I often get asked the question, “What spices do I need to cook?” By the end of this post, you will have a great start.
Here is a picture of my spice cupboard:
I have this dirty secret – I collect spices.
Before I get into the confession mode, I do need to clarify one thing. I am not like certain members of my family, (whose names I have changed to protect the innocent,) who hoard spices in jars from 20 years ago. Spices need to be fresh to be good. They have a life expectancy of 6 months to a year at most. If it smells like dust, throw it out!
Wide-mouth Mason jars are perfect containers, and are easy to stack. Better, you can see your spices and the shape that they are in.
Unfortunately, I keep my spices in the worst spot. (Above the stove.) I can’t help it though, I like to have them right at hand. I know I should find a better place for all of them, and perhaps one day I will try.
For now, here are the top 11 spices I think you need to get you cooking the WDC way:
- Kosher Salt – Don’t let anyone tell you that this is not a spice. Romans were paid in salt way back in the day. You meed to have the best kind, and I like the Diamond brand.
- Whole Peppercorns. Please, don’t buy the pre-ground stuff. All you get form that convenience is a dust that has some heat. The peppercorns store easier in whole format, and they taste so much better when they are freshly ground. If you do not own a pepper mill, you can use your coffee grinder. (For those of you who don’t know how to clean it after, perhaps that can be a short post.) I like a blend of 5 peppercorns; the dark baritone flavors complimenting the sweet suprano flavors.
- Smoked Paprika - This is a definite must. I introduced this to the Mother-in-law, and now she swears by the stuff. La Chinata is the best brand I have come across. The combination of the sweet cayenne heat, and the oak smoke aroma is an unbeatable combination.
- Chili Powder – You can buy it, or you can make your own. I personally prefer the latter, (another post on that one day.) Why buy it when you can make it yourself? You will find a million uses for chili powder, especially for some much needed comfort food heat, and low earthy bass notes in your food. It pairs fabulously with coffee as well.
- Oregano – You need to have this dried herb on hand through the winter. I prefer the strands that you dry yourself, but that is getting a little far ahead. (At the end of the season I will be looking to do that as a post mortem on the garden.) Oregano is great in use for your own home-made dressings, sauces, gravies, roasts and other fantabulous concoctions. You can taste and smell the sweetness of the soil it is grown in.
- Thyme - Come on, this is a staple of the kitchen! You just cannot make stews, stocks or other foundational preparations without it. Grow your own in a container, (thyme spreads worse than most weeds,) snip it, and dry it yourself. If you must buy it in the store, look for thyme that still has a bit of color left on it. Stay away from the packages that look like they have been swept up from the floor. Don’t bother with ground thyme either. The spice should give you a woody taste, with a healthy helping of – you guessed it – earthy tones.
- Bay Leaves – Another staple of base preparations. I am currently looking to get a bay leaf tree, for the fresh leaves. Avoid the big bags of leaves that resemble the leaves you rake up in the fall. You know the ones – they look broken, shattered, olive-green and full of wrongness.
- Cumin Seeds - Nothing beats the smell of cumin grains beat up in a mortar and pestle. Avoid ground cumin, as it is basically just dust. Cumin is great for stews, chilies, breads, curries, and anything else that needs an earthy, full-bodied overtone. Toast the seeds in a dry pan before using, and grind them up. The smell will move you. Add it to your pork loin, and the smells will draw even that sullen teenager from his Playstation 3 to the table.
- Star Anise - I tend to use star anise in a lot of dessert preparations. It is the basis for 5 spice powder, and goes well with citrus. You can grind them up for use in stir-fries, give your sauces another dimension. A great preparation is roasted chicken with star anise, orange marmalade over steamed baby bok choy. Ethereal, with slight licorice tones that carry to a slightly dark, cinnamon tone.
- Cinnamon sticks (Or Cassia bark) - Put the ground cinnamon down. Stop paying for dust. Once you have the sticks, it is hard to go back. Cinnamon is the refined bark of the tree, where cassia is the scrap part. I prefer cassia, for its more honest flavor. It has a bit of a bite, and a peppery, sweet earthy finish. People think cinnamon or cassia is only good for dessert. I find it adds a new dimension in almost everything that you can cook. In savory applications, it ramps up the volume to 11. When I was younger, I found that a small amount in spaghetti sauce put that “je ne sais quoi” factor into the dish.
- Turmeric - Despite being a bit of a wallflower to this dance, this spice has potential to be the super star. The problem is we buy a crap-load of it, and don’t know what the hell to do with it. It sits there, biding its time, wishing we would smarten up. Turmeric has antioxident qualities, and has the penchant for transforming things into neon becons in the night. It is the base for many curries, is useful with chicken, salmon, vegetables. Why do you need this spice? Again, earthy tones. (Are you seeing a trend with this post yet?)
Which spices do you like to have, and why?