25 Must have spices for your pantry

25 “Must Have” Spices for your Pantry

What are your “must have” spices? Every home cook has certain spices, or seasonings, that they always reach for. These are the dried spices, or spice blends, that absolutely have to be in their pantry in order for them to create meals.

I was recently cleaning out my cabinets and discovered that I had many dried spices that I’ve only used once or twice. They aren’t spices that I routinely reach for, and many were purchased simply because I wanted to try a recipe that called for them. As I separated these spices, hoping to find them new homes where they will be used, I began to think about what spices I have in my cabinet that are absolutely essential for me to have on hand, and I came up with this list of 25 spices that are Patty Cake’s Pantry’s “Must-Haves . ” I have also mentioned as some of the ways that we use these spices.

Before I begin, I have one disclosure to make.

Salt and Pepper won’t appear on this list.

They aren’t listed, not because we don’t use them, but because they’re pretty much essential for cooking, and we’ve concluded that most households already have these two in their kitchens.   Plus, with the availability of so many different types of salt, it should really have it’s own post to discuss the merits of each type.  For now, let’s just say that whether you use Table Salt, Kosher Salt,  Sea Salt, Redmond’s Real Salt, or Pink Himalayan Salt, doesn’t really matter.  Simply select the salt that feels right to you. 

What are the 25 dried spices that Patty Cake’s Pantry must have on hand?

These spices are listed alphabetically rather than in the order of how often they’re used.  It seemed fairer that way, but let me tell you that there are two spices on this list that would be tied for first place, so rather than debate which one should go first, I opted to alphabetize.

1. Allspice

Allspice is a delicious spice that’s a great addition to pies, Jamaican, or other Caribbean, inspired dishes as well as Middle Eastern and Latin American dishes.  We always have Allspice in our spice cabinet, but in a pinch, you can create a substitute for this by combining ground cloves and cinnamon.

2. Basil

Basil is probably one of the most popular herbs or spices.  Fresh Basil, pictured above, is an amazing addition to soups, salads, and is the base for everyone’s favorite–pesto.  We love having dried basil in our pantry for those times when fresh basil isn’t readily available.  We add dried basil to almost all of our Italian inspired dishes like marinara sauce.  It’s a great way to add flavor to a variety of dishes.

3. Bay Leaves

If you weren’t aware, Bay leaves are actually leaves from the bay laurel tree.  The dried leaves make a great addition to long cooking soups and stews.   Their almost minty flavor, with hints of pine and pepper, helps to make heavy soups taste lighter.   They’re also purported to assist with digestion. 

4. Cayenne Pepper (or Crushed Red Pepper Flakes)

I realize that these are two different spices, but I believe that they can be used interchangeably.  Cayenne pepper powder is made only from cayenne peppers, while crushed red pepper flakes are made from a mixture of  three or four different peppers which means that it could actually be hotter than cayenne pepper.  If I was only going to have one of them in my pantry, I would probably choose the Crushed Red Pepper Flakes over the Cayenne because while both can add heat to recipes like chili, pasta sauces or vegetable dishes like beans and greens.  The Crushed Red Pepper Flakes work better to sprinkle over a pizza, so if I could only have one, I would choose the red pepper flakes.

5. Celery Salt

I know I said there would be no salt, but celery salt is in a special category.  Most people think of celery salt as an old school spice straight out of the mid 20th century, but it is really quite amazing.   Made from ground celery seeds mixed with salt, it adds flavor to soups, salads, meats, and dressings.  I love to sprinkle some of it on my simplest version of tuna salad, and it’s a classic part of a Bloody Mary cocktail. 

6. Chili Powder

Chili Powder is not a single spice, but a mixture of spices though it is possible to purchase bags of specific types of dried, and ground chilies, in the Latin Food section of most grocery stores.   Chili powder typically contains toasted red chilies combined with other spices  including cumin, oregano, garlic and salt.  It adds Southwest flavor to soups, meat dishes, and, of course, a pot of chili.  

7. Cilantro

I will be the first one to admit that fresh cilantro is always my first choice to add to soups, salsas, and meat dishes at the last minute.  Fresh cilantro has an almost citrus like taste,  but if the cilantro is going to be cooked for a longer time, the fresh herb will lose much of it’s flavor.  In this instance, the dried version may be a better choice.  If you only have dried cilantro, you may need to change the sequence of your recipe.  For instance, to use dried cilantro in Camarones al Mojo de Ajo, I simply add it in the beginning with the garlic, butter, and olive oil.  The final product tastes different than when it’s topped with fresh cilantro, but it’s still good, unless you’re one of the people for whom cilantro tastes like soap.  In case you didn’t know, the seeds from cilantro are called coriander seeds. Coriander seeds are available in the ground form.

