The Well-Stocked Spice Rack

When was the last time you examined your spice rack? And I mean, really gave it a good looking-over?

Are the herbs and spices fresh? Or, to put it another way, do you remember the last time you replenished those jars? Be honest :) .   Time slips away from the best of us, everyone’s crazy-busy, and it’s very easy to turn a blind eye to those little jars.

If your spices are older than six months, it might just be time to rip off that bandaid and do some spice Spring cleaning. It’s also a good time to evaluate your seasoning needs and preferences: do you have the herbs and spices commonly called for in the recipes you like to cook from? Are there bottles of old spices taking up room on the shelf that you’ll never use?

I’ve created a list of 24 herbs and spices — 12 each — that will let you build a versatile and reliable stock of seasonings. (And if you’re new to it all, I hope this post will help you make your very first selections for your own collection.) Personal preferences will vary, of course — if you hate dill, you hate dill — but this list will not only get you through the average American recipe, but will also let you branch out into other ethnic cuisines, such as Indian, Mediterranean and Moroccan by creating simple custom blends from the herbs and spices here.

I also include notes about what type to buy, and what can be grown in your own backyard.

So, here we are at the end of March, which always finds me sorting through my seed packets and eyeballing the rough grid-paper layout of my yard, plotting where I can squeeze in the year’s edible garden wish list. Since I grow a portion of my own herbs and spices, it also means it’s time to go through my spice rack, pull off the lids, brace myself for some sneezing fits, and sniff out the seasonings that are past their prime.

Store-bought seasonings, truth be told, are almost always already past their prime, before you even get them home. Herbs and spices begin to lose their potency immediately following commercial preparation, and by the time they are transported and stocked on the grocer’s shelves, it’s been months since they were fresh. It’s a shame, because those little jars are expensive!

(Not all retailers are alike, however. I’ve always found Penzeys to have high-quality dried herbs and spices, and I’m also lucky enough to live near a local bulk reseller, who can get his product to the shelves much, much faster than Kroger.)

If you’re just starting out, don’t feel like you have to rush out and purchase everything on this list. Start slow, buy a few and try them out. Add a new item to the collection every week or so.

But first, the very basics: salt and pepper is a given. You should have regular table or kosher salt on hand, plus a nice fine grain sea salt (and if you can swing it, a coarse grain sea salt as well). Whole peppercorns and a good, adjustable-grind peppermill are also a must. If you need to back up and tweak your salt and pepper situation, that’s okay, just do it. Herbs and spices will always be there when you’re ready to bust out and expand your collection.


Okay, so here we go, spices first and herbs below!

Oh, and I have to say, I love my spice rack, and I love my herb gardens. Cooking is never boring when you have these amazing jars packed with their kaleidoscope of flavors.

The Top 12 Must-Have Spices:

  • Cardamom, black
  • Cayenne pepper, ground
  • Cinnamon (Vietnamese) (sticks or ground)
  • Chili powder (ground)
  • Cloves (whole or ground)
  • Coriander (seeds or ground)
  • Cumin (seeds or ground)
  • Curry powder
  • Garlic powder
  • Mustard (seeds or powder)
  • Nutmeg (whole)
  • Paprika (ground)

And for a Baker’s Dozen:
Saffron (whole threads) (pricey, but heavenly – risotto is not risotto with out it)

Spices:  Should you buy whole or ground versions? Can you grow it yourself?

I know that for so many busy families, time is of the essence. And you just can’t argue with the convenience of pre-ground spices. But do note that they will need frequent replacing, as ground spices lose their flavor and potency very quickly. (Some, like dried cilantro, develop a dust flavor in no time at all. Mmm, dust!)

Whole versions (such as pods and seeds) retain their essences much longer, and if you grind only what you’ll use in the next month, you’ll discover a whole new level of amazing flavors. I have an electric spice grinder that I keep handy and grind a half jar’s worth (see photo of jars above — they hold 4 ounces) of my favorite spices every 4 to 6 weeks. It takes 10 minutes — it’s worth every second.

Cardamom:

Whole or ground?  Either. You actually have three choices: cardamom comes in pods about the size and shape of almond. Crack open to the pods to reveal the seeds; grind the seeds. Whole pods are often used in Indian cuisine and impart a distinctive smoky flavor. The seeds are edible, but the pods are too woody for a satisfactory chewing experience. Remove the pods before serving any dish cooked with them.

