If you’re new to cooking with spices then an essential first step is setting up a well-stocked spice collection. This can seem overwhelming as there are so many options. We’ve cut through the endless list of potential spices to bring you a recommended shortlist. These spices are super-versatile and some pop up in sweet and savory recipes. But, if there’s something you don’t like the look of, then leave it off. Easy done.
17 pantry spices to get you started
Salt is so important in cooking that it had to take the top spot on our list, even though you probably already have it in the pantry. In addition to adding flavor, it also enhances the other ingredients you’re using. If you want to get fancy, reserve the low-cost table salt for baking and choose kosher salt for almost everything else. For garnishing, sea salt flakes are light years better than table salt. They are worth the extra investment.
This is another “Captain Obvious” ingredient for this list, as it will probably get used in every savory dish you make. Invest in a pepper grinder and use whole black peppercorns for better flavor. If you use a copious amount of pepper, say for meat rubs, then to keep your sanity get some ground pepper as well. Otherwise, buy yourself a spice mill which will make life a lot easier.
3. Chili flakes
Chili flakes, aka crushed red pepper, has to be one of the most versatile spices you can possess. If you absolutely can’t tolerate spicy food, then skip on down this list, otherwise, listen up – chili flakes are brilliant. Use them to brighten up pasta, roast vegetables, spice rubs, stir-fries, and pizza. There are others too, like curry pastes and chili beans. The shaker bottles of chili flakes will often contain cayenne pepper, but milder versions are also available.
4. Cayenne Pepper
For those that love heat in their food, this is a must-have spice for the rack. Cayenne pepper, as the name suggests, is made from ground cayenne which is 30-50 thousand Scoville Heat Units. Although that’s nowhere near as hot as a habanero pepper, it is still hotter than most chili flake brands. Cayenne pepper will permeate through the dish better than chili flakes could ever could. Think of cayenne pepper for adding into your cooking, while using chili flakes sprinkled on top for an extra burst of heat.
What is a spice? Get all the answers in our guide.
Check out our resource on how to toast spices.
Turmeric adds an earthy, bitter flavor to food like curries, rice, soups, and stews. Its yellow shade adds vibrant, exciting color to anything it gets added to. Slow-cooked chicken with the addition of turmeric is hard to resist. Savory food, desserts, and even smoothies and juices benefit from its flavor and color.
6. Bay Leaves
The humble bay leaf may seem irrelevant in the kitchen. It is challenging to describe what the spice does to food because it isn’t taking center stage in the dish. However, leave it out of a hearty stock or braised meat and you’ll notice something is missing.
Cloves are often the first to get left off a list of needed spices, perhaps because they get used less than the others. Most homes reserve it for festive occasions like making an apple or pumpkin spice blend for Thanksgiving. For an impressive looking centerpiece at Christmas dinner, they can be studded onto a tender ham. However, cloves are also helpful for adding a pungent, penetrating taste to meat rubs, chutney, and even broth.
Cumin brings a nutty, warming flavor to recipes. It would be sorely missed if it wasn’t included in an at-home rack. It is an everyday ingredient found in a wide variety of cuisines. A staple in Indian curry blends or added to sausages, fish, meat, and stews. Pasta sauce gets an extra bit of zing and kebabs are delicious with a little cumin.
9. Garlic Powder
Fresh garlic is a must-have ingredient in the kitchen. But sometimes it’s nice to have a quick and easy way to get a similar flavor without any prep work. Garlic powder is a dehydrated type of ground garlic that will add pungent flavor with the shake of a wrist. Other than its ease of use, another benefit of using powdered garlic is that it spreads flavor through food well. For a 5-minutes snack, sprinkle the powder onto a halved bread roll with olive oil or butter to make garlic bread. Combine garlic powder with chili flakes and ginger to make a flavorsome addition to Chinese food. Stir-fries thrive with this magical “combination of three”.
Ground ginger is at home in savory food as it is in desserts. This makes it a useful ingredient to add to your spice rack as it’s likely to get used before it goes off. Add ginger to stir-fries, marinades, tagines, or a flavor-packed spice rub. For a sweet treat, ginger is the building block for exceptional cakes, gingerbread people, cookies, and ice cream.
Most Italian style dishes like lasagna, pizza, osso bucco, pasta sauce, or meatballs all taste better with oregano. It is aromatic with a bitter, minty flavor that also lends itself to many other Latin American and Mediterranean recipes. Forget about inviting your Italian friends or neighbors to dinner if you don’t have this spice in your kitchen!
12. Smoked Paprika
Paprika has a more subtle, smokey flavor that adds an amazing depth of flavor to dishes. It doesn’t have the same fiery burst of heat that cayenne powder or chili flakes have, although it does add warmth to food. Added to chili beans on a cold winter’s night, it brings a comforting warmness to the kitchen that most other spices can’t replicate.
The woody peppery flavor of rosemary has been used in French and Mediterranean cooking for centuries. Its fragrance is heavenly when added to a roast lamb, potatoes, rabbit, chicken, and pork. It also balances out oily fish by cutting through the heavy, salty flavor. If you enjoy making rustic homemade bread then sprinkle in some rosemary to keep things interesting.
The earthy minty flavor of thyme pairs well with rosemary and they’re both essential in the kitchen. Stuffing, meat, vegetables, and chicken are delicious with a little thyme.
15. Vanilla Extract
Like salt and pepper, vanilla is an absolute must if you enjoy to make desserts. Ice cream, pancakes, custards, cookies, and puddings take on a whole new meaning with vanilla. Whether you choose to use essence, extract, or the more expensive pods is up to your taste preferences. We recommend keeping all three.
Although cinnamon sounds delicious in pinwheels, puddings, beverages, or sprinkled onto grapefruit, it has more unexpected uses. Cinnamon lends itself well to savory dishes like chili, spice blends, or added to vegetables.
Nutmeg has an intense aroma and flavor which, like cinnamon, has uses in savory and sweet food. Cake, custard, hot drinks, even bechamel sauce are great uses for nutmeg. It is also one of those spices that combine with others to make a lovely festive spice mix.
Frequently asked questions?
Should I buy ground or whole spices?
If you’re just starting out setting up your kitchen essentials then it’s best to begin with ground spices. They’re easier to use and it’s less you need to worry about as you learn to cook. Once you’re comfortable with the basics then definitely learn to grind your own.
Should I buy spices in bulk to save money?
It will take you time to work out what spices you use a lot of and which ones are used once a year. So, it’s better to buy small amounts of each spice to start with and then buy the most-used ones in bulk next time. Keep in mind that spices have an expiry date so they may go to waste if you buy too much.
Have you got a spice and don’t know what it goes well with? Check out how to use spices in cooking. We look at all the popular spices and their popular uses in the kitchen.
A well-stocked rack of dried spices, combined with a range of fresh herbs, is a prerequisite to good food. They will serve you and your family (or anyone you intend cooking for) well in the kitchen. There are hundreds of spices at your disposal. When you’re starting out keep it simple and only get the above list. As time goes by, test new spices and blends to see which ones you like, and get rid of the ones you don’t.