Whether you’re a die-hard recipe follower of more of a freestyle improvisor, one of the easiest things you can do to improve your home cooking is to level up the contents of your spice cabinet. It’s difficult to overstate just how quickly a dash of a fresh, high-quality spice can elevate your entire dish, even if you’re making something simple (and sometimes especially if this is the case; the fewer the ingredients, the more each one shines). And while there’s no one-size-fits-all shopping list for spices — it depends on what you like to cook and eat — it’s wise to have a variety of spices and spice blends that cover a range of flavor profiles.
Most pre-ground spices should be replaced every six months or so. Although spices are technically shelf-stable, they do lose their freshness over time, thus rendering your curry dull or your cacio e pepe flat in flavor. A quick smell test should do the trick — if you take a whiff and get nothing, or only a very faint dusty aroma, it’s time for a replacement. Many spice aficionados prefer to buy whole spices, which can last for up to a year and have a more potent flavor, and grind small quantities in a spice grinder or coffee grinder reserved for that purpose as necessary. Either way, store your spices at room temperature in an airtight container in a dark, cool space — heat and light are the enemies of freshness here.
Here, we polled a few pros for their most essential spices and organized them by flavor profile, so you can start to create a well-balanced spice cabinet for all of your cooking and baking needs.
Fruity and Fragrant
Smoky and Spicy
Earthy and Complex
While salt isn’t a spice per se, there’s no doubt that investing in a few different kinds for different applications can make a world of difference in your cooking. There’s a wide world of salts out there, but Giambruno recommends two classic brands to keep things simple: “I use Diamond Crystal kosher for cooking and Maldon sea salt for finishing. I like the way Diamond Crystal feels in my hands, and it’s fairly standard in most restaurant kitchens. Maldon is a nice flaky sea salt that adds texture once a dish has already been cooked — put it on salads for a nice crunchy pop of salt, sprinkle it over fresh mozzarella, or put a pinch on top of brownies or chocolate chip cookies to give it that completely addictive candy bar flavor.”
Jamie Feldmar is a Los Angeles-based writer and cookbook author. See more at jamiefeldmar.com and follow