Can you grow it yourself?  Not easily in the U.S. Cardamom is a decidedly tropical plant that will survive our climate, but is hesitant to flower, and downright reticent to set seed (which is what you would harvest).

Cayenne pepper:

Whole or ground?  Ground.

Can you grow it yourself?  Yes. Cayenne is a type of pepper you can easily grow from seed here in the U.S. Cayenne peppers are harvested, hung to dry thoroughly (until brittle) in a moisture-free location, and then ground to a powder. The freshly-picked peppers can also be used in cooking the same as you would a jalapeƱo or habanero.

Cinnamon:

Whole or ground?  Either. Whole (in stick form) lasts a long, long time, but is difficult to grind (mostly easily done with an electric spice mill). I keep both sticks and pre-ground on hand.

Can you grow it yourself?  Not easily in the U.S. Cinnamon trees are tropical, heat- and humidity-loving plants — its curly bark is the spice we grind and consume. You would need to grow the trees in a very tall greenhouse with a carefully-controlled environment — not very practical!

Chili powder:

Whole or ground?  Ground.

Can you grow it yourself?  Yes. Chili powder is simply a blend of various dried, ground peppers and chilies. You can grow the chili peppers of your choosing — for example, a mixture of poblanos, jalapeƱos and New Mexico peppers — hang them to dry thoroughly (until brittle) in a moisture-free location and then grind to a powder. Also, a wide variety of whole, dried peppers are available at retailers such as Penzeys, giving you many, many options for creating a wonderful homemade chili spice blend.

Cloves:

Whole or ground?  Either. Cloves are intensely aromatic, so if you buy whole with the intention to grind, make sure you use a grinder that will not be pulling double-duty as your coffee bean grinder. Unless you like clove-flavored coffee. Then knock yourself out.

Can you grow it yourself?  Not easily in the U.S. Clove trees are tropical, heat- and humidity-loving plants. You would need to grow them in a greenhouse with a carefully-controlled environment.

Coriander:

Whole or ground?  Either, although buying (or growing) the seeds and grinding them fresh results in far superior flavor.

Can you grow it yourself?  Yes. Coriander is quite easy to grow in the U.S. Coriander is the seed of the cilantro plant (see Herbs, below), so you get a two-for-one by growing cilantro. After the cilantro plant flowers, you leave the plants alone to allow them to form seeds. Once the seeds have dried out on the stems, pick them and store them. Grind small batches to powder form. Freshly ground coriander will stay fresh for several months.

Cumin:

Whole or ground?  Either, although buying (or growing) the seeds and grinding them fresh results in far superior flavor.

Can you grow it yourself?  Yes. Cumin is easy to grow from seed in the U.S. After the plant flowers, collect the seed heads and hang to dry. Then pluck the seeds and grind them to powder form.

Curry powder:

Whole or ground?  Powder.

Can you grow it yourself?  Not quite. Curry powder actually has nothing to do with the Curry plant, but rather is a blend of several spices, including cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, mustard seeds, turmeric, and others. Make your own spice blend by mixing these other spices together.

Garlic powder:

Whole or ground?  Ground.

Can you grow it yourself?  Yes. Garlic is easy to grow in the U.S. Garlic powder is made from thoroughly drying garlic cloves and then grinding to powder form.

Mustard:

Whole or ground?  Either. Whole mustard seeds are great to have on handy for certain ethnic cuisines (including Indian) and spice blends. Whole seeds can be ground to powder form.

Can you grow it yourself?  Yes. Mustard is quite easy to grow in the U.S. The greens of the mustard plant are very tasty themselves, but if you’re growing from seed, you let the plant bloom, produce seeds, and go yellow. It’s best to leave the seed pods on the plant as long as possible.

Paprika:

Whole or ground?  Ground.

Can you grow it yourself?  Technically, yes. Paprika is made from dried peppers, which can be grown in the U.S. However, true authentic paprika comes from Hungary, where growers cultivate their pepper plants in conditions prime for consistently producing that distinctive paprika flavor. Smoked paprika, by the way, comes from Spain and, again, the growers there concentrate all efforts in producing and smoking their peppers in a way we would be hard-pressed to duplicate here in the U.S. But yes, you can absolutely make your own paprika blend from your own garden.

Nutmeg:

Whole or ground?  Whole. Nutmeg is a nut, and we use it in ground form. However, freshly ground nutmeg is far, far superior to buying ground in a jar at the store; so much so that it is practically not worth purchasing ground if you can’t find the whole nut. One nut lasts a long time (although you usually purchase them in packages of 3 or 5). Use a microplaner to grate the nut; store the nut in an air-tight jar.

