Spice Cabinet Essentials

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Whether you're starting from scratch or trying to take stock of what you need, we've compiled a list of all the essential spice cabinet needs—plus, a few specialty splurges at the end.

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

Photo: Sally Williams Photography/Getty

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.

See More: The Truth About Salt In Your Food

Bay Leaves

Woodsy and lightly perfumed, they’re an important part of stocks, soups, stews, and braises. Always remove before serving.

See More: Braised Meat Recipes


Photo: FoodPhotography Eising/Getty

Ground Ginger

Photo: Maximilian Stock Ltd./Getty

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.

See More: Double-Ginger Cookies

Ground Allspice

Photo: marianna armata/Getty

Crushed Red Pepper

Photo: Optical_Lens/Getty

Chili Powder

Photo: Natalia Ganelin/Getty

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.

See More: Quick and Easy Mexican Recipes


Photo: Manfred Koh/Time Inc. Digital Studio

Sesame Seeds

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.

Try It In: Sesame Seed Crackers

Splurge: Whole Nutmeg, Cinnamon Sticks, and Allspice Berries

Photo: Roderick Chen/Getty

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.

See More: Applejack-Spiked Hot Cider

Splurge: Madras Curry Powder

Photo: Ekaterina_Lin/Getty

Splurge: Mustard Powder and Seeds

Photo: Maximilian Stock Ltd./Getty

Splurge: Five-Spice Powder

Splurge: Saffron

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.

Try It In: Golden Saffron Rice

Splurge: Ground Cardamom or Pods

Simple staples: List of pantry, fridge, and spice cabinet essentials for home cooking

With all that’s going on with social distancing and home isolation, I thought it might be helpful to share a list of pantry staples – essential ingredients to have on hand in your pantry, fridge, and spice cabinet for cooking and making recipes. In case it helps with your shopping and meal planning, here are the items I recommend having on hand for home cooking. These are just your simple staples (the list doesn’t include things like bread, rice and pastas, meats, or cheeses needed for specific recipes).

I also happen to have lists of pantry and spice staples like these in my new cookbook, Pressure Cooker Cookbook for Beginners (available for purchase in both digital and paperback format from Amazon here).

Tips & Tricks for Organizing Your Spice Cabinet

Cooking and coming together around a family meal is a bright spot in an uneasy time right now. And, an organized spice cabinet is a great way to make cooking stress-free and more enjoyable. Let us help you get that pantry organized, because it&rsquos going to be pulling double duty for a little while.

Where do I start?

Start by pulling all your spices, herbs, blends and salts out of the drawers, cabinets and pantries they&rsquore in. Yes &ndash even those tricky ones on the high cabinet over the stove.

Ask yourself, how old are these flavors?

Herbs and spices don&rsquot spoil like fresh food. But they do lose their flavor and potency over time. To make sure your herbs and spices are making a flavorful impact on your favorite dishes, engage your senses and check out the following:

&bull Aroma should be strong
&bull Taste should be potent
&bull Color should be vibrant

If your spice or herb doesn't meet these freshness standards, check the "best by" date on the bottle. If it&rsquos past the date, it might make sense to toss and replace. But again, dried spices and herbs don&rsquot go bad, so you can keep them as long as you want.

Now it's time to start categorizing.

&bull Everyday Flavors &ndash Flavors you&rsquoll use 24/7, like garlic powder, salt, and your favorite blends.
&bull Less Used Items &ndash Don&rsquot make curries that much? Curry powder can go in this category.
&bull Seasonal Items &ndashSpices and extracts like pumpkin pie spice, gingerbread seasoning, peppermint extract, etc.
&bull Baking Essentials &ndash Food color and extracts.

Decide how to display your seasonings.

Show off your spice collection on a tiered rack (or Lazy Susan), for a more organized and uniform look, or sort into easy-to-move baskets or pull-out drawers. However you prefer to store, think about keeping your everyday essentials front and center in an easy-access location. Seasonal items and lesser used flavors can be stored higher up or in the back. Do be sure to rotate the less often used spices to the front every now and again to maximize flavor throughout the year. (And you never know what might become a new favorite!)

Storage best practices.

To extend the life of your spices, store them away from extreme heat, moisture, and direct sunlight. Label each with a sticker noting the &ldquoopened&rdquo date to help track when you first began using it. Also keep in mind that each spice type has a different shelf life. Here are some general guidelines.

