Anyone who’s serious about cooking—whether you’re a home cook or a professional chef—needs to have a good spice rack. In this post, I’ll talk about the top 21 spices every kitchen should have.
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I’m a home cook who started cooking with basic recipes, but soon started cooking more complex dishes, most of which involve a lot of spices!
These are some of the most important spices that you need to have in your spice rack.
The Top 21 Spices Every Kitchen Should Have: What to Include on Your Shopping List
Also called pimenta, allspice is the dried fruit of a tropical mid-canopy tree. Used ground or whole, this is used in both sweet and savory dishes.
Allspice is commonly used in sweet-spicy dishes like apple pie or gingerbread and adds depth to stews and soups. It’s a famous element in Jamaican jerk chicken, too!
Trivia: the word “allspice” was coined in the 1620s by the English, who thought that the dried fruit was a combination of cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
Basil is an herb that has an earthy aroma that’s excellent additions to soups, sandwiches, pastas, stews, and so on! This is extremely versatile and is easily available in supermarkets, whether it’s dried or fresh.
I’m very fond of fresh basil, but the dried variety has lots of great uses, too! I love using them in pasta, but the dried ones come in handy when I’m making stews—the flavors penetrate better when they’re added during cooking.
This herb is not only delicious but also good for your health as well. Basil contains nutrients like calcium, vitamin C, vitamin K, iron, and potassium.
Bay leaves are usually added to stews, soups, and marinades that you need to remove before serving. This is common in Indian and Mediterranean cuisines, but my most common use for it is for Filipino dish adobo.
You would usually find bay leaves sold in bulk in supermarkets. Don’t worry if you’re getting more than you need. You can freeze some of them and they can last for years!
This is one of the most basic, most essential items on this list. Like salt, peppercorns should always be present in any cook’s kitchen—it’s actually the most widely used spices in the world!
There are many types of peppercorns—white, red, green, pink, just to name a few—but one of the most popular is the black variety. Black peppercorns are mildly hot and aromatic.
I suggest that you get whole peppercorns and have a high-quality grinder—an investment, but it does wonder to any dish! Black pepper tastes so much better when it’s ground fresh.
In native countries like India and Nepal, cardamom is a spice that is made from different seeds in the ginger family.
Cardamom flavors are very unique. Often used in Indian cooking, it has a strong, smoky aroma with hints of mint and lemon. Fresh cardamom seeds are excellent, but the powdered version is not bad either.
One of the things you need to know about this spice is that it’s expensive compared to the other items on this list. If you think that it won’t fit your budget, there are substitutes like coriander seeds and nutmeg.
Frequently used in Mexican, Chinese, and Korean cuisine, cayenne pepper is an excellent spice if you want to add a spicy kick to your dish.
I love Mexican food, so I usually use this spice in beef tacos, taco seasoning, and homemade chili. This is also used in Sichuan cooking, which I would usually order at any Chinese restaurant!
This spice has been used in traditional Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine for ages. Some of its benefits include the treatment of muscle and joint pains. Studies even suggest that it helps burn calories!
Some of the wonderful health advantages of cinnamon include possible anticarcinogenic and anti-inflammatory properties. It also helps fight diabetes and has antifungal and antiviral properties.
I use powdered cinnamon more than the sticks, but no one’s stopping you from getting both! The powder is great in apple pies, French toast, as well as savory dishes like lamb or beef stews.
Occasionally, I’d make myself a glass of warm milk with a stick of cinnamon. Not only does it taste really good—woody and sweet—it also helps me relax and fall asleep <cinnamon milk is great for insomniacs!>
I usually use cloves—aromatic flower buds—in pumpkin pie to get that bittersweet and warm, woody flavors.
Cloves have a number of health benefits. It’s an expectorant <great for those who have respiratory infections>, helps treat acne, and has anti-inflammatory properties.
If this is your first time to use cloves in cooking, make sure that you pay attention to the recipe—a little goes a long way! Too much clove could make the dish unpleasantly strong.
A popular ingredient in Mexican and cuisines, cumin is considered as one of the most popular spices in the world.
You can get either get the seeds whole or ground. When using them whole, make sure that you test it first before you add them to your dish. If you’re grinding them, see to it that you grind it fresh to maximize the flavors.
It has a unique peppery and nutty flavor that I absolutely love. I use it in curries, chilis, and stews. Some of its health benefits include vitamin E, potassium, iron, manganese, and zinc.
Curry powder is a blend of different spices, including cumin, turmeric, and coriander. Spicy and sweet at the same time, this spice is often used in curry and chili powder recipes.
This is a must-have in the kitchen if you like to cook Indian food. The beautiful yellow color brightens the dish, and the combination of spices adds layers and layers of unique flavors.
Love Italian, Mediterranean, and South American food? Then don’t forget to add dried oregano to your spice rack! This versatile citrusy herb provides depth to sauces and stews.
Another great thing about this herb is that it’s packed with the good stuff: vitamin K, minerals like iron and manganese, and antioxidants! It’s also a natural source of Omega-3 fatty acids!
Rosemary is a well-known ingredient in Mediterranean cooking. This herb has a unique flavor that has a combination of peppery and woody and is extremely aromatic.
Although there are a number of herbs that have similar flavor profiles, there is nothing better than the real thing, so I suggest that you use rosemary if it’s what the recipe specifically calls for.