Can you grow it yourself?  Not likely. First, the nutmeg tree is a tropical tree not suitable for the climate of the U.S. Second, if you were to start cultivating from seed, it will be 6 to 10 years before your tree would produce nuts (interesting reproduction note: you need both a female-flowering and a male-flowering tree, and they’re very difficult to tell apart until they’ve actually flowered. Nutmeg producers grow their trees in forest configurations because they need to ensure there’s one of each in the bunch, preferably one male to 12 or more females).

Saffron:

Whole or ground?  Whole, only. Ground saffron loses its potency quickly.

Can you grow it yourself?  Yes. Saffron is quite easy to grown in the U.S. Saffron threads are the stigma of a certain kind of fall-blooming crocus. Each crocus flower contains three small, bright red stigmas, which are removed and allowed to dry. It takes dozens of crocus flowers to produce a small jar of saffron — the labor-intensive plucking of the stigmas is the reason the spice is so expensive. I grow saffron crocuses in containers, moving them indoors in the Spring and Summer, and then back outside in the fall for blooming and harvesting.

The Top 12 Herbs

  • Basil
  • Bay Leaves
  • Cilantro
  • Chives
  • Dill
  • Mint
  • Oregano
  • Parsley
  • Rosemary
  • Sage
  • Tarragon
  • Thyme

Herbs: Should you buy fresh or dried? Can you grow it yourself?

Herbs come in one of two forms: fresh cuttings from a live plant (usually found in the produce section of your grocery store), or dried and packaged (in the spice/baking aisle).

I’ll be perfectly blunt here: dried herbs are frustrating. Most lose a significant amount of their flavor and potency in a very short amount of time. Just the other day, I went to make some tzatziki sauce and, realizing I’d forgotten to purchase a bundle of fresh dill at the market, reached for my jar of dried only to find it smelled like dust. Sigh. I purchased this batch a mere three months ago.

However, although I grow most of the herbs in this list fresh in my own gardens, I do keep a supply of dried on hand (except for cilantro) for emergencies and convenience. Some, I dry myself. Others, I buy in bulk. I’m so happy that Penzey’s has opened a retail store near me. I hope you’re similarly spice blessed.

I’ve also included general growing notes (and a few pics of my early Spring herbs. The basil photo is from last fall; the others I took this past weekend). If you’re interested in growing your own herbs, you should research to determine whether the herb can grow outdoors in your region. Start by determining which U.S. hardiness zone you reside in (folks outside the U.S. will have their own charts). From there, seed and plant sellers will indicate which zone the herb will thrive in your climate.

Note that, for the herbs, I’m using “spice rack” in the metaphorical sense: your spice rack can include your herb garden or the cuttings in a jar of water on your window sill or the produce drawer in the fridge.

Basil:

Fresh or dried?  Either. Fresh is required for certain dishes such as pesto and caprese salads, but dried is an acceptable substitute for sauces and tomato dishes. Dried stores fairly well.

Can you grow it yourself?  Yes. Very easy to grow indoors and out, all year round. Basil will thrive outdoors in warm weather and a half dozen plants or so will keep you flush in fresh basil for summer tomato salads. At the end of the growing season, harvest all the leaves and make pesto for freezing. It’s an amazing herb, one of my very favorites. Fresh cuttings can be kept for weeks in a glass of water on the windowsill (in fact, I have a cutting from last Fall’s harvest still thriving in my kitchen window. I plan on replanting it in the basil bed later this Spring).

Bay Leaves:

Fresh or dried:  Either.

Can you grow it yourself?  Yes. Bay leaves come from the laurel tree or shrub, which commonly grows in the south and west coasts of the U.S. Although it can be grown in containers and shaped to remain small, it is not winter-hardy and should be brought indoors in regions where the weather turns cold.

Cilantro:

Fresh or dried?  Fresh only! Dried cilantro loses its flavor almost immediately. Not even worth buying jarred, IMO. Store bunches of fresh cilantro by wrapping the stems in a wet paper towel and sealing in a plastic bag. It will keep in the fridge for up to a week.

Can you grow it yourself?  Yes! Cilantro is easy to grow indoors and out, but you will have to do several seedings throughout the growing season, as the plants expire quickly. You can allow a portion of the plant to flower and go to seed, and then use the harvested seeds for further plantings (note: the seeds of the cilantro plant are known as the spice “coriander” — you can harvest the seeds from your cilantro plants and use them for coriander — see the Top 12 Spices above)

Chives:

Fresh or dried?  Either, although fresh is noticeably tastier.

