Friday, January 20, 2012

Spices Checklist

If you know someone who is getting ready to go out on their own, this is a helpful list of spices to help them start their pantry.  I got it off of Real Simple’s website and then I added some of my own.

Spices are expensive, so if you’re willing to share some of your own, it would give them a great start.  Remember, the best way to store spices is in a sealed container kept out of sunlight, so find small glass jars with tight lids that can be labeled.

Must Haves
These are fresh, but you get the idea.
Honestly, they're not so fresh anymore so they qualify as dry.
Bay leaves – don’t worry about getting a large number.  Most recipes only call for one.  Even if you can give them 4-5 leaves, it will be a good start.

Lucky for us, dried and fresh are interchangeable, but there are two different kinds - Turkish and California.  Most recipes call for California bay leaves, but if you're using Turkish, you'll need to use 2 for each one called for since they are smaller.

Yes, I ended up inhaling some of this pile while dumping it.
Not pleasant.
Cayenne Pepper – a must have, especially if you like a little spice to your food.

Interesting fact: According to Wikipedia, Cayenne Pepper is known as a male aphrodisiac since it can increase blood flow to all parts of the body.  Seriously - it even had a reference!

Note the gigantic tub of chili powder I own.
Yes, I am proud of it.
Chili Powder – I use chili powder almost once a week.  It gives a little bit of a kick to food without adding a lot of heat.  This is actually a blend of spices, not from a specific chile.

I felt the need to make some hot chocolate after I
took this picture!

Cinnamon, ground – you’ll use cinnamon, not only in baking, but drinks and even some main dishes.

Interesting fact: Most of the cinnamon sold in the United States is cassia cinnamon, which is basically crap cinnamon.  The best comes from Sri Lanka and Indonesia (Cook's Thesaurus).

I swear I could smell steak tacos as I poured this out.
I probably should be concerned, but I was hungry instead.

Cumin, ground – although Real Simple says it is a staple in Middle Eastern and Indian cooking, I use it a lot when I’m making Mexican food.  What I’m saying is that you’ll use it in a lot of different types of dishes and if you make a lot of ethnic food, this one is a must.

I'm a wuss, so I have standard curry powder.
Perhaps one day I'll try Madras... or give it to my husband.

Curry powder – This is another spice blend consisting mostly of coriander, cumin, pepper, tumeric and ginger.  

I know what you’re thinking, but I use this more than any of the spices in my cabinet, other than salt and pepper.  And curry doesn’t mean hot, but if you do like hot, look for the Madras variety.  I highly suggest getting a regular curry to start, though.

One of my husband's specialties is
Blueberry-Oat Ginger Smoothies.
Why does he have to work... I could use one right now!
Ginger, ground – ginger is one of those spices that is included in both baking and cooking.  I also make a lot of smoothies and chai tea with it.  Dried isn't a substitute for fresh, so if a recipe calls for fresh pick some up from the produce section. 

Interesting fact: Ginger is often used to soothe the stomach, although I wouldn't recommend eating a spoonful of ground ginger.  Fresh is best for that.

Where's a bottle of tequila when you need one?
Kosher Salt – a coarse salt that isn’t processed with iodine, like table salt.  They are large crystals, so you can’t use it one-for-one as a substitute for “regular” salt, but it’s a great alternative if you measure with the "pinch" or "dash" method.  Oooh... and it can be used to line margarita glasses in a pinch.  Not that I would know about stuff like that.

L'amore po 'di pizza.
Oregano, dried – if you like Italian and/or Mediterranean food, you’re going to need this on hand.  You’ll need a lot of it.  An absolute must when it comes to making pizza sauce! 

Interesting fact: there is a Mexican variety that is mintier than the Mediterranean variety.

I tried to think of something clever to say to translate to Hungarian.
I got nothin'
Paprika – Another blend of spices, all ground peppers.  When recipes call for paprika, they are usually calling for Hungarian, the sweet variety, which is the best and most versatile of the paprika blends.  You’ll find that you use it in a lot more than you think.  A dash in a tomato dish will create a delicious dish with an intoxicating aroma.

