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Jan 8, 2009 01:27 PM

What are your absolute must-have spices?

I asked in the Bittman thread, and someone observed that it deserves a whole new topic. I agree.

I just cleared out a ton of old spices, some of which I've been hauling around for years. Now I have space and several nice empty glass spice jars, and I want to restock. I bought turmeric, cream of tartar, lemon pepper, ground cloves and allspice from Whole Foods bulk jars.

What spices can you absolutely not do without, that you will rush out and buy when you run out? In addition to staples like cinnamon, sage, thyme, paprika, nutmeg, cumin and bay leaves, how about the more "exotic" ones, like lemon grass, cardamom, and turmeric (I have all three of these).

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  1. For me personally, aleppo pepper flakes, allspice (whole and ground), bay leaves, cardamom (whole), cloves (whole), coriander, cumin (whole and ground), curry powder, nutmeg (whole), paprika (sweet, smoked and half-sharp), peppercorns (whole), saffron. But it really depends what you cook. I have no sweet tooth so no baking spices. And I hate dried herbs so buying fresh is one of my luxuries. Lots of people feel otherwise. I think this is really a matter of taste -- bet you don't find any two people whose spice cupboards are the same!

    7 Replies
    1. re: GretchenS

      I know, that's why I'm curious. Maybe I'll find a new way to use spices.

      There are lots of staples missing from my spice cabinet because I grow my own in summer and dry them for winter. I leave them hanging in the mudroom and use as needed.

      Another thing I wonder about, which may merit yet another new thread: why does no one make a spice rack that a serious cook would actually use? My idea of the perfect spice rack would be a lazy susan with 8 oz, 4 oz and 2 oz glass jars. At least 40 of them. The jars would be empty and the set would include blank labels.

      1. re: avgolemona

        There are several spice racks on the market that offer empty bottles with blank labels, but I don't know of any that have more than about a dozen containers in each set. IMHO there are too many of us who purchase a spice on a whim or for a "one time" recipe and end up tossing the spice out after they've lost their punch over time. If I'm trying a new recipe I make an effort to find the spices in full seed form, rather than ground, to avoid spending money on something I might never again use. I'm trying Alton Brown's method for storing herbs and spices using those lidded small metal cans that attach with magnets to a plate inside the cupboard door. Easier for me than spinning a lazy susan around trying to find what I need. Although my daughter uses a lazy susan arrangement rather successfully with all the spices in alphabetical order; I'm not that organized. My spice collection includes all those on GretchenS's list along with carraway, dill seed, fennel seed, varieties of cinnamon and salts and I wouldn't be without my selection of mustard seeds.

        1. re: todao

          I would not recommend any of the spice racks. Spices shoud be in a dark place and not in racks on the cupboard. I have three cupboards with spices, herbs, etc. and use rotating trays so I can find them. I order from Penzy's and love the spices I get.

          My must have spices is a very long list:

          pepper (tellecherrry extra-bold) - order 1 lb (or more) at a time
          ancho chili powder
          cumin (whole and ground)
          red pepper flakes
          cayanne pepper
          allepo pepper
          bay leaves
          cardomon pods
          szechuan pepper corns

          and If went into my spice cupboards, there would be many more.

          1. re: pepperqueen

            RE: Storing spices: When I re-did my kitchen I put in two wide (27") drawers and got an insert for storing spices (for example: This is excellent--they are all laid out in plain view--easy to keep them alphabetized. I have quite a collection of spices--they are enough of a curiosity that guests have even asked: "Can I see your spices?"

            1. re: zamorski

              Yours is a system that seems to work for me. I do the same.

              I use small jars, like the wide mouthed glass jars from Penzeys or emply French Jam Jars... the Bon Maman ones with the Gingham tops. I put the label on the TOP, and have them in a deep kitchen draw on slanted step like things.

              1. re: Fleur

                I also have the trays in drawers, and yet I still have an overflow in a cabinet. I keep the tray ones alphabetized (really, only a pain to do the first time, so upkeep is easy). Love the trays. I tend to buy whole spices to grind fresh for each recipe. I also refill my old "tins" from as far back as the 70s/80s. I have all of Peppercorn's, plus a slew of other Indian spices. Not counting extracts, herbs, or the peppers that I grow and dry.

      2. Because my main interest lately has been Chinese cooking, my spices are limited. I have the usual...cardamom, pepper, sea salt, cumin, etc., but two I could not live without are star anise and szechuan peppercorn.
        Hector Blumenthal taught me the wonders of star anise and carmalized onions...Magic

        13 Replies
        1. re: billieboy

          BB, care to share the "wonders" with those of us who also love star anise? How is it prepared with the onions?

          1. re: Val

            You carmalize the two together and then cover meat (any kind) and braise.

          2. re: billieboy

            I bought star anise for a recipe a while back and have not used it since. Any suggestions for some common uses?

            1. re: lynnlato

              Star anise, I don't think is "common". I use it in a lot of things because I like it. Don't use too much, though, it's a strong flavour and will take over if you are not careful.

              1. re: billieboy

                I wasn't saying that star anise is common, but rather asking whether you knew of some common uses for it.

                1. re: billieboy

                  I toss one or two into my stock for pho. It goes well with beef. Also, a little in your spicy baking.

                2. re: lynnlato

                  I really like it in this star anise and sweet potato soup from Chowhound:

                  I've made the soup several times, and once as a part of a five-spice themed dinner which was chronicled here:


                  1. re: Phoo_d

                    Oooh, that's a great recipe. Thanks! It also makes me wonder how star anise would work in sweet potato pie. Hmmm....

                    1. re: wolfe

                      Thank you, Wolfe, for that site. Lovely sounding recipes.


                    2. re: lynnlato

                      Steep star anise in the milk prior to preparing rice pudding. The anise imparts a lovely flavor to the finished recipe.

                      1. re: lynnlato

                        I accidentally ran out of cinnamon sticks during this last Fall. In a pinch, I used star anise, as a substitute for cinnamon sticks in hot spiced cider. WOW! Taste buds were very happy, indeed! :) Don't go overboard, just use one or two stars for 2-4 servings with all the other spices you would normally put in apple cider.

                        1. re: lynnlato

                          I always put a piece when I make my Plum Jam. A little goes a long way. One Star Anise for 10 lbs of Italian Purple Plums.I also use lLemon Slices and Stick Cinnamon.

                      2. Sumaq, Korean red pepper flakes, turkish red pepper flakes (if I can find as it's more rare)
                        Not a spice but mushroom stock cubes, put them in everything and they're in my spice cupboard.
                        Granulated garlic and then everything else you mentioned above. along with cloves, whole and ground.
                        Peppercorns too, I love them whole in rice and soup.

                        1. Perhaps due to OCD I need a beginning and an end. Presently I have allspice and my rack used to extend to zatar but my newest addition is zhug.
                          GretchenS, peppers are individually alphabetized as are oreganos. (Greek/Mexican)

                          1. I moved a few months ago, and took the opportunity to chuck any spice I didn't remember buying recently. I've actually been surprised at how few I've repurchased. I think all I have is:

                            Cinnamon Sticks
                            Whole nutmeg
                            Dried chiles
                            Chipotle power
                            5 spice powder
                            Bay leaves
                            Salts and peppers