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.
“I exclusively use Burlap & Barrel spices because the second I tasted them they just blew me away,” says Rikki Giambruno, chef and owner of Hyacinth in Saint Paul. [The company supplies single-origin spices with an eye toward sustainability, sourcing directly from smallholder partner farms around the world.] “Their coriander is totally different from what you normally get at the store — it’s very citrusy, and a little tannic. It reminds me of grapefruit zest. I often toast it dry and use it as a crunchy topping on everything from roasted meat to salads. It’s great with citrus because it exaggerates the inherent qualities of the fruit,” he says.
“These fennel seeds from Greece are potent and sweet with a brief cooling effect in the mouth, making them ideal for intensifying fruit flavors,” says pastry chef and Eater Young Gun Zoë Kanan (’19) of the J&E General. “I bloom them into syrup to use in mango frozen yogurt or crush into strawberry jam.”
“This Vietnamese heirloom cinnamon has fiery, enormous flavor that makes me emotional,” says Kanan. “It has traveled the country in my suitcase to culinary events and I sing its praises to anyone who will listen. Smelling it is like experiencing your favorite holiday memories and trekking through the Quang Nam mountains at the same time. I blend it with tomato and brown butter to spread on lahmacun and use in any baked good with warming spices.”
“It adds a little heat but not too much — it’s more that it adds a depth of flavor,” says Angie Rito, who, along with her husband Scott Tacinelli, owns Don Angie in New York. “Just a little packs a smoky punch, which is great if you want to add smokiness to something vegetarian. I used it the other night in black beans, and it would be great mixed with mayo or hummus for a dip. We like the sweet version but you can get the hot one if you like it spicy.”
“If you’re not into grinding your own spices, that’s cool, but let black pepper be your exception,” says Kalisa Martin of Kalisa Marie Eats. “I recently discovered Diaspora Co., a company that equitably sources heirloom and single-origin spices directly from their partner farms in India. They’ve taken a ‘people first’ approach to the pandemic and decided to pay their farmers 100 percent advances on the 2020 harvest and created an emergency healthcare fund to cover workers. Right now, you can pre-order spices and buy swag to help support this mission. I’m very excited for the black pepper that’s on its way to me. It’s vine-ripened, hand harvested, and deeply flavorful, with a nice fruity kick that elevates everything I grind it on.”
“These fruity, smoky Guatemalan peppers are my No. 1 favorite chile flakes,” says Kanan. “I’ll sometimes pop the cap off and take a whiff if I’m in need of dinner inspiration. They are the key ingredient in my ginger cookies to help amplify the heat, and the perfect popcorn seasoning. I also keep a jar of infused olive oil at the ready to brush on focaccia, or drizzle over anything else.”
This is technically an herb, but it’s worth noting as dried oregano is a staple in Italian-American classics like tomato sauce, and it’s simple and cost-effective to DIY. “When you buy dried herbs at the grocery store, they can be months old, with no freshness or potency,” says Rito. “But you can dehydrate fresh herbs yourself, which concentrates their flavor at peak freshness. It’s a great no-waste way to preserve food, and works well with oregano, cilantro, and basil. Just spread it on a baking sheet and let it sit at the lowest setting in your oven until they’re completely dry, then store in a jar.”
“Even stale grocery store cumin usually smells like something, but this is like a supercharged version of what you know and love from Sichuan food or tacos,” says Giambruno. “It’s incredibly versatile — we use it to crust things, or in sauces and vinaigrettes. Sometimes we dry toast it and hit it in a mortar and pestle, then top a salsa with it to get all the little crunchy bits for additional texture.”
“I’m Jamaican and always have curry (yes, ground!) on hand — one of the many influences of the Indian diaspora on the island,” says Martin. “While there’s no universal curry blend, this particular combo of turmeric, coriander, fenugreek, cumin, pimento, black pepper, and star anise will remind you of the curries of your favorite Jamaican take out spot, auntie, or beach-side vacation. Use it for curry goat, chicken, seafood, veggies and even sweet applications.”
“I didn’t have much experience with this classic North African blend until I traveled to Morocco. Now I can’t get enough of this fragrant and complex mix,” says Martin. “Similar to Jamaican curry, there’s no exact recipe, as it literally translates to ‘top of the shop’ and combines the best of the best a spice shop has to offer, anywhere from 10 to 50 ingredients. It’s good on everything from stews to side dishes, or even try a pinch in your coffee.”
“One of our line cooks brought this in to work to make jerk chicken for our staff family meal, and we got totally hooked on it,” says Tacinelli. “When we had to close the restaurant [due to Covid-19], it was one of the last things we grabbed to take home when we were cleaning out the kitchen. This one is a mixture of allspice, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, clove, garlic, onion, salt and sugar, plus a strong dose of spice from crushed red pepper. Now that we’re cooking at home, we put it on chicken, obviously, but also on fish and roasted vegetables like potatoes.”
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