I'm not sure why, but this was one of the prettiest pictures.
Crushed red pepper – you’ll use a lot of this in pasta dishes and is a great way to spice up a frozen pizza.  Not that I ever eat those... *cough

I had no idea that these are dried cayenne peppers.  I'm learning a lot writing this post.

There were several types of dried rosemary.
I bought this to put in a breading, so I went with the crushed.
Rosemary, dried – it is often used in Mediterranean dishes, but can be used to give a great taste to chicken and pork.  A dash in mashed potatoes is ridiculously yummy too.  

Bonus! Dried substitutes well for fresh and that's a good thing because chopping those little leaves off the stem annoys me.

I'm not sure why, but learning what I learned about thyme
makes me feel sorry for it.  A lonely spice.  :(
Thyme, dried – this versatile spice gives a subtle flavor boost to meat, poultry (a staple on the Thanksgiving turkey) and even vegetables.  Unfortunately, dried doesn't substitute well for fresh, but a lot of dishes specify dry so it's good to keep on hand.

Interesting fact: Most spices have alternative spices listed if you don't have it on hand.  The first alternative for thyme on Cook's Thesaurus is to omit the spice!

Is it wrong that I smelled the bottle for 30 minutes?
Vanilla extract – One of my most favorite items in my cabinet, you will use vanilla in almost every baking dish you make.  Invest in a bottle of pure vanilla for quality baked goods.

Interesting fact: 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract is comparable in flavor to 1 inch of vanilla bean.

And what I added to the list…

Basil – I was actually surprised that this didn’t make the cut.  Sure, fresh basil is great, but it can be tedious and expensive.  You’ll find that for a quick dish, dried basil is a great substitute.

Parsley – Another widely used spice that is best fresh, but it is impractical to always have fresh on hand.  Besides, it's rare that you use more than a couple of tablespoons at a time.  For small amounts, dried works just fine.

Garlic Powder – another one that I was surprised didn’t make the cut.  Again, I’m sure it is because most chefs feel fresh is better, which it is, but I still use a lot of garlic powder.  Especially when I’m doing spice rubs for meat and chicken.

Black Pepper – are freshly ground peppercorns better?  Absolutely (see below), but it isn’t always practical. Keep ground on hand to quickly throw together spice rubs or to sprinkle at the dinner table.

Table Salt – When you’re baking, you need to add precise amounts and table salt and Kosher salt don’t go one-for-one when converting the measurements.  Also, keep some on hand for seasoning at the table (if you don't want to use sea salt).

Good to Have

Is it me, or does it look like a rabbit has been on my counter?
Black peppercorns – much better than ground black pepper when freshly ground.  Of course, they’ll need a grinder, which can add to the expense of starting up a new kitchen.  Many companies will sell peppercorns in a container that has a disposable grinder on it.

Yes, they are whole.  One of the only spices I didn't
have on hand to photograph.
Cloves, ground – you’ll use this a lot in holiday baking, but unless you’re starting up your kitchen around Thanksgiving, save this for a later purchase.  Of course, if you make your own Chai, you’ll need this as a staple.

For some reason, this picture made me REALLY uncomfortable.
Cream of tartar – if you make a lot of meringues, you’ll need this as a pantry staple.  It stabilizes eggs and gives them volume (also does the same for candy and frosting).  If you don’t, wait to purchase until you need it.  If you’re asking, “What’s a meringue?” just cross it off your list.

Interesting fact: It is a by-product of the wine making process.  Grapes are the only natural source of Cream of Tartar.

Okay, maybe there were 2 spices that I didn't have on hand.
Nutmeg, whole – Another frequently used baking spice, but not as prevalent in every day cooking.  I keep ground on hand because it's much easier to deal with, but chefs say grating it from the nut tastes better.  Of course, if you are using whole nutmeg, you’ll have to have some way to grate it into your dishes.

Interesting fact: Back in the 1600s, this was so valuable it was said that a few nutmeg nuts could make you financially solvent for life. (

Sesame seeds – you’ll use a lot of sesame seeds in Asian inspired dishes, but I also have used them in baking.  Still, it is an expense that you may want to hold off on until you absolutely need them, especially since they can become rancid.  Store them in the freezer if you want to extend their freshness.

So are there any spices you think I missed?  How about Real Simple?  Do you have all these spices in your pantry?

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