing and growing (no pun intended!). But I purposely wanted to keep this list short and focused, so I kept trying to cut out ones that are less common for most home cooks.
Now I know I just hit on a few spices - and in not tons of depth. Over the next few months I plan to incorporate more about the different ingredients we use as cooks.
Of course, the spices YOU might select for your kitchen depends on the types of foods you like to cook. Do you have a go-to spice that I neglected to include? Tell us about it in the comments section.