No idea where to start in the spice aisle? Here are the basic building blocks of any kitchen's spice rack.

By Margaret Eby
March 19, 2020
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No matter how or what you cook, spices are one of the most crucial elements of your pantry. They’re a quick way to add a lot of flavor to whatever you have on hand, from canned beans to roasted vegetables to chicken breast. But they’re also a vast category—what counts as a spice and what doesn’t could be an entire philosophical treatise. Does salt count? Sugar? Vanilla? It’s fair to be overwhelmed by what to buy, and how much, and where to buy it from.

The good news is that you don’t need many different spices to get started, and you can build your collection in many directions, depending on what you like to cook. Spices can be expensive, but the good news is that they last a while when stored in a cool, dark place, and when you think about how much spice you use for most dishes, it ends up being pennies a serving.

I consulted our Associate Food Editor Kelsey Youngman about her list of crucial spices, and also spice mixes that you might consider buying. If you’re serious about spices, she suggested buying them whole rather than pre-ground. “Whole spices last longer, and have a stronger flavor, unless your spices are freshly ground,” Youngman said. “But reaching for a good spice mix is another easy way in, to add flavor without even thinking about it.” A few spice mixes she’s fond of include garam masala, ras el hanout, za’atar, or taco seasoning.

If what’s available to you is limited to what’s at the supermarket, that’s perfectly fine. But if you have the budget, there are a lot of great independent spice purveyors out there with spices that tend to be fresher, so they're more potent, flavorful, and cost-effective. I like The Spice House, Penzeys Spices, and Spice Islands for good spice mixtures and ground spices, or single origin spice companies, like Burlap & Barrel and Diaspora Co., for high-quality whole spices. But use what you have, or can get your hands on. Here are the spices every pantry should have.

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Black Peppercorns

If you cook at home, you’ll find yourself using black pepper a lot, for almost every savory dish. Buying whole peppercorns means that the oils inside the pepper don’t break down as quickly, keeping the flavor preserved longer. There are white and pink peppercorns too, for more advanced spicing levels, but plain old black peppercorns are great, and vital for everything from cacio e pepe to black pepper curry chicken. Buy them whole and grind them in a pepper grinder for the best results.

McCormick Whole Black Peppercorns, 17-ounce, $14 at amazon.com

Cole & Mason Derwent Pepper Grinder, $35 at amazon.com

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Cumin, Whole or Ground

You know that earthy, aromatic, slightly nutty note that you get in a pot of chili? That often comes from cumin, a spice that’s incredibly versatile. “It’s naturally rich in oils, and you don’t need a lot of it to get that rich, earthiness,” said Julie Gould, the marketing director of Spice Islands. It’s great to get cumin whole and grind it up as needed, and it lasts longer that way. (It’s an essential ingredient in many spice blends, like curry powder and chili powder. But if you’re realistically not going to have time or energy to do that, a small bottle of ground cumin is a good choice. Add it to pasta with grilled vegetables, or to lamb noodles with eggplant, or just to roasted cauliflower.

Rani Cumin Seeds Whole (Jeera) Spice, 3.5-ounce, $6 at amazon.com

McCormick Ground Cumin, 4.5 oz, $8 at amazon.com

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Crushed Red Pepper Flakes or Whole Dried Chiles

If you like a bit of spice in your meals, having chile flakes or whole dried chiles on hand is the way to go. Crushed red pepper flakes are the kind that you see in shakers in pizza places, and they’re made from a mixture of peppers, but the most commonly used one is cayenne. A little bit of heat is useful for many dishes, like honey-chile chicken wings and spicy guacamole, or just sprinkling onto your next plate of pasta or vegetables. Whole chile peppers are useful for crushing up to make curry pastes, or for putting in a pot of beans or chili as it simmers, and then fishing it out. There’s a wide array of dried chiles available, so look for ones that have a heat level you’re comfortable—here’s a quick guide to the whole chiles most commonly found in the United States.

McCormick Crushed Red Pepper, 7.75 oz, $9 at amazon.com

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Turmeric

“Turmeric is a real essential. It’s so versatile,” Gould said. It’s true—you might know the striking yellow-orange spice because of its use in Indian and Thai cooking, or in wellness food trends, but you can use it for a lot more. Turmeric is part of the ginger family, and has a bright, floral, mild taste. Good-quality turmeric is a home kitchen gamechanger, whether you’re adding it to chicken and rice or chickpea soup.

Spicewalla Diaspora Co. Turmeric Powder 3.3 oz, $15 at amazon.com

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Bay Leaves

One of the staples of French cooking, bay leaves can come off as mysterious. After all, it’s a whole dried leaf that you usually want to fish out of whatever you add it to. (Bay leaves aren’t poisonous but they are often unpleasant to eat, since they’re fairly pointy, and could be a choking hazard.) Older bay leaves don’t do much, it’s true, but more freshly dried ones have a beautiful, herbaceous aroma.

