I’ve been setting up shop in the new kitchen. Filling a pantry from scratch is such a luxury. Usually I have to slog through old spices that guilt keeps me from throwing away. But when we left London, we had to pitch it all. My husband did the dirty work in case I just hid them in a suitcase and got us stopped at Customs.
Just like the start of a new school year (this is the year I will do all of my homework on time!), I am still full of energetic plans to make this the kitchen that stays organized, the kitchen that never gets cluttered with half bags of old pasta and esoteric ingredients that will never get used. (Check back a year from now I’ll have a post about history repeating itself…)
Instead of filling the spice cabinet right up, I started by skimming my go-to recipes and quizzed others about the spices they couldn’t live without. Then I made a shopping list! (Dirty little secret, I never make grocery lists and if I do, they are typically forgotten at home. I am sure this is #1 on the list of How To Keep An Organized Kitchen. Oh well.) In the meantime, I made do with my “desert island” seasonings, the ones that I can not live without: Maldon and kosher salt, black and white peppercorns, Dijon mustard, olive oil, white wine vinegar and Tabasco.
Once I was ready, I took my list to the Penzey’s store and managed to acquire nearly everything in one go. What follows is my personal list of the spices that are essential to my general cooking and my family’s favorite dishes. This is a highly personal., preference-driven exercise
Allspice Louisiana and Caribbean, compliments chili and barbeque seasonings, buy whole so it lasts longer.
Bay leaf Subtle, aromatic, earthy; key for stock, soup, beans, seasoned rice.
Cayenne Go-to for heat, or for a slight dryness that gives complexity to hollandaise, mayo, bechamel
Chilli flakes Heat in sautéed dishes, pairs with anchovy, capers, squid, pasta.
Chipotle Alluring smokiness, mild heat.
Cinnamon Son’s fav in anything.
Coriander Stew, soup, meat seasoning, Indian, often with cumin.
Cumin Stew, soup, meat seasoning, Indian, often with coriander.
Curry powder A good pre-made blend quickly elevates a weeknight meal or reinvents leftovers, but devotees of Indian food typically make their own blends.
Mustard powder Punchy flavor and secret emulsifying ingredient for dressings and sauces, pairs well with cayenne to add complexity to cream and egg-based sauces.
Nutmeg Grown-up alternative to cinnamon. Common in Italian and in potato based or creamy dishes. Plus, Connecticut is the Nutmeg State. Always buy whole and grate as needed with a microplane.
Saffron Just a pinch elevates rice, risotto and stew. Too much can be bitter. Good thing at that price… Warm up in a tablespoon or two of hot water to release aromas.
Sweet paprika Pretty color, subtle flavor
Smoked paprika Pretty color, awesome flavor, bacon-y. Often used with sweet paprika to balance the dryness.
Thyme Thyme goes in pretty much everything. The smell of onions and garlic sweating with fresh thyme might be my favorite kitchen smell in the world. Dried thyme works as a stand in when I don’t have fresh. Dried is actually better in stuffing/dressing.
Turmeric Indian food, but also a great medicinal spice with anti-inflammatory properties. Add to rice, lentils, beans and meats while cooking for a subtle, warming flavor.
I’m curious what spices others would add? I suspect I am light on sweet and baking spices as well as aromatics for Asian, Middle Eastern and African dishes. I skipped celery salt, cardamom, granulated garlic, ground ginger, sage, oregano, marjoram for various reasons of preference or infrequency of use but I can easily see others using them more than I do.
A few extra tips on buying, using, and keeping spices:
Purchasing: Spices should ideally be bought as fresh as possible. If possible, purchase from a source like Penzey’s that specializes in spices.I am lucky to have a Penzey’s store, which lets me smell each of the spices as I go so that I know exactly what I am getting. (It is actually an amazing learning experience and exciting for kids too, but I digress). Some Whole Foods and specialty markets have open spice sections. In London, try The Spice Shop in Notting Hill, which is also great for harder to find spices and dried chilis of every sort.
The reality is that even chefs still buy jarred spices in the grocery store. Go for a quality brand. Colors, especially for green herbs, should be vibrant. Since herbs and spices will last several years, keep in mind that the spices may have been sitting on a grocery shelf for a long time… Check the bottles for the latest”best by” date on the shelf.
Whole vs ground: Whole spices will keep longer than ground spices. They can be toasted to develop stronger and complex flavors and they can be easily ground in a spice or coffee grinder or with a mortar and pestle.
Shelf life: Even for ground spices, I find there is no hard rule for how long they last. Spices and dried herbs don’t spoil, they just lose their strength. So, the best test is to smell them. If they don’t smell like anything, they won’t taste like anything and it is time to replace them.
Storing: Air tight containers, away from heat and light. Of course, most of us keep spices by the stove for easy access, which can age them more quickly. Because spices are less expensive bought in bulk, consider buying a set of matched spice jars and filling them from larger bags of spices. Keep the backup supply in a cool, dark part of the kitchen or pantry. I am a massive nerd and found an unused file organizer that perfectly fits the Penzey’s bags (in alphabetical order).
Glass jars are ideal and good quality tops make a difference. Options are available to suit many tastes (and budgets!). You aren’t limited by the sets designed by major retailers. Online suppliers like Webrestaurantstore.com offer good quality jars and bottles in bulk so you can build your own set to any size you require.