Spice Cabinet Essentials
Time for a Spice Cabinet Makeover!
If you haven’t taken complete inventory of your spice cabinet in the last six months—and be honest, you haven’t—now’s the time. Whole spices stay fresh and potent for about a year; ground spices for six months. Start with the smell test: if their fragrance isn’t strong, or at least prominent, they’re stale and need to be replaced.
You’ll get the best flavor from starting with whole spices that you toast in a pan to boost their aroma and flavor, then grind in a dedicated spice grinder. Still, ground spices are convenient and important to have in your cabinet.
Buy spices in small amounts to reduce waste—you’ll rarely use an entire bottle of spice before it loses its potency. Keep them fresh longer by storing them away from light and heat. Here’s a roster to keep on hand.
Salt and Pepper
Buy table salt for baking and savory recipes that call for it. Understand that there is a difference in size—and feel—between the grains of the major brands of kosher salt. It’s good to pick a brand (such as Morton or Diamond) and stick with it, so when you’re sprinkling it on food instead of using a measured spoonful, you’ll know by experience how much to apply.
Use whole peppercorns in a pepper grinder. Pre-ground pepper is flavorless in comparison and has unpleasant texture.
Woodsy and lightly perfumed, they’re an important part of stocks, soups, stews, and braises. Always remove before serving.
Good for both sweet and savory dishes, particularly in ethnic cuisines like North African, Middle Eastern, and Asian.
Warm and herby, nutmeg is key for baked goods and essential in bechamel sauce. It's also really great in sauteed spinach. (Really! Try it!)
You'll find ground ginger in baked goods and some Asian dishes. It adds warmth and fragranace, and for many dishes, it's a better alternative to fresh ginger, which can clump or burn when cooked.
Another staple for bakers, though a pinch also adds intriguing flavor and aroma to roasted and grilled pork and chicken.
A newish product on the market, this powder comes pretoasted, saving you the trouble of toasting and grinding cumin seeds.
Crushed Red Pepper
A pinch adds plenty of heat. Use it also to garnish finished dishes like pizza or cubed fresh mango.
A blend of paprika, cumin, and ground dried chiles. Used in chili, of course, but also Mexican and Southwestern cooking. Some contain salt, so if sodium is an issue, read the label.
Available sweet, hot, and smoked. Get all three.
Adds nutty flavor and texture to dishes; great in stir-fries. Buy toasted sesame seeds or toast them until light golden in a dry skillet to boost their flavor.
While fresh garlic is preferable in most cases, this is great for spice rubs and coatings for grilled and high-heat roasted meats where fresh garlic might burn.
Splurge: Whole Nutmeg, Cinnamon Sticks, and Allspice Berries
The next few spices aren't necessary until you've built up your basic spice cabinet. Pick and choose the spices that will come in most handy for your everyday cooking. If you don't need a lot, remember to shop the bulk section so you can save money and prevent food waste.
Fresh grated nutmeg works wonders for potato gratins and egg nog. Whole cinnamon sticks and allspice berries are sometimes needed in braising liquids, pickling brines, and meat brines.
Splurge: Fennel Seed
Lend delightful anise flavor; critical in Mediterranean and Indian cooking.
Splurge: Madras Curry Powder
Spicier and more complexly flavored than regular curry powder.
Splurge: Mustard Powder and Seeds
Use the powder to add a little kick to meat spice rubs and vinaigrettes. The seeds are key in many ethnic cuisines such as Indian.
Splurge: Coriander Seeds
Citrusy and woodsy. Toast and grind along with fennel and cumin seeds for an alluring meat rub.
Splurge: Five-Spice Powder
A blend of anise, cloves, cinnamon, Szechuan pepper, and fennel seeds, it lends unmistakable Chinese flair to both sweet and savory dishes.
Expensive. Buy threads in the smallest possible amounts—a little goes a long way. Needs to be mixed with liquid to release its distinctive yellow color and buttery-tangy exotic flavor.
Splurge: Ground Cardamom or Pods
Intensely perfumey, used in ethnic cooking, both sweet and savory.