“Bay is one of those spices that has a flavor that’s hard to put your finger on, but you know it when it’s missing,” Youngman said. “It’s a workhorse in the kitchen.” Add it to a pot of potatoes, panna cotta, any soup or stock you’re making, or a long braise of any meat to see it shine. And if you’re not sure whether your bay leaves are fresh enough to make a difference, here’s a tip from Gould: snap one in half and smell it. You should get a pleasant, spicy, floral scent. If not, it’s probably on the older side.

Simply Organic Bay Leaf, Certified Organic, $5 at amazon.com

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Ground or Granulated Garlic

Garlic is a building block in the kitchen. Fresh is ideal, but we don’t live in ideal times, so it’s a great idea to have either granulated or powdered garlic in the cupboard to add that zingy, spicy garlic flavor when you can. Youngman prefers granulated garlic to the powdered form, and Gould likes the powdered version better. There are advantages to each—the powdered form, Gould argues “has more surface area and that’s what you want, to spread flavor.”

It’s a great quick addition to guacamole, or spice mixtures. For Youngman, granulated is the way. “While dried garlic flakes (sometimes called minced garlic) and garlic powder are made using similar processes, the powder is more pungent, since a teaspoon of it is filled with more garlic than larger bits of dried garlic flakes,” Youngman said. “I tend to prefer the flakes, as they rehydrate while cooking and offer a bite of garlic, rather than the quickly dissolved, punchy, pungent flavor of the powder.” There are no wrong answers, just whatever garlic works best for you.

McCormick Granulated Garlic, 26 oz, $11 at amazon.com

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Cinnamon

While cinnamon is a crucial element in baking, it’s also useful for savory projects, and an element in many spice mixtures. Gould noted that the difference in origin between cinnamon matters for the flavor. “Most Americans are used to Indonesian cinnamon, which has that gentle, woody flavor. If you’re looking for spicy cinnamon—think about the taste of a Red Hot candy—you’ll want to look for Vietnamese cinnamon.” Use it to make cinnamon roll pancakes, or sprinkle it on sweet potatoes, or just stir some into your morning coffee.

Simply Organic Ground Ceylon Cinnamon, $6 at amazon.com

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Smoked Paprika

“I’m not just a believer in this, I’m a convert,” said Gould. “Now that I know about it I use it all the time. It adds a little rich smokiness to a dish. It’s in the same family as cayenne, but it’s very mild. It really carries that smoke flavor really well. Like when you leave a bonfire and your clothes smell.” It’s particularly good if you’re cooking vegetarian food but want to replicate the smokiness that meat can bring to a dish, like in this hummus with smoked paprika butter. If you do eat meat, it can also enhance the flavor of what you’re working with, like roasted chicken thighs or steaks.

Badia Smoked Paprika 16 Oz, $11 at amazon.com

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Oregano

Dried oregano is a fundamental spice in many Mediterranean and Latin American dishes, and another one of those spices that you see in shakers in pizza parlors. The flavor is warm and slightly bitter, making it a wonderful spice for all kinds of things, like grilled shrimp, roasted chicken, or just sprinkled over roasted potatoes or raw tomatoes.

Classic Provisions Spices Oregano, 3 Ounce at amazon.com

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Cardamom

The flavor of cardamom is complex: it has notes of citrus and mint, as well as a kind of zesty spiciness. You might be best acquainted with it from sweet applications, like this cardamom spiced crumb cake, or as an element in chai masala. But there are also many savory cardamom recipes, like cardamom chicken with rice pilaf, or cardamom cheddar straws. As with cumin, cardamom is best when stored whole, but if you don’t have the time or mental energy to deal with that, you can buy it pre-ground too, and it’ll work just fine.

Rani Cardamom (Elachi) Seeds, 3.25oz, $11 at amazon.com

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Mustard Seed/Ground Mustard

The zippy, hot flavor you get from a bottle of brown mustard? That comes from mustard seeds, another whole spice that’s wonderful to have on hand. Mustard seeds are particularly lovely in vinegary slaws and pickles, like in this mustard seed chowchow. They’re also delicious toasted, ground, and paired with cheese dishes, like this classic macaroni and cheese, or added into a vegetable dish for extra pop, as in this cauliflower dish with melted onions.

These are just a starting point, of course, and the kinds of food you like to cook will inform your spice collection. If the idea of seeking out whole spices is too much, pick up a blend and try it out in different places. Kelsey Youngman recommends berbere, chili powder, garam masala, madras curry powder, ras el hanout, or za’atar, but you can also go for Old Bay, cajun seasoning, jerk seasoning, or anything else that strikes your fancy. If you don’t have easy access to fresh herbs, having dried ones like basil, chives, rosemary, or thyme on hand is really helpful

No matter what you do, make sure to use them. While they don’t go bad easily, spices degrade in flavor over time. Every spice expert I talked to agreed on the common enemies of spices: time, moisture, and light. So don't squirrel your spices away forever. Use them! Experiment with spices and you’ll find you can use them in all kinds of dishes you have in the regular rotation.

McCormick Culinary Ground Mustard, $10 at amazon.com