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Spices in cooking and baking

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I am very new to cooking and new to all kinds of spices. I find them are very interesting. There are a couple of recipes that I am interested in call for Paprika. I went to stores and found out there are a couple different kinds of paprika, what I can remember now is paprika and sweet paprika.

My question is that I don't want to buy all kinds of spices and all different kind of paprika due to budget. So as a beginner of cooking and backing, what are basic spices I should have on hand to start? Thanks a lot!!

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  1. When I first started out, I found spices fascinating..even now, I probably have just about every spice in the grocery store with the exception of the most exotic...I'd suggest starting with the basics: kosher salt, cayenne pepper, black peppercorns (for freshly ground pepper) basil, oregano, chili powder, ginger, sage, thyme,,then add in some things you think you might really like to try (if you haven't already) like rosemary, tarragon, curry powder, five spice powder, bay leaf etc.

    About the paprika, I'd just buy either regular or sweet paprika then if you come across a recipe using, say, smoked paprika, you could use what you have and add something to give the dish a smoky element like smoked sea salt or ancho chile powder. Another tip, if you want to try a spice that you haven't but don't want to buy a huge amount, try a spice shop or store that sells what you need by weight. Another good source is ethnic stores like latin, indian or asian markets which normally sell their spices cheaper than the regular supermarkets. And don't forget the spice blends that contain combinations of spices that can be used in many dishes.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Cherylptw

      Good point about ethnic markets. Some supermarkets even have "international" sections where they have spices in plastic packages that are a third the price of the ones in the bottles two aisles over.

      An even better option is to find a market that has bulk spices where you can buy an ounce (or less) very cheaply.

      1. re: Ruth Lafler

        Our local food coop (open to the public) and the local health food store carry bulk spices. You just measure out what you need into a little plastic bag they supply. This is great when a recipe calls for something like annatto which I very rarely use. I have also found bags of herbs and spices at an Asian market that are much cheaper than the bottled ones.

    2. Buy spices based on the types of dishes you will be making.

      That is the most natural, and economical, way of building a spice rack.

      1. Here are some basics for buying herbs and spices.

        1. Buy what you need, as you need it.
        2. Buy in small quantities. Herbs and ground spices loose their flavor over the course of a year or so. Whole spices can last a fair amount longer, but really, if you are not going to use it up in a year or so it is probably too much to buy.
        3. Fresh ground spices are more flavorful than pre-ground spices. So, if you find that you really like to cook, consider buying an inexpensive coffee grinder and dedicating it to grinding spices.
        4. Buy from a store where you know there is a lot of turnover. Once again, this is about freshness.

        If I were starting a new kitchen, cooking mostly American food, I would start with salt, whole peppercorns (and a pepper mill for grinding them), basil, oregano, thyme, bay leaves, rosemary, a mild curry powder, a mild chili powder, sweet paprika and cayenne. if i had to remove one from that list it would be the rosemary. If I added one it would be garlic salt.

        One final thought. if you have a Penzey's or similar store in your area, it is worth a visit. At Penzey's they have jars you can sniff so you can learn what everything smells like. Plus their small jars of herbs and spices are a great way to go - the unit cost is not that much more than a larger jar and the price per jar is low, so you can afford a greater variety. Plus, I have always been pleased by the quality and freshness.

        1. Some spices you can also grow for yourself, and it's extremely easy. I grow basil, oregano, and thyme because I do lots of italian savory foods.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Chefthekitty

            Great idea; I should have mentioned that..I had basil, dill, fennel, thyme and cayenne pepper in my garden...basil, thyme & cayenne can be grown in a window box; you'll need more space for dill (mine grew to at least 6 ft.) and fennel. they can be dried for later use by either using a dehydrator or by heating your oven on low, about 180F. degrees then turning it off, let it cool for about five minutes then place the herbs on a lined sheet pan and into the warm oven until dried. Store in small jars or you can put them in freezer bags and into your freezer.

          2. Buy a national brand (like McCormick or Durkee) just labeld Paprika. It is dried, powdered red bell pepper. If a recipe means smoked paprika, it will specify that, and you can sub somthing similar, as posted by Cherylptw. What is called either hot paprika or Hungarian paprika is spicier, but you could approximate it by adding a bit of cayenne or chili powder (or hot sauce or tabasco) to your ordinary paprika.

            Summer savory can be used in place of sage, bay leaf, or thyme. Old Bay seasoning is a blend that can substitute in recipes calling for several of its component spices.

            Beginning baking spices should include cinnamon, ginger, and allspice. Allspice is NOT a blend of spices; it is made from the allspice berry, which tastes like a blend of nutmeg, mace, clove.... As a beginner who does not want to buy an assortment of spices, you can sub allspice for any of those. You can skip the powdered ginger if you regularly buy fresh ginger. Vanilla and almond extract are essential. You can make your own light or dark brown sugar by blending molasses into ordinary sugar. Since you mention being on a budget, keep in mind that you will save a lot by not using boxed cake mixes, which charge a premium for what is usually not much more than flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder.

            Purists will object to these swaps but it's your prerogative to streamline your pantry if you want to.

            1. Hungarian paprika is the good stuff. Paprika is the Magyar (Hungarian) word for pepper.

              If you have some cookbooks, or favorite recipe websites go through those to see which spices are listed as ingredients for the recipes that appeal to you. A lot also depends on which types of cuisine you like. For example, if you like and think you'll be making Mexican food, Asian food, Italian food, Indian food, etc., the spices you're likely to use most may vary though some are used in a variety of cuisine.

              Cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and ginger (if you regularly buy fresh ginger you can substitute it) are often used in baked goods.

              Oregano, basil (we grow it in our garden window), rosemary, thyme, cayenne, chili powder are commonly used.

              Bed, Bath, and Beyond sells a set of magnetized small metal containers for spices. That set includes labels for: coriander, pizza seasoning, mustard seed, parsley, black pepper, mint, celery salt, Italian seasoning, savory, marjoram, basil, caraway seed, dill weed, thyme, bay leaves, oregano, rosemary, and fennel but only contains packets of some of them. Of these we never use black pepper, savory, or marjoram (though I've read that it can substitute for oregano?).

              7 Replies
              1. re: lgss

                Marjoram is related to oregano in a botanical way. Flavorwise, it is milder and sweeter. I love marjoram in egg dishes, vinaigrettes, poultry stuffing.... It is a great undiscovered herb.

                Apropos BB&B, metal is good for storing herbs because it keeps the light out. On the other hand, I would discard any herbs or spices that come with the set. Lord knows how old they are, if they were stored properly (heat kills the flavor), or if they were any good in the first place. You could try this test: bring your jar of basil with you to a store that has a high turnover and sells herbs loose (or has an open jar to sniff). Compare the aromas and also the color (as dried basil ages it loses its nice green color) and you will see (smell?) why I am saying this.

                1. re: PinchOfSalt

                  Thanks for everybody's suggestions and response, I really appreciate it. :) I have a couple of more questions from reading above:

                  1) for garlic, ginger, onion: if COOKING or BAKING recipes call for ground garlic, or ground ginger, or ground onion, can I ALWAYS substitue them with fresh ones??

                  2) What's difference between Paprika and Sweet paprika? From the names, I suppose one is sweater than the other one? Are these two basic paprika, so I can get either of them to build my spice rack??

                  1. re: ijeny

                    1) No. For starters, "ground ginger" is a common term for dried, powdered. I've never heard garlic powder or onion powder referred to as "ground". Sometimes you'll see "granulated" garlic, which is dried but not as finely ground as powder. Moisture content makes a difference in some cases. For example, if you make a dry rub for meat that is going to be seared, you use garlic powder because fresh garlic will burn when searing.
                    2) None. If something says just "paprika" it is sweet paprika. Any other form, the recipe or container will specify that form.

                    1. re: greygarious

                      1) Ops, it was my typo. They should be ground ginger, garlic powder and online powder.

                      2) Thank you!!

                  2. re: PinchOfSalt

                    They come in foil packets. The ones we've had were fine.

                    1. re: lgss

                      Foil does not protect against heat, or poor quality in the first place. The difference between bleh herbs and good, fresh herbs is the amount and brightness of flavor... old stuff does not taste bad, it just tastes less.

                      1. re: PinchOfSalt

                        I wasn't recommending the OP buy these, just mentioning which they appear to believe are most frequently used based on which labels they provide.

                2. Add jfood to the list of people who recommend Pennzys if you have around. Very good quality, good prices and you can buy small to large. Jfood ran out of Nutmegthis weekend and biught some at the grocer for $5.79. This replaced a Pennzy's at $3.79. Same size.

                  Jfood would suggest Kosher salt, black pepper, garlic powder, cinnamon, paprika as the basics. If you like Italian you should consider oregano, thyme, marjoram. Also consider tarragon and rosemary (think roasted potatoes). This time of year lots of recipes will have sage and nutmeg. Then, as others have stated, think which ethnic you like and read some recipes. You will get a feel for the correct selection.

                  Welcome to the world of cooking.

                  1. Buy based on what you like to cook, and definitely look for a good bulk foods store, as that is cheaper by about an order of magnitude than buying the little jars. If you like cooking multi-culturally, then definitely check out ethic markets for ingredients.

                    Like Italian food? Then buy basil, oregano, thyme and rosemary.

                    Like Indian? Cumin, Coriander, Cardamon, Cinnamon, Cloves, Tumeric, Garam Masala, mustard seeds

                    Chinese food? PIck up some five-spice powder

                    Want to bake? Ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg,

                    Don't bother buying dried parsley or cilantro, because they don't taste good dried. Buy fresh, or leave it out.

                    My basic list would be: basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, dill leaf, cumin, cardamon, coriander, black pepper, paprika, mustard powder, granulated garlic, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, tumeric, bay leaves, cayenne pepper.

                    What I do is save the little jars from when I do buy spices that way, wash them and remove the labels, and use them to store the bulk spices in.

                    If you don't live near a good bulk store or ethnic markets, it can be well worth stopping when you are out of town to stock up. Just be careful about air travel with little baggies of unidentified powders and leaves.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

                      Hi Tastesgoodwhatisit,

                      Thanks for the list based on different ethic food. :)) It helps a lot.

                      I agreed wtih you on buying fresh parsley or cilantro instead of using dried spices, but how about basil, isn't it similar to parsely or cilantro??

                      What are differences between granulated garlic and garlic powder? which one has a longer shelf life, remain fresh test?

                      1. re: ijeny

                        Granulated garlic is coarser, powdered garlic is a very fine texture, almost like dust. Also, be on the lookout for garlic salt, and avoid it! :)

                        I don't use dried basil, but I do use fresh. The flavor is completely different.

                        Thyme, oregano, and rosemary I will use dry in some applications. As a matter of fact, I like dried oregano better than fresh.