8. Cinnamon

Cinnamon is a great addition to desserts like apple crisp to add a sweet, spicy, and woody flavor.  It’s flavor pairs well with most fruit based desserts.  It’s a great addition to drinks and oatmeal, too, but did you know that cinnamon complements savory dishes, too? It works well in these cinnamon apple pork chops, and that it’s a great addition to certain vegetable sides as well. 

9. Cloves

Cloves are not my favorite flavor, but I find that I consistently use them for a few different things during the year.  Cloves add a warm, sweet, and aromatic flavor to desserts, like gingerbread, and they are great paired with ham.  I frequently add ground cloves to my ham glaze.  They are also a standard ingredient in homemade apple butter, and are needed to make homemade chai tea.  My mother always added cloves to her pumpkin pie. 

Cream of Tartar is made from Tartaric Acid residue in Wine Barrels
Cream of Tartar is made from the Tartaric Acid residue left in wine barrels.

10. Cream of Tartar

Cream of Tartar is a byproduct of wine making.  It’s tartaric acid, the residue left inside wine barrels.  (That’s what’s in the picture above. I was fascinated to learn that was where it came from, so I thought I would share that picture with you, too.) 

Cream of Tartar is made from Tartaric Acid residue  in Wine Barrels
Wine Barrels at a Winery (The image above is from inside one of these.)

The primary reason that I keep cream of tartar in my spice cabinet is to make Snicker doodle cookies.  It adds something slightly acidic to the flavor profile that’s just not there if you make them without it.  In addition to making my favorite cookies perfect, cream of tartar is a great addition to egg whites and helps to stabilize them so that they hold their peaks better when you’re making meringue topping for your pies.  It also helps to make frostings, syrups, and icings creamier by preventing sugar crystals from forming. 

Fun Fact:  If you’re out of baking powder, you can make your own by combining Cream of Tartar with Baking Soda and either cornstarch or arrowroot. Two parts Cream of Tartar to one Part Baking Soda and cornstarch or arrowroot.

11. Cumin

Cumin adds a warm, earthy flavor to dishes.  My Indian neighbor adds cumin seeds to hot oil at the beginning of recipes to infuse the oil with the flavor from the seeds, but I mostly use ground cumin to add flavor to latin dishes and chili.  My recipe for lentils and rice relies on cumin for added flavor, too.   Cumin is a definite “must-have” for many of the savory dishes that I prepare. 

12. Curry Powder

I didn’t learn this until recently, but Curry Powder isn’t a single spice.  It’s a blend of different spices.  It contains  the following ground spices–coriander, turmeric, cumin, cayenne pepper,  mustard, ginger and black pepper.  There are variations between brands, but these are included in most recipes.  Obviously, we use Curry Powder to add that distinctive curry flavor to rice dishes.  One of my favorite childhood dishes was my mother’s “Korean Rice” which was flavored with Curry Powder. 

13. Dill

I have both dried dill weed and dill seeds in my pantry. For flavoring vegetable dishes, I often use dried dill weed. It pairs great with carrots, zucchini, and poratoes. The dill seed I use more frequently in pickles, relish, bread, and to flavor vinegar. Dill vinegar is great for salad dressings.

14. Garlic Powder or Granulated Garlic

This is probably one of my most used spices. It can be mixed with butter and parsley to make some excellent garlic bread. It adds a different dimension of garlic flavor to sauces, soups, stews, and chili. When I don’t have fresh garlic, I add garlic powder in it’s place. If my sauce or soup doesn’t have enough flavor from the fresh stuff, I add garlic powder to amp up the flavor. It goes well in salad dressings, dry rubs, and marinades, too.

15. Ginger

I will be the first to agree that fresh ginger is better, but in a pinch, powdered ginger works well and can save you from an extra trip to the store.  I have used in several different Asian inspired dishes when I have discovered that I have no ginger, or my nub of ginger has grown mold or has been used to infuse some drink that Sue Chef has created. Pwedered ginger is also an important ingredient in my Homemade Sweet and Sour Sauce.

16. Mace

Ground mace is made from that orangish lacey covering that’s surrounding the nutmeg above. I have mace in my cabinet for one reason. It makes homemade donuts taste delicious. That distinctive taste that cake donuts have comes from mace in the batter. It’s delicious and can substitue for nutmeg in sweet dishes. My Indian neighbor uses it in her curries as well as other savory dishes, but I haven’t explored these applications, yet.