Can you grow it yourself?  Yes. Can be grown indoors and out.

Dill:

Fresh or dried?  Either. Dried dill is wonderfully potent and stores reasonably well when recently dried. Fresh dill is not as strong, but has a brighter quality that is absolutely lovely. Once picked, fresh dill does not keep long, but you can extend its freshness by wrapping stems in damp paper towels and sealing in a plastic bag. Keep in the fridge.

Can you grow it yourself?  Dill is grown outdoors and needs lots of elbow room, as it’s tall and lanky. If you let portions of the dill plants go to seed, you can harvest the seed for both successive plantings in the same season (and also for the following year), and for use wherever dill seeds are called for (note: dill weed is the feathery, leafy green part of the plant — also known simply as dill — not to be confused with the seed head, which resembles a large, sparse flower (like Queen Anne’s Lace), with tiny yellow blooms. These blooms produce dill seed).

Mint:

Fresh or dried?  Either. Fresh is more potent and aromatic.

Can you grow it yourself?  Yes. Do note that mint is extremely aggressive. It spreads wide via root propagation and is nearly impossible to kill once established. I’d recommend growing mint in a pot to maintain control of it. The pot can be brought indoors in the winter.

Oregano:

Fresh or dried?  Either. Dried is more potent and is generally what’s called for in most recipes.

Can you grow it yourself?  Yes. Oregano is a very hardy perennial in most U.S. zones, so be sure to plant it in a permanent spot with lots of room to spread. In early summer, cut entire stems of oregano leaves, tie together and hang in a dry location. When dried, remove and crumble the leaves into a container for storage.

Parsley (flat leaf):

Fresh or dried?  Fresh is noticeably superior, but dried will do in a pinch.

Can you grow it yourself?  Yes. Parsley is a slow grower, but once established will produce fragrant leaves well into the winter months. A biennial, it generally goes to seed the 2nd year (often reseeding itself, conveniently). I transplant about 1/3 of the plants to a container to bring indoors over the winter. The parsley in the photo above survived our mild winter completely healthy and intact, meaning continuous access to fresh parsley since last summer!

Rosemary:

Fresh or dried?  Either, but fresh is noticeably more fragrant.

Can you grow it yourself?  Yes. Purchase an established rosemary plant, as growing it from seed under normal household, seed-growing conditions is nearly impossible. Rosemary is a perennial in some zones; an annual in most. In colder zones, you can transplant rosemary to a container before the first hard frost and bring indoors. It might not survive the entire winter, but with good light and water, it should last into March. In zones where rosemary survives the winter, it can grow to be hedge-sized. (Impossible in my zone 6a, but I would love to have a huge hedge of rosemary. The scent is fantastic!)

Sage:

Fresh or dried?  Either. Dried tends to lose its flavor more quickly than other herbs, but it’s handy to have in the winter if you can’t grow your own.

Can you grow it yourself?  Yes. Easy to grow outdoors and has a compact, bushy growing habit. Survives all the but the harshest winters.

Tarragon:

Fresh or dried?  Dried is noticeably more potent, but fresh is quite lovely in fish and egg and dishes.

Can you grow it yourself?  Yes, but you must purchase an established plant, as tarragon is not grown from seed, but rather propagation. Look for “French” tarragon, as the common Russian variety is not nearly as flavorful. (If you find tarragon seeds at the nursery, it’s for the Russian variety, not the French.)

Thyme:

Fresh or dried?  Either – they can be used interchangeably.

Can you grow it yourself?  Yes. Thyme is a hardy perennial that grows bush-like, and spreads a bit each year. Produces year-round in all but the harshest winters.

And there you have it. Twenty-four herbs and spices to keep your cooking vibrant and flavorful!

BTW, here’s a peek at the spice rack in Cucina SoupAddict (sorry ’bout the glare — I keep the jars tucked in a dark corner and had to set up a light so they’d be visible):


Comments

  1. I adore your high level of organization. I am in the middle of a spice reorg – the score is: Spices -1; Cher – 0.

    This is a great round up & I heartily endorse your selections! I am amused by the thought of a tree-sized greenhouse to grow cinnamon… The only other one I would speak up for is ginger – personally, I would be lost without it :-)

    • Ditto on the ginger! Almost decided to order it from Hawaii and grow it myself this year but then came to my senses (although I’ll probably be kicking myself as summer arrives, because that’s just the kind of gardening challenge I love).

