The 12 Herbs and Spices Every Pantry Should Have
Maybe you received a spice rack as a wedding gift. Perhaps you found a bunch of basil and cilantro in your latest CSA basket. Or possibly you're just looking to make healthier, low-calorie foods with fuller flavors on the cheap. Cooking with herbs and spices is certainly a skill even novice home cooks should take some time to master.
And summer is the perfect to bulk up on these robust ingredients — and more — while they are fresh and, therefore, less expensive. You may also find unusual varieties at the farmer's market, which can mean unique dishes for your friends and family to enjoy. If you'd like to dry your own herbs for later use, there are a few methods you can employ, including tying in bunches, hanging upside down until fully dehydrated, and then storing in airtight containers. (Related: Preserving In-Season Foods for Off-Season Feasts)
Here's the lowdown on 12 herb and spice rack favorites I use most in my own cooking, as well as some tips on their use.
I used to think allspice was a manufactured mix of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves — but the flavors come from the unripe and dried berries of its own plant, the Jamaican pimento tree. As a result, it's often used in Caribbean cooking (think jerk sauces) or whenever a good dose of warm spice is required, from pumpkin pie and other holiday goodies to slow simmer tagine dinners. (Related: 25 Delicious and Easy One-Pot Meals)
Of all herbs, I love basil best. It's bountiful and cheap at market, and it grows easily in small container gardens at home. Basil also makes a mean, versatile pesto sauce, among other delicious dishes. In stir fries and other hot meals, it's best to tear fresh basil leaves over the dish to let wilt after cooking has completed. (Related: 10 Easy Pesto Recipes (And Only One Uses Basil))
Most every recipe calls for a pinch of salt and dash of spicy black pepper. Cooks have been using peppercorns for ages whether during the actual cooking process itself or when the meal hits the table. If you can invest in a mill, grind whole peppercorns versus using standard black pepper for a more intense flavor.
I found a rogue patch of chives growing in my neglected garden this year. So, while the plant itself is quite hearty, so, too, are the dishes it works best with. I toss chives in omelets, mix with sour cream atop baked potatoes, flavor soups and stews, and mix into pasta and salads. The chive's garlic and onion flavors marry well with a wide variety of foods, so it's a safe herb to use in culinary experiments.
For salsas and guacamole recipes, fresh cilantro is my go-to herb. It also makes a vibrant garnish for a variety of ethnic dishes. Though there's no special rule, I tend to tear leaves off the stems before chopping for the best texture and flavor. Oh, and if you see coriander as an ingredient in your recipe, know this: They are the seeds from the very same plant.
Much like allspice, cinnamon is a warm, cozy flavor I tend to use most in the fall and winter months in my baking. All year, cinnamon makes a nice addition to curry dishes. Just be careful you're getting the real deal — cinnamon's cousin, cassia, is often sold in its place in the U.S. and can be toxic to the liver in large quantities in certain individuals. (Related: Are Your Spices Fake?)
The wispy, feathery texture of fresh dill leaves combine well into many flavorful foods. I like mixing them with soft cheeses, incorporating them into potato salads, garnishing fish, and sprinkling liberally onto deviled eggs. If you cannot find fresh dill, dried is an adequate substitute so long as you decrease the amount to account for drying. Think half or a third dry versus fresh.
Fresh ginger is as delicious as it is good for you. Its bright flavor blends nicely into fresh salad dressings and sauces. Whenever I mince fresh ginger, I squeeze the juices into my recipes rather than toss in the root itself. As for substituting fresh ginger with its ground counterpart, I've never had much luck. So, I like to keep some ginger root in my freezer — wrapped tightly in plastic — for emergencies.
We've reached my favorite spice on this list. Paprika, which is often used in Hungarian cuisine, makes its impact on most of my vegetarian meals in some way or another. There are a number of varieties of this spice, but what you'll find on most grocer's shelves is a mildly pungent, Noble Sweet. If you're looking for more complex flavor, pick up some smoked paprika — it goes beautifully in crock pot chili recipes. (Related: 35 Slow Cooker Recipes for Busy Vegetarians)
Rosemary is certainly a good bet if you're cooking poultry. As a vegetarian, I use the aromatic herb to flavor breads and even tomato sauces. I recently infused some olive oil with fresh rosemary, and it's quite a treat. I took 1 cup extra virgin olive oil and a handful of rosemary sprigs and placed them in a small saucepan over medium heat on the stove. After a few minutes, I transferred everything to a glass bottle and now store in my refrigerator for drizzling.
The fuzzy texture of sage leaves is, in a word, dreamy. And if you've ever closely examined the dried sage, it's similarly soft. This herb is often used in Mediterranean cuisine, so it's a good choice if you're making pasta dishes (gnocchi and ravioli come to mind) or even as a fat-free way to add flavor to meats. A little goes a long way, especially when using dry, so add slowly and taste often.
If you're keen on sage, thyme is a good partner in cooking. I use thyme often during the holidays to make vegetarian gravy (it tastes great with mushrooms) and otherwise to mix together delicious dressings like vinaigrettes. If you're using fresh thyme while making a soup or stew, it's a smart idea to tie a bunch together with some twine for easy removal before serving.
Don't see your favorite on this list? What's herb or spice do you use most in cooking?