1. Ground spices: 2-3 years
2. Whole spices: 3-4 years
3. Seasoning blends: 1-2 years
4. Herbs: 1-3 years

Have you checked out our Flavor Maker App yet? This helpful digital tool allows you to scan your spices right to the app to organize your spice rack digitally!

From start to finish, however you make it happen, it&rsquos all about building a spice cabinet that meets your personal needs in the kitchen. Happy organizing!

Have questions for our test kitchen staff, like substitutions for spices you might not have? Ask a question here.

Pear-Ginger Chutney

Chop up some of your crystallized ginger with pears to create a lightly spiced chutney. Simply decant in mason jars and tie with twine to create gifts. Or store it up in your fridge — the sweet, subtle spread makes a great, mellow accompaniment to white meats and cheeses.

Try this recipe from New York Times staff writer Melissa Clark.

Photography by Catherine Downes

How to Stock a Basic Spice Cabinet

I love cooking with spices. They can so easily take a dish from blah to fabulous.

But when you&rsquore first starting out with cooking, it can be a bit daunting to know which spices to purchase and which aren&rsquot necessary to have on hand.

Here are the spices that I basically can&rsquot live without. If all of my spices were suddenly to disappear, these are the ones I would rush out to purchase first.

1 - Herbs

(You know I had to put those herbs in that order.)

Parsley: This is a great everyday herb. It isn&rsquot super punchy but it helps to round out other flavors.

Sage: This spice definitely says &ldquobreakfast sausage&rdquo to me. I think it goes great with poultry or pork.

Rosemary: This spice is a little more distinctive. It almost has an acidic smell to me. Great with poultry.

Thyme: This one you either love or hate. Some people in my family call it &ldquothe dirt spice&rdquo and it definitely has an earthy quality to it. A little goes a long way.

Dill weed: This goes great with salmon. It&rsquos also used to make homemade ranch dressing.

Basil: I love this herb for Italian dishes. Great in an Alfredo sauce.

Oregano: Another one that goes great with Italian dishes (I really like it in tomato or pizza sauce), or Mexican dishes. I use it in my homemade chili powder.

2 - Seeds

Celery seed: This can be added to soups or stews when you don&rsquot have fresh celery on hand. But be careful: it can overwhelm other flavors if you use too much!

Fennel: Great for making your own Italian sausage, or adding to Italian sauces. It almost has a licorice flavor to me.

3 - 'Sweet' Spices

These are spices that I most often use for sweet recipes. However, most of them cross over into the savory realm as well.

Cinnamon: CANNOT live without this. I love it on my oatmeal, cinnamon toast, in baked goods&hellip

Cloves: Used in many spiced baked goods. Use a light hand with this one&mdashit can be strong!

Nutmeg: Love this not only for baking, but also for homemade eggnog. It&rsquos also used to make some savory cheese sauces.

Ginger: Another one that can be used for both savory and sweet dishes. Great for baked goods such as gingerbread or &ldquopumpkin spice&rdquo anything. Also wonderful for Thai or other Asian cuisines.

Cardamom: This spice isn&rsquot SUPER necessary, but it&rsquos used in chai-spiced recipes, which I adore. It has a bit of warmth to it.

4 - Miscellaneous

Paprika: Used in many Mexican dishes. It&rsquos great sprinkled on chicken before cooking.

Curry powder: Another one that isn&rsquot absolutely necessary, but I&rsquom a big curry fan, so I like to have this on hand.

Onion powder: This is so handy to have in case you&rsquove run out of onions and need to add some extra flavor to a dish.

Garlic powder: Same idea for garlic powder&mdashgreat for when you&rsquore in a pinch. These two are also used in a lot of homemade spice mixes.

Mustard: This adds a bit of kick to a dish without adding too much heat. Used in cheese sauces.

Cayenne: If you like things fiery, this is an easy way to add extra heat to a dish. Not necessary if you abhor all things spicy.

Cumin: Crucial for a lot of Mexican dishes. I like to add it to guacamole.

So those are the spices that I reach for most often. I still have a lot to learn about pairing spices, but that&rsquos the fun of cooking: there&rsquos always something new to try out!

16 Spice Rack Essentials

Let’s talk about spice rack essentials. My number-one priority in stocking a new kitchen would be filling the spice rack with my favorite spices. I cook from scratch and avoid pre-packaged food as much as possible, so spices are a must! I would be lost without them.

Disclosure: This post contain affiliate links. However, this list is entirely comprised of spices that I actually use in my kitchen on a regular basis.

