Our 15 Essential Spices and How to Store Them
Plus, organizational tips you’ll actually use
This article is an excerpt from our upcoming cookbook, Anyone Can Cook, which will be published with Prestel in Spring 2021 and is already available here for preorder.
Spices. We all have them. Some are more loved and turned to than others, but each jar we have undoubtedly played an important part in adding flavor, color, or depth to a dish at one time or another. There’s no better way to kick off a month All About Spices than to encourage and arm you with the tricks and tools you need to take a deeper look into your spice cabinet, rack, or drawer, weed out what’s been there for years, reassess what you really need, and see to it that you’re storing your spices properly.
15 essential spices and how to use them
Allspice: Warm allspice adds a special something-something to a variety of dishes from stews and meaty braises to desserts.
Bay leaves: Mild and herbal, bay leaves are great for long-simmering soups and stews. Always pull them out before serving, as the leaves themselves aren’t edible.
Black pepper: Sharp and pungent, black pepper is a ubiquitous seasoning often paired with salt to finish off just about any dish.
Caraway: This slightly aniseed-like spice can be used whole or ground in sweet or savory baked goods, braises, and casseroles.
Chili flakes: Made of dried and crushed red chili peppers. Sprinkle chili flakes on dishes as a spicy garnish or let them linger in stews and sauces.
Cinnamon: Sold ground or as whole sticks, cinnamon is often relegated to sweet baking projects but makes a delicious addition to savory dishes too.
Coriander: Citrusy and subtly sweet, use whole or ground in curries or on roasted vegetables and meats.
Cumin: Whether used whole or ground, this is a warm and nutty spice that works well in curries, soups, marinades, and sauces.
Curry powder: A spice mix typically composed of coriander, cumin, turmeric, and fenugreek, curry powder can add a kick of flavor to roasted vegetables, simple fried eggs, and many other dishes.
Dried oregano: Unlike many other herbs, oregano retains its sweet and earthy flavor when dried. Add a pinch to salad dressings, pizza, or pasta sauce.
Dried thyme: Like oregano, thyme retains its slightly lemony, minty flavor when dried. If replacing fresh thyme with dried, use less, as dried thyme is even more pungent.
Fennel seeds: With a licorice-like flavor and subtle sweetness, fennel seeds are delicious when paired with roasted meats and vegetables, as their flavor really emerges when heated.
Nutmeg: Too much nutmeg can overwhelm a dish, so err on the scant side. Rather than going for ground, try buying whole nutmeg and grating it fresh when adding to dishes.
Paprika: Ranging in flavor from sweet to hot, paprika can be used to add a subtle or strong spiciness and smoke to soups and stews.
Salt: A fundamental seasoning found in every kitchen around the world. We recommend using kosher or fine sea salt for everyday cooking, and a fancier, flaky salt for garnishing.
The only spice storage and organization tips you need
For many of us, spices are one of those things we tend to take for granted: If we have it and it’s good, this means we can use it, right? Wrong. Spices have specific shelf lives and, for maximum flavor and payout in our food, we should keep track of those dates and be turning over our spices as they get older and less potent. The rule of thumb that most experts live by when it comes to replacing their spices? No more than two years for whole spices, one year for ground spices. Keep them in airtight containers, out of direct sunlight, in a place that’s cool and dry.
Now, my spice rack is nothing to rack about. It’s honestly—sadly and frustratingly—a mess. Even though the current state of my spice storage system consists of various unlabeled jars and clothes-pinned bags shoved together on a shelf, my aspirational spice storage system is looking real good, and it’s in the works. I sifted through tons of articles on the subject to find what was practical, inexpensive, and reliable, and I plucked only the most worthy tips and tricks—ones that I will actually live by from here on out.
1. Buy whole spices: This means your spices will have a longer shelf life, yes, but it also means the flavor you’ll get from said spices will be stronger and better tasting. Ground spices lose their flavor more quickly than whole spices because their volatile oils (where many of the flavors and aromas of spices are contained) dissipate as they’re exposed to air.
2. Buy small amounts: Buying smaller amounts of spices gives you the flexibility to try new spices and helps ensure that you won’t be wasting too much should the time come to get rid of them.
3. Buy as fresh as possible: This might seem hard to gauge, and honestly, it can be. The main thing you can do to ensure that the spices you’re buying are fresh and potent, is by getting them at a store that turns over their spice stock regularly. This might mean seeking out a specialty spice shop or brand in your area (like Soul Spice, here in Berlin) or ordering your spices online from a reputable source.
4. Find the right spice space for your kitchen: Every kitchen is different, so it’s important to be flexible and choose the space that makes the most sense for you. For many, it’s either a dedicated spice drawer, cabinet, shelf, or rack. You should also think about how easy the spices are to access while cooking, but remember that they should be tucked away from exposure to direct sunlight, heat, or moisture.
5. Label, label, label: For a long time I didn’t label my spices because I figured I would always know by smell what spice it is. Well, surprise surprise, that didn’t work very well. Labelling your spices is important as you transfer them to airtight jars (mismatching or otherwise). If you want to go the extra mile, adding a date to the label (even just October 2020) would be advisable as well so you can keep on top of the freshness.
6. Choose your containers of choice: While many people tend to keep the spices in the containers they come in, I’m often buying spices that come in little plastic bags, and transferring them to airtight glass containers (mostly reused jam jars). Don’t be offended if your containers don’t match, just make sure that they’re labeled, fit your set space, and won’t frustrate you (avoid jars that don’t allow you to reach in for a pinch or spoonful).
7. Take stock of your spices once a year: Setting aside time once a year to go through your spice rack and combine or get rid of duplicates, adjust containers, see what needs to be replaced, etc. is highly recommended and, honestly, delightful. It won’t take long, so put it in your calendar, make some tea or coffee, and get it done. You’ll be happy you did.
Published on October 3, 2020