There are a lot of spices out there, A LOT. They’re all expensive, and y’know what else? Most of them, are rip offs. I understand convenience, but have you even taken a look at what’s in some of those “spice blend” jars? Can you pronounce any of those 4-5 syllable words? Phooey.
We’ll be taking a look at seven(7) essential savory spices that everyone should have in their pantries. The rest? Well, we’ll get to that later.
Salt and pepper are the God and Goddess of spices. They rule the flavor heavens, and watch down upon all the others, encouraging them, and helping them be their best. If you do not have Salt and Pepper, your culinary world will be total chaos, mayhem, and anarchy. Got it? Kosher salt is the preferred “cooking salt” because it’s less salty than table salt, and it’s more coarse. The coarseness creates a crunchier bite of crust around foods such as steak, chicken, potatoes, etc. I grew up with using iodized table salt, which is fine too. Kosher salt seems to be the more “foodie” choice as of late, but salt is salt. Just use it.
As for pepper, I know a lot of people who don’t like pepper in their foods. Black pepper is actually quite floral, and fruity, while being spicy, all at the same time. I find that Americans use black pepper more than most other cultures. Just a bit will do, you don’t want to go overboard. Fresh ground black pepper has more of a floral burst than pre-ground pepper. With all spices, it’s best to buy them whole, and grind them yourself. But we don’t live in a perfect world, so if you have to buy pre-ground, that’s just fine.
Remember our homemade chili powder? You need this. I know, I know, you’re thinking what I was thinking when I used to read that: “Yeah ok lady. I’m sticking with my jarred stuff because aint no difference.” But really!! There really is! Homemade chili powder is complex, smoky, seductive, and fruity, with just a little bit of warmth. It’s a completely different beast than that jarred stuff. Make up a giant batch, and keep it in a jar. There, now you’ve tricked yourself. It can be used for spice rubs, or in soups, anywhere you need a dark and sultry flavor.
First of all, garlic powder is not garlic salt. Garlic powder is dried cloves of garlic, pulverized into a fine powder. That’s it. Well, that’s supposed to be it. Some companies add other random things in their garlic powders, so again, this is where using your brain comes into play: read labels. All you want to find in garlic powder, is garlic.
Secondly, garlic powder is not meant to be used as a garlic substitute. Fresh garlic is actually quite spicy, and sweet. But there are places where garlic powder does a better job, like in spice rubs for meats, or mixed in melted butter as a spread for garlic bread. Also, some people don’t enjoy actually eating pieces of garlic, but still like the garlic flavor. Some food TV celebrities have offered the option of grating whole cloves of garlic as a solution to this, but again, garlic is spicy, so for those ultra-picky people, there is garlic powder.
Red pepper flakes are just that: dried and crushed, red peppers. I never understood sprinkling these on top of pizza, it just doesn’t make any sense. When heat (temperature) hits these little guys, the heat (flavor) comes out, and melts into the dish. Without the heat (temperature) these flakes are leathery and hard. They add a strong warmth to any dish and a little bit goes a long way, so be careful when using. When they turn brown, they’re old, so discard them. No, nothing bad will happen if you still eat them, but they have lost a lot of their potency.
Everyone is going to say: “Buy cumin seeds whole, and when you need them, toast them and grind them fresh.” That makes sense, because you’re getting the full, bright, smoky flavor profile at its most fresh. But I don’t have time to do that constantly. Most of the time, when I’m reaching for a spice, it’s because I need it, NOW. Or I don’t want to dirty my spice grinder because my sink is already overflowing with dishes and the counter is a mess and I JUST NEED CUMIN DAMNIT.
…So, pre-ground cumin will work just as well in dishes as freshly ground. Cumin isn’t spicy at all, it’s just simply an earthy, smoky flavor. Again, a great use in spice rubs, or sauces.
This is the only “spice” that’s really an “herb.” And it’s the only herb that I’ll ever use dried. Fresh oregano has a weird, medicinal taste to it, which I don’t find pleasant at all. Dried oregano is more floral, and bright, with a slight bitterness. Crushed between your fingers before using, helps release the oils in the leaves.
Other dried herbs are, simply put, disgusting. Dried thyme tastes like nothing, really. There are no words to describe how “nothing” tastes. Dried basil is an abomination, and tastes like shoe leather black licorice. And lastly, dried rosemary is almost lethal because it’s tiny daggers of dried, pointy leaves. So for those, take the time to use fresh.
This is the only “spice blend” I own. What is it? It’s Old Bay. Mainly used mostly for seafood, and the best spice blend you’ll ever taste, ever. It’s a combination of clove, celery seed, paprika, ginger, sugar, and a few others. It’s easily found on the east coast, and throughout southern states, and has recently been easier to find across the rest of the country. If you cant find it in your spice aisle (it comes in a bright yellow box,) it’s sometimes found around the seafood counter of your local grocery store.
The flavor is hard to describe. It’s sweet, salty, smoky, and warm, all at the same time. We use it on seafoods, potatoes, and even popcorn. If you still cant find it anywhere in your town, consider making up your own batch; there are some great websites out there with Old Bay recipes.
I like keeping my kitchen simple. Mainly because it’s so small, but also because there’s no need to complicate and clutter a space that’s supposed to be used for creativity and sharing. You don’t need 50 spices on one of those rotating rack thingies. With these seven spices, you can make anything from Mediterranean to Mexican cuisines. I realize that I’ve only been talking about the savory portion of this topic. There are a lot of sweet spices that are important to your kitchen as well, and we’ll visit with them another time. For now, go into your pantry, go through your spice rack, and do a little spring cleaning.
Need some kind of device to organize your spices? Of course you do. I love Salt City Spice’s Etsy shop, and equally awesome she’s a fellow Syracusan, woot! Anyhoo, her creations would be freaking adorable in anyone’s kitchen, AND they help you stay organized. Say what? Hell yeah! Go check ‘em out!