What Do You Really Need In Your Spice Rack?

The kitchen is the heart of the home. Preparing meals for yourself and your family in that heart can do more than satisfy the grumblings in your stomach—it can improve your health, boost your confidence, and elevate your culinary outings to chef status.

Like any artisan, you need the appropriate tools for your craft, and spices are major part of that kit. The more daring you are in the kitchen, the more likely it is you’ve accumulated shelves full of leaves, seeds, and powders that threaten to spill out of the cabinet onto the counters. But did you know spices lose their flavor the longer they sit in your kitchen?

If it’s been a few years since you’ve opened that bottle of garlic powder, or you haven’t dumped anything since the last time you moved seven years ago, it’s time to start culling those flavorless jars of dust.

Is This Spice Still Good?

Start with a sniff test. When you open the container, the aroma should greet you without having to put your nose inside the container. This can be subjective and depend a lot on your sense of smell, but if your spice has a weak scent, it likely doesn’t have much flavor either. It’s astonishing the difference a fresh jar makes!

Check through each spice in your cabinet and get rid of the ones that have passed their freshness date. This can dramatically increase space if you’ve been collecting spices without rotating them over the last few years.

Once you’ve decided what to keep, figure out a storage solution that fits your space. Spice containers must be airtight to ensure freshness that lasts. Glass jars or metal tins are perfect, as long as the containers are small and manageable. Buying a one pound package of cinnamon at a warehouse store is a waste when it sits on your shelf losing flavor, waiting for that annual batch of Christmas rolls. Proper storage of the essential spices in small amounts and constant rotation is the best way to get vibrant flavors out of your food.

The Best Spices to Keep on Hand

If you cook daily, you’ll definitely need the basics. Specialty cuisines will require additional flavorings, which you can incorporate in your newly cleared out cabinet. If it’s an ingredient you won’t use often, the bulk spice section of your grocery store is a great option. Measure out the small amount you need for your recipe, and stop yourself from journeying down the flavorless spice road again. Here are the essentials that warrant a space in your spice cabinet.

four colored salts in wooden spoons

Salt

Despite the outdated conventional wisdom, this excellent flavor enhancer can be a healthy part of your diet, especially if you choose the right kind for your purposes.

Table Salt - Typically made with a fine grain, this tends to make the best choice for a final touch at the table. Most table salt is iodized, which just mean it's been supplemented with iodine, an element many in the world don't get enough of in their diet.

Kosher Salt - The coarse grain of this mined salt makes it great for seasoning meats—the large surface area helps ensure even flavor distribution. Despite the name, not all of these salts are certified as kosher (though they are the used in the process of making other kinds of foods kosher). Unlike table salts, they don't usually contain iodine.

Sea Salt - Made from evaporated sea water, these tend to be flakier and more coarse, and they include some minerals you won't find in other varieties, like iron, zinc, and potassium.

Himalayan Salt - Mined from deposits in Pakistan, this salt has all 84 elements and minerals found in the human body, making it the healthiest option by a wide margin. It also has a more robust flavor than others, so use it sparingly until you get a sense of how much you like.

The spice market abounds with other specialty salts that are cool luxury items, but not necessary for most dishes. Save those somewhere out of the way to impress dinner party guests who care about the fleur de sel you picked up on your trip to France.

Peppercorns

Pepper adds a warmth and bite to savory dishes. In its whole form it can be added to marinades, stocks, and poaching liquids that are strained before serving. Grinding them from a peppermill as a final touch is standard culinary procedure, but they also add depth to sweets like gingerbread, spice cake, and chai tea. In addition to standard black peppers, you can find these little flavor bombs in green, red, and pink varieties.

Bay Leaves

Technically these are considered an herb, but they're a spice rack staple since a few of them go a long way. Typically jarred dried and whole, they can be ground into powder when needed, and whole bay leaves can be used in marinades and long simmering sauces or soups to add just a hint of a tea-like scent.

Whole Nutmeg

Kept in its whole form, nutmeg has a much longer shelf life than if purchased already ground. Use a microplane to grate as much as you need for each recipe. Freshly ground nutmeg is much stronger than ground, so use judiciously in the creation of baked goods, cheese dishes, boiled greens, bechamel, and eggs.

Cinnamon

With useful applications in both sweet and savory dishes, cinnamon is a spice that warrants a place of significance on your shelf. Location of origin affects the flavor—Vietnamese cinnamon tends toward the spicier end, while Indonesian cinnamon has a milder profile. Aim to stock just enough to last through six months of oatmeal, rice pudding, cinnamon rolls, and cakes. After that, it will start to lose its potency.

Curry Powder

You might be surprised to learn this spice is a British invention created to resemble the traditional Indian spice garam masala. While it evokes the scent and flavor of an Indian curry, there are other uses for this blend of more than 20 seeds, herbs, and spices. Deviled eggs, soups, vegetables, and potato salad can all benefit from a sprinkle of this pungent seasoning.

orange turmeric roots and powder

Turmeric

A common ingredient of curry powder, turmeric confers more health benefits than any other spice except garlic—so much so that this orange powder borders on the medicinal. Its active ingredient, curcumin, has been demonstrated repeatedly to offer protection against heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer's. It might even help with problems as diverse as arthritis and depression. Try incorporating it into dishes with eggs, chicken, beans and rice. It even makes a snappy addition to a homemade hot cider.

Dried Leaves

The must-haves here are oregano, basil, rosemary, and thyme. All make excellent additions to pasta sauces and Italian cuisine in general. However, they're also all available fresh. A potted herb garden can save space in your cabinet, give off pleasant scents, and even discourage pesky bugs like mosquitoes and small flies.

Cayenne/Paprika/Red Pepper

If you’re not inclined to add a little heat to your cooking, this might not be a necessity, but for those who enjoy the burn, don’t forget to stock one of these in your cabinet for a punch to your Cajun, Indian, and Asian dishes. Pick your favorite source of heat and keep one at time on hand. Swap out your cayenne for paprika when you run out, then switch to red pepper flakes when it's time to restock again.