mailbox monday: “stocking a spice cabinet”

Hey Ali!

My name is Jessica and I just found your blog through Foodgawker.  I really love it!

Whenever you have time, I wondered if you might answer a quick question.  I’m a total beginner when it comes to cooking, and still don’t have many spices in my pantry to cook with.  At this point I probably can’t afford to buy all of the spices that a lot of recipes call for.  But if I were to try and stock my spice cabinet with some basics, what would you recommend?

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,
Jessica

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Hey Jessica!

Oooh – good question.  I definitely ran into the same challenges when I began cooking.  Spices are super-fun, but the cost of stocking up on herbs and spices can sure add up quickly!  (And spices definitely have expiration dates, so if you’re not using them regularly, it may not be the best way to spend your grocery budget…)

But if you’re just getting started, here is a list of basics I’d recommend having on hand:

  • Bay leaves
  • Cayenne
  • Chili Powder
  • Cinnamon (ground)
  • Cumin
  • Cloves (I’d recommend ground vs. whole)
  • Curry Powder
  • Ginger (ground)
  • Nutmeg (ground or whole if you have a grater)
  • Oregano
  • Rosemary (I prefer ground, but you can use the regular dried leaves)
  • Smoked Paprika
  • Thyme

I also really recommend picking up two grinders to have fresh cracked black pepper and sea salt.  Must-haves in my book!

Also, I almost always have fresh cilantro, parsley, lemons (for lemon zest and juice), and limes (for zest and juice) on hand in the fridge.  These four ingredients are so much better fresh than dried!

I would also say that with spices, it’s worth going with quality brands — especially for the basics.  There really can be a difference in taste, quality, and freshness.  I have a local spice vendor that I love in Kansas City (at the downtown City Market, for all you locals!), but then also buy my spice jars and occasionally some other spices at Penzey’s, or at the grocery store.

Bottom line, start with what you can, and don’t be afraid to experiment and substitute if a recipe calls for something that you don’t have.  That’s why seasoning is a verb as well as a noun — you can keep adding a little bit more and more until it tastes just right.  :-)

Anyway, those are some of my quick recommendations!  If other Gimme Some Oven readers have suggestions, please chime in too!

Happy cooking!

~Ali

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Comments

  1. Ally — July 20, 2010 @ 8:47 am (#)

    The best $15 investment I have made in my “spice” collection was the pampered chef garlic press. I am not sure I will ever be able to use ground garlic again.

  2. Judy — July 20, 2010 @ 10:01 am (#)

    I would strongly recommend whole nutmeg. It is an entirely different animal than the ground stuff and lasts for years! You don’t need a fancy grinder. I use a mini grater that I think I got at the dollar store. I detested nutmeg until I started using the whole version and I don’t think there is a difference in price! I TOTALLY concur on the smoked paprika – magic stuff!

  3. Flora — July 20, 2010 @ 11:00 am (#)

    I like having garlic powder and onion powder on hand as well as the great list of stuff that Ali listed above. I always use fresh garlic and onion but in spice rub recipes I find the garlic and onion powder are usually listed. Stay away from dried onion flakes though, those stay hard and tough and don’t taste very nice.

  4. Sara — July 20, 2010 @ 9:25 pm (#)

    I’m really lucky to live close to a Whole Foods and a Whole-Foods-wanna-be called Central Market. Both sell spices by the ounce. Instead of buying a whole jar of some spice you’ll use twice a year, you can buy it fresh when you need it (for about 20 cents). I love it because it makes experimenting with flavor super cheap. Great way to start a spice collection!

  5. ali — July 21, 2010 @ 3:17 pm (#)

    Yes, yes, and yes — these all sound great! :)

    And Sara — that’s also how our downtown city market is. They actually sell all of these great quality spices for $1 a scoop. Such a fun way to experiment and be creative!

  6. Memoria — July 26, 2010 @ 6:39 pm (#)

    I always use the bulk section for spices I don’t use as much yet don’t want to pay much, like sea salt, dry mustard, and specialized paprika. Once you’ve cooked long enough, though, you’ll end up with all these items eventually.

  7. Jane Bonacci — July 27, 2010 @ 2:28 pm (#)

    Great list Ali. I would add basil to the list. While fresh is 100% better than dried, occasionally it comes in handy. Also Jessica, have you tried Shallots yet? They are about the size of head of garlic, covered with brown papery skin, and taste like a cross between onion and garlic. They are absolutely delicious and people will wonder what spice you’ve put in your dishes when you use it.