These 16 spices and seasonings are ones that I use regularly in my recipes. While I occasionally will pick up another spice for a special recipe I’m trying (such as an Indian dish like Tomato-Butter Sauce), I rely on some combination of these 16 spices in my everyday cooking.

Out of these 16 spices and seasonings, I use the first 4 (Onion powder, garlic powder, sea salt and pepper) the most. Typically every meal I make uses these 4 spices, sometimes adding in a few others depending on the dish I am making.

Another favorite spice that I didn’t add to this list is cilantro. I use it regularly in recipes, but it is so much better fresh! I always buy it fresh from the store rather than using dried cilantro. One of my goals is to put together my own spice garden so that I can have fresh spices more often!

Cooking can be a bit less structured than baking because you don’t have to be as strict with measurements. You can add in a little more or a little less of a spice to customize the dish to your taste. I also like to add in spices that a recipe doesn’t call for to make it my own.

Would you add anything to this list? What are the spices that you use the most in your kitchen?

Must-Have Spices for Your Kitchen

After a valiant effort at reorganizing and consolidating my spice collection a couple of weeks ago, it occurred to me that there were probably more aesthetically pleasing--not to mention accessible--ways to store them. And there are most definitely more economical ways to navigate the spice market. Let's explore them, shall we?

After the jump, find a list of the 25 spices you should have in your kitchen if you're an ambitious home cook. I've also included some buying and storing tips.

25 Essential Seasonings

  1. Allspice
  2. Apple Pie Spice (This is a combo of cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, and ginger. If you have all of those, you can mix them to make your own Apple Pie Spice, decreasing the size of your spice rack by one.)
  3. Basil
  4. Bay Leaves
  5. Cayenne
  6. Chili Powder
  7. Cinnamon--Ground and Stick
  8. Cloves
  9. Cumin
  10. Curry Powder
  11. Dill Weed
    12 Garlic Powder
  12. Ginger--Ground
  13. Nutmeg--Ground
  14. Onion Powder
  15. Oregano
  16. Paprika
  17. Black Peppercorns (Whole. Seriously, buy a pepper grinder and grind your own. You will never go back.)
  18. Red Pepper Flakes
  19. Rosemary
  20. Saffron
  21. Sage
  22. Tarragon
  23. Thyme
  24. Vanilla--Extract and Beans

Spices with Nice Prices: There are several online retailers that sell superior spices at reduced prices. I am a fan of Penzey's , which provides delicious seasonings and great vanilla extract for a good price.

Just a Dash: I recommend buying only 1-2 ounces at a time, since spices lose their potency after a year or two. Smell your spices each time you use them. If they stop giving off a distinct aroma, it is time to replace them.

Nice Rack: Instead of shoving a bunch of oddly shaped jars into a drawer, why not use an attractive, useful storage rack? These magnetic jars can be attached to a metal plate on the wall or stuck onto the fridge. For a lower-priced option, you can buy these containers and attach magnets to them with a hot glue gun. If you have more counter space than cabinet space, this rotating rack keeps all your seasonings close at hand. Wherever you store them, just keep them out of direct sunlight, which will age them faster.

The last of a dying breed (or the first of a new breed), Lily Fink Harrington is the only 28-year-old housewife we know. She cooks, she cleans, she bakes, she sews, she makes things from scratch. Care to join her? Check out her blog, A Charmed Wife .
Follow Lily on on Twitter at @ acharmedwife

5 Basic Spice Flavors

When beginning to learn about spices, think about different cuisines. Knowing which spices are often found together for specific cuisines will help you understand flavors. Plus, this concept will enable you to experiment with the spices in those cuisines.

Here’s a Quick Reference Guide for 5 Basic Spice Flavors:

  • American Savory aka “Poultry” Seasoning: Sage, Thyme, Marjoram, Rosemary…and sometimes Black Pepper, Bay
  • Mexican: Paprika, Cumin, Coriander, Garlic…and sometimes Chipotle, Cayenne, Mexican Oregano
  • Italian and Mediterranean: Basil, Oregano, Thyme, Garlic…and sometimes Red Chili Flake, Rosemary
  • Indian: Turmeric, Paprika, Ginger, Cumin, Coriander, Black Pepper…and sometimes Cardamom, Fenugreek, Cinnamon
  • Pumpkin Spice Blend: Cinnamon, Ginger, Clove, Allspice

Chef’s Trick for Meal Prep: Make 2 Dinners at Once

  1. Make one BIG batch of sauteed veggies, like onions, peppers, and mushrooms
  2. Separate them into two separate containers
  3. Flavor them with two separate spice mixes.