17. Mustard

Ground mustard is a powder that is made from grinding the seeds of the mustard plant. (They’re in the bowl, front and center in the photo above.) It’s an ingredient in mustard (the yellow stuff in the fridge that you put on your hot dogs). Dry mustard is a great addition to macaroni and cheese to improve the taste by adding depth of flavor. It’s good on ham, in dry rubs for barbecue season, in salad dressings, and in deviled eggs.

18. Nutmeg

Ground nutmeg is a great addition to a variety of sweets. I add it to bread, cakes, and pies. It’s an ingredient in my easy apple crisp (even in the gluten free version.) Chef’s say that it’s better to buy the whole nutmeg (pictured above) and grate it into the recipes. This gives you a stronger flavor. The problem is that all of my family recipes are based on usinsg the pre-ground stuff, so they don’t taste right using the freshly grated stuff. I guess I just need more practice.

19. Onion Powder or Granulated Onion

Onion powder is produced by drying onions and pulverizing, or grinding, them until they are in a  granular or powdered form.  Onion powder, along with garlic powder, is probably one of my most used spices. If you don’t like chopping onions, you can use onion powder in any recipe that calls for fresh onion. One tablespoon of onion powder can be substituted for one medium chopped onion in dishes. We also use onion powder in barbecue dry rubs and spice blends.

20. Oregano

Dried oregano is one of my favorite spices. In fact, I have dried oregano, ground oregano, and whole, Mexican, oregano in the cabinet in my kitchen. I also grow it in my garden. Oregano adds flavor to homemade spaghetti sauce, chili, and many Latin or Southwest inspired dishes. It has a distinctive taste and aroma that I absolutely love.

21. Paprika

Technically, Paprika is a pepper. Specifically, it comes from a cone shaped red pepper that is dried and pulverized. For years, the only reason I even had paprika in my pantry was to sprinkle on top of my deviled eggs; however, I have learned that it adds flavors to stews, is delicious sprinkled on top of chicken, and can be added to a whole variety of savory dishes and spice blends. There are different varieties of paprika, too. The two that I use most often are sweet paprika and smoked paprika which packs a little more heat in addition to the smoky flavor.

22. Parsley

Dried parsley is a great spice to keep on hand. Unlike its fresh version, this is always waiting on my spice rack for when I need it. I add it to my compound butter that I use for garlic bread. It’s a wonderful addition to pasta pizza sauces, too. If I have fresh parsley growing in my garden, I will use it, but when it’s not available to me, I hav very happy to have a jar of dried parsley on the shelf to add to my recipes.

23. Sage

Sage was one of the first culinary herbs that I remember becoming aware of as a child. One year, the Thanksgiving stuffing didn’t taste right. When I commented, my mother informed me that she had been out of sage. I realized that I loved sage, and reminded her before any turkey stuffing occasion, to be certain that she had sage. As an adult, I have also used sage to season homemade sausage, and I have added it to beans and sauces. It’s not one of my most used spices, but it’s invaluable.

24. Thyme

I have a confession to make regarding thyme. I don’t really like it. I should qualify that by saying that I only like a small amount of it in my recipes. It adds something to dishes, but when there’s too much of it, the food tastes moldy to me, and I don’t like it. Thyme is used in spaghetti sauce, Italian seasonings, and I add a little bit of it to my homemade pea soup. It also pairs well with poultry dishes.

25. Turmeric

Turmeric, like ginger, is a root that’s dried and ground into a powder. It’s a component of curry powder, and is a great addition to many Asian inspired dishes. I love to add Turmeric to Chicken soup for both the flavor and the color it imparts. Turmeric is purported to have many health benefits, and you can often find recipes for turmeric teas and tonics on the internet.

Did I include your favorite spices?

That concludes my alphabetical list of what I consider to be my “must-have” spices. They are the ones that I always have on my spice rack or in my pantry. There are a few other’s that I own, but the ones I listed are definitely the most frequently used. Some are used more frequently than others.

Rosemary could have made it’s way onto my list, but I have a rosemary bush in my front yard, and its an evergreen in our zone. Whenever I need rosemary for a recipe, I head to the front yard and break off a fresh sprig to add to my dishes.

What do you think of my spice choices? Are there other spices that are indispensable which you use in your kitchen that aren’t on my list? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

Thanks for visiting Patty Cake’s Pantry.

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