I’ve started using this on roast chicken, but I eventually moved to homemade bread. What I like about rosemary is you only need to add a little bit to enhance the flavor—a little definitely goes a long way!
I love using fresh garlic, but its powdered version is also equally important. Garlic powder is basically ground, dehydrated garlic <another popular variation is garlic salt, which simply combines the two ingredients>.
Aside from the extended shelf life, I also like the fact that I can easily use it in quick dressings and roasts. I believe that garlic powder is underrated—it is extremely versatile, and no, I disagree that it’s for lazy cooks!
You can easily find this in any supermarket, but it’s more fun if you try making your own from scratch! It’s simple: all you need to do is dehydrate the garlic using an oven or food dehydrator, and crush them.
For those who are wondering about the difference between cilantro <the leaf> and coriander <the seed> here’s a simple description of each: Coriander has sweet, sour, and citrus notes and cilantro has minty and peppery flavors.
Ground coriander is a common ingredient in Mexican and Latin American dishes. It’s widely used in sauces and marinades, as well as curries and rubs <it’s great with chicken!>.
I would use ground coriander in my enchiladas. I’ve also recently discovered that it’s excellent with fennel, so I’m going to be combining them more often now.
Did you know that ground ginger has a more intense flavor than fresh ones? This is because the powdered, bottled version is more concentrated. A tablespoon of fresh ginger is equivalent to a ¼ teaspoon of ground ginger!
Ginger’s many health benefits include relieving digestive problems like loss of appetite and Irritable Bowel Syndrome <IBS> and helps get rid of motion sickness and nausea. It also contains loads of vitamins.
I use ground ginger in baking. Gingerbread cookies are staples in my household! I would also use it to make ginger tea when I’m out of the fresh variety.
Nutmeg is another spice that I would usually use in baking and making béchamel sauce <and more recently, creamed spinach>. It has a combination of warm, earthy, and spicy tones.
Not many people know this, but nutmeg continues to stir controversy. It is advised that you use only small amounts in your cooking, as studies suggest it has toxic properties and side effects if taken in large doses.
I suggest you only buy a small bottle of this for your spice rack. A little nutmeg goes a long way, and a small bottle will already cover dozens of dishes.
This is very similar to what I talked about with garlic powder. Onion powder is basically dehydrated, ground onions used as a seasoning. This process makes it about 10 times stronger than fresh onion in terms of flavor.
This can also be easily found in supermarkets, but it’s also very easy to make your own from scratch: dry the onions in an oven or dehydrator, and then crush them.
This one’s excellent in marinades and rubs! Keep in mind that onion powder has a tendency of caking, so make sure that it’s locked tight after using, and placed in a cool, dry place.
Made from ground dried fruits of capsicum annum peppers, paprika is excellent for stews, marinades, and spice mixture. Aside from flavoring, it’s also used to add beautiful red color to dishes.
There are different spice levels to paprika, so I suggest that you try out a number of brands first. The spice levels are mild to spicy–look for the one that suits your recipe best!
You can get regular paprika, but I highly recommend the smoked variety. Smoked paprika easily adds another layer of flavor to dishes!
Red Pepper Flakes
Also referred to as chili flakes, red pepper flakes are dried and crushed red chili peppers.
This is one of the spices that never run out of my kitchen. I use red pepper flakes mostly on pasta and stews. It gives dishes an instant kick of spiciness that I love!
If this is your first time buying these pepper flakes, I suggest that you try two to three brands <they’re usually inexpensive, don’t worry>.
Chili flakes have different spiciness levels due to the number of seeds included—the more seeds, the spicier. I usually get the mild-spicy variety, so I can sprinkle plenty on my dish but not get overpowering heat.
Used in Mediterranean and Cajun cuisines, thyme is an aromatic herb that is commonly used in meats and poultry. I love fresh thyme, but it’s also good to have these things around, especially if I don’t need to use a lot on the dish.
This fragrant and woody herb has been used for thousands of years, not only for cooking but for various health advantages as well. It has antibacterial properties and can be a good cough remedy.
Thyme is a component in bouquet garni and herbes de Provence. What I like about thyme is that it retains its flavor even when dried, so I know that I’m still getting all of the flavors I need even if it’s dry!
If you’re just entering the wonderful world of curry making, this is the spice that you must always have in your kitchen.
Aside from bringing great flavor and beautiful color to curry, turmeric also provides a lot of health benefits: it’s used for joint and stomach pain, arthritis, ulcer, Chron’s disease, high cholesterol, and so on.
Aside from curries, I add turmeric powder to rice <the family loves Fragrant Yellow Rice> and mix it with some tea with milk and honey.
I’m sure that turmeric powders in supermarkets are great, but it’s usually fresher if you buy it from a local Indian supermarket.
There You Have It!
Did this list help you? You do not necessarily need to buy all of these things at once because you won’t be using them all at the same time anyway. You can build your spice rack slowly but surely.
I strongly suggest that you get the highest quality spices you can find. I usually skip the grocery stores for those that I can find in smaller stores, like Latin and Asian supermarkets.
If you have comments and suggestions, you can send them my way via the comments section below! Good luck, and happy spice shopping! Stay tuned with cookingispassio.com. Happy cooking.