In one round of cooking, you can have a Mexican-spiced filling for tacos…and an Italian blend for cooked pasta.

Indian Pantry 101: Aarti's Spice Essentials

Not sure where to start when it comes to cooking Indian food? We asked Aarti to share her top five spice-rack staples — plus how and when to use them.

Related To:

Not sure where to start when it comes to cooking Indian food yourself? Let Aarti be your guide. With her favorite spices, shortcuts and swaps, you’ll be well on your way to flavor-packed Indian dishes straight from your own kitchen.

Squash with Turmeric Butter

"Turmeric is one of the most essential Indian spices," Aarti says. "It comes from the turmeric root, which looks like a smaller, grubbier gingerroot. It has a bitter aroma in its raw, powdered form, but once you add it to oil, it releases this pungent perfume that you will recognize as distinctly Indian. It also adds a lot of bright golden color to your dishes. And it has great healing qualities: It's been used as an anti-inflammatory in India forever. Be careful though — it will stain!"

Read on for more of Aarti's must-have spices.

"In India, most cooks use ground red chiles (various varieties) both for their color and their heat," says Aarti. "Since some of those chiles are hard to come by here, I use paprika, primarily for the color it gives our food then, if I want to add heat, I use cayenne pepper or serrano chiles."

Aarti uses paprika in her Sloppy Bombay Joes (pictured), a recipe she recommends as a great introduction to cooking with Indian spices.

Read on for more of Aarti's favorite spices.

Garam Masala
Aarti says: "Pronounced 'GUH-rum ma-SAA-laa'. Masala means, more or less, spice mix — and don't confuse it with maRsala, which is a sweet fortified wine. Two different things entirely! Garam means "hot" this particular blend of spices punches up whatever you have going on already. Every garam masala mix is different, and all Indian cooks have their own blend (my mum's is strictly cinnamon and cloves, nothing else). The kind you find at the supermarket has a lot of coriander and cumin in it, which I don't like, but it's great if you're just starting out or you're in a pinch. I make a version that uses cinnamon, cloves and cardamom."

Aarti uses garam masala to give Tri-Tip Tacos (pictured) some Indian flair.

This Genius Organizer Arranges My Spice Shelf So I Can Read Every Single Label

I hunted far and wide for a system that checked all the right boxes.

Related To:

Spice organization is practically the reason Pinterest exists. Looking at perfectly tidy photos of spices in matching bottles with beautiful labels is profoundly calming in an aspirational sort of way. I know I will never ever take the time to decant spices into matching bottles — I go through them way too quickly and have way too many spices for me to sustain this sort of organization — but I like to think that I could organize my spices someday if I wanted to. This sort of thought pattern is probably why, for the past eight years of my post-college life, I have lived with a jumbled spice cabinet. To find any one spice, I have to take out at least six other bottles and slide six others around. When this spring rolled around, I decided that I would tackle this project once and for all.

Spicy Shelf Deluxe Stackable Shelf

I headed into operation spice organization with one goal: to maximize functionality. When I’m cooking, I want to be able to grab the spice I need really darn quickly. This means I need to be able to read all the labels of my spice jars without having to move anything around.

The Food Network test kitchen uses a really neat trick that I thought about copying at home: labeling the tops of every spice bottle so you can read the names from above. I recommend this idea to anyone who has their spices stored in a drawer. Sadly though, mine are in a cabinet that’s slightly above my eye level, so I can’t see the tops of my spices — just the sides.

Instead, I embarked on an internet deep dive of spice organization systems. Let me tell you, there is a vast, vast world of options out there. Many options seemed to have two fatal flaws. 1. They assume you have spice bottles that are all the same size. The racks that look like miniature bleachers — designed so you’ll see the spice labels on every layer — are always sneakily pictured with tiny spice bottles on the first shelf clearly they’d have no functionality if you tried to store larger spice bottles on the first shelf. 2. They’re not adjustable. My cabinet shelf is strangely long and tall, and I wanted to be able to use of that space. I’m guessing other people have uniquely-sized storage spaces as well.

That’s when I encountered a product that’s hilariously named the Spicy Shelf. It fit all of my requirements, mainly because it can be adjusted in a myriad of different layouts to accommodate different-sized spice bottles and storage spaces. It comes with two racks that you can stack on top of each other or place side by side. The racks can expand to become wider and taller. Plus, they’re shaped like a "u," which actually allows you to see more spice jars than if you were to simply arrange your spices in a straight line (so smart).