  2. I love the spice jars! Where are they from? Thanks – love your blog!

  3. Yes love the jars. Where can we get those?? Do you label them?

  4. I, too, love those leetle jars. Mine are straight-sided, but the nearly airtight lids are great.

    And how pleased/surprised am I to see I am not a complete herb philistine? I have several of those you’ve listed from my own garden and you’ve convinced me to go for more. It’s hard to keep up with the sheer volume of oregano, however, as that plant just kept growing.

    I learned the hard way about mint, so take note of my tale of woe and SA’s recommendation: a bowl, a pot, anything except the wide open earth because surely mint, like kudzu, will take over.

  5. Hi Everyone!

    The jars are 4 1/2 oz. Vibe jars from Libbey. They’re fairly easy to find but they are, by far, the cheapest at Amazon ($20 for a 12 pack): Libbey Spice Jars. The same style also comes in larger sizes, which is handy for things like cinnamon stick and bay leaves. They’re definitely air-tight. They have a wide mouth that accommodates every measuring spoon I’ve ever tried, and a low profile means they’ll fit in drawers.

    I do label them, but I would do it much differently now if I were starting over. In the pyramid-stack picture towards the top, you can spot the white rectangular labels on the backs of a couple of the jars. I don’t mind the white labels, per se (although I do keep the jars turned to hide the labels now), but it makes them not easily washable (i.e., the label has to be replaced). At some point, I’ll remove them all and replace them with round labels attached to the tops or, more likely, bottoms of the jars.

  6. Excellent article, information and more inspiration to get my rear outside to revive my planter garden! :)

  7. I have a really bad case of spice rack envy right now. I think I’m going to go buy some cool jars and go through my spices and do some sorting and sifting!

    Thanks for the inspiration!!!

    xxoo,

    RMW

  8. This is a fantastic guide, thank you for putting it together! I was just thinking the other day that I need to go through and purge the cupboard a little bit, so this is going to really come in handy.

  9. This looks great — I love the reflections in the glass.? And you’re invited to come cook something for me. xD

  10. Hillary says:

    LOVE this!! I had no idea I could grow so many of these! I want to do it all now!

  11. Anna-in-N. says:

    a note about Cardamom:
    ============

    I love this spice and have had good experience
    with grinding the complete green pods, then its
    “woodiness” is no longer important.

    One of my favorite use is grinding coffee beans
    with some cardamom pods for making espresso.
    [about four beans to a quarter cup of beans]
    -Anna

    • Yes, green cardamom has papery, rather than woody, pods, so they do grind much better. Green and black, however, are not the same spice – they’re only cousins. Green cardamom is also quite lovely, but tends to be used more in baked goods, while black is bolder and smoky. Cardamom in espresso sounds great! Almost like a Chai espresso. :)

  12. Great post. When a recipe calls for paprika, do they mean Hungarian or Spanish? Do you use both, or how do you decide?

    • They almost always mean Hungarian. (When a recipe calls for “smoked paprika,” they mean Spanish). Commercially, you’ll be able to find two types of Hungarian paprika: sweet and hot.

      Sweet is quite mild in heat but has that wonderful pungent pepper flavor, while hot is, well, hot :). Not cayenne-hot, but you will feel it in the back of your throat.

      For my own tastes, unless a recipe specifically calls for hot Hungarian paprika, I always use sweet, since I’m looking for the flavor more than the heat (although heat-loving folks do the opposite – you can’t go wrong either way).

  13. Mollie Clemons says:

    Great herbs out there, and the spice rack too. But the three main spices that I believe no kitchen can be without are onions, garlic, and parsley. These three herbs can add flavor and variety to many of your favorite dishes. I use these three herbs just about every time I cook.

  14. annie in NJ says:

    What an awesome website I have found. I reorganized my spice cabinet in the summer with cheap, cheap dollar variety containers that aren’t making me happy now that I’ve seen your wonderful containers. :-) Thanks for wonderful recipes too, especially the soup ones. Yummmm

  15. nice list. amen on the mint part. put a plant in long time ago and it took over a 6′ x 6′ patch of dirt! hard hard hard to get rid of but there was one solution, a natural, non-human solution….my chickens. they would scratch in there…now theres almost no trace of the mint…those chicken feet are powerful diggers lol.

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