Spice up your (kitchen) life!

A friend of mine had a boardgames night a couple of weeks ago; one of those couples events designed to test your relationship with your significant other, as well as your friends. (My advice? Stay away from Monopoly.) As any good host would, my friend served up some appetizers throughout the night to keep the game-induced acrimonious feelings to minimum.

The appetizers he served were the normal fare: tortilla chips and salsa, mozzarella sticks with dip, and chicken wings. The wings were typical of what you find in your grocery store freezer. They were supposed to be ‘Jerk spice & lime’, but were just bland, unappealing, and completely unremarkable. It was like the food equivalent of a 1980’s Toyota Corolla.

With a few drinks in me, I was feeling my own hubris, and so I decided to salvage the wings  using the spices that were at hand: some salt, pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, Lowry’s Seasoning Salt, and lemon juice. My doctoring worked, and the wings were deemed to be edible/tasty. The night went on without incident, or bloody ‘Pictionary’- spawned violence. It got me thinking though; what sort of spices and seasonings are worth having on hand at all times?

There’s a lot of things we are taught as we grow up: how to ride a bike; how to tie our shoes; how to read and write. There is a lot more that most of us aren’t taught though: how to properly iron a shirt; should you hit or stand on seventeen when the dealer has a two; how to outfit a kitchen with the proper equipment. When I moved out on my own, I had a general idea that I should have some dishes, pots and pans, and maybe some glassware. As far as things like canned goods and spices went though, I only had a vague idea what to buy. I was especially clueless when it came to spices and seasonings. I sort of remembered my mother having one of those shoddily built spice racks that hold about twenty small jars and tins. Did I need all those different spices, or could I get by with only a couple? How much should I buy at a time? Were they good forever, or would I have to replace them periodically? In other words, what are the basics for stocking a spice cupboard?

I thought it might be useful to break down what spices are essential, what are recommended, and what can be skipped when it comes to purchasing spices for your home. Hopefully, this will be a handy tool to use when you’re setting up your home for the first time, or to help you declutter your spice cabinet.

The Essentials:

These are the spices and seasonings I consider to be must-have items in any kitchen.

  1. Kosher Salt: Kosher salt is merely salt that is in large crystal form. Kosher salt can be used the same way as fine crystal table salt, but I find it is much more useful for seasoning meat or fish. The grains are much easier to handle, so you can be more precise when sprinkling it on food. Kosher salt is said to have a less intense, more pure saltiness. Finally, Kosher salt will usually not contain anti-caking agents.
  2. Black Pepper: One thing that you will discover over time is that when it comes to black pepper, fresh-ground is always best. Always try to buy whole black peppercorns, and have a pepper mill to grind them with. Having a black peppercorn grinder with adjustable grind settings is a simple way to ensure you get the best flavour possible out of your black peppercorns. If you aren’t ready to spend a bunch of money on a nice pepper mill yet, many grocery stores these days have inexpensive, non-refillable peppercorn grinders in the spice aisle. When you do decide to upgrade your pepper mill, spend a bit more, and go with a nice wooden one.
  3. Paprika: I find myself reaching for the paprika almost as often as the pepper grinder when I’m cooking. Most of the paprika sold in grocery stores is more of a food colourant than a flavouring agent. For paprika that has actual flavour, go to a specialty European store, and get some sweet Hungarian paprika.
  4. Italian Seasoning: This is a blend of different crushed, dried herbs; usually made up of a mix of oregano, rosemary, thyme, basil, savoury, and sage. You can buy all these dried herbs individually, but I find this takes up less space, and the herbs won’t lose their potency as quickly.
  5. Cinnamon: Cinnamon is one of the essential baking spices, but it is also so much more. Used everywhere, from Mexico to Indonesia, cinnamon is sold either whole or ground. I find it best to buy it whole, and grind it myself. I like to use the whole stick for making soups and stocks, or as a flavourful garnish for drinks. Just remember, there is a difference between the cheap cinnamon sticks sold in most grocery stores (also known as Cassia), and high quality cinnamon bark, which you can find in specialty stores, and some Asian markets.
  6. Nutmeg: Another of my go-to spices, I use this in everything from vegetable dishes to mashed potatoes. Buy the whole nutmeg, and grate it using a small rasp.
  7. Crushed Red Chili Flakes: This is a great way to add a little heat to any meal. In many parts of Europe, chili flakes are as popular as a table top seasoning as black pepper.
  8. Coriander Seeds: I use ground coriander seeds to give my dishes a slightly exotic, citrus-y aroma and flavour. As with other spices, buy the seeds whole, and grind them yourself as needed.

Recommended Spices:

A well stocked spice cabinet should also have these items, but they aren’t absolutely necessary.

  1. Cumin Seeds: The backbone of Indian and Mexican cuisine. This pungent spice is what gives many chili powders and masalas their distinctive aroma. Use sparingly, a little bit goes a long way.
  2. Cayenne Pepper: This spice is an important ingredient in many spice rubs. Try to buy the smallest amount possible, as this spice will become stale over time. Another spice that should be used sparingly.
  3. Bay Leaves: I add these to most soups, stews, and tomato sauces. An essential ingredient to the ‘bouquet garni’ used by French chefs. Buy whole, dried leaves, and do not use any that are yellowed or spotty.
  4. Mustard Seeds: These small seeds are an important part of European, and Indian cuisine. I generally buy the whole yellow mustard seeds, and grind them as needed.
  5. Cloves: A common element to a diverse number of foods and drinks, cloves add that sweet/spicy aroma to marinades, curries, fruit dishes, and the hot toddy. Another spice which should be used judiciously.
  6. Hêrbes de Provençe: Another mixture of dried herbs. Slightly more floral than Italian seasoning, I like to use it in any dish where I want a more delicate flavour.
  7. Turmeric: This relative of ginger root is a staple of Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine. It is used for medicinal, flavour enhancing, and colouring purposes. Be careful handling this spice, it stains clothes and skin alike.

What You Can Skip:

I try to avoid buying dried basil and parsley. The fresh herbs are far superior, both in flavour and aroma. I will also avoid pre-made spice mixtures such as curry powder, and chili powder. You can make better versions yourself using the spices above. Pre-made meat rubs are also not necessary, and wind up sitting unused on the shelf forever. Many pre-made spice powders and rubs include things like silicon dioxide, MSG, fructose, soybean or safflower oil, and yeast extract. Blecch!

For all your spices, remember to buy them in small quantities, and whole if possible. Store them in airtight containers, away from light and heat. No more crappy spice racks sitting on the counter! Most spices contain volatile oils, which create distinct aromas and flavours. These oils quickly lose potency when the spices are ground, or exposed to light and air. To create your own spice mixtures, toast the spices carefully  in a non-reactive frying pan, and grind them using a mortar and pestle, or food processor. (A coffee grinder works well too.) Store any left over mixtures in airtight non-reactive containers, and try to use within a month.

Using this list of essential spices and seasonings will help you save money, and eliminate unwanted clutter in your kitchen. What a way to keep the spice in your life! Which is important if you’re going to be spending most of it sleeping on the couch. (Damn you, Parker Brothers!)

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