Spices may not appear on many food pyramids, but eating would be pretty boring without them. You’ve probably already got salt and pepper covered, so here are some other ways to improve your home dining experience.
Absolutely Essential for Every Kitchen, No Matter What
These are the two spices that are so useful not even the most committed of take-out devotees should do without.
1. Garlic: If you don’t cook, you probably have little use for fresh cloves, but ground garlic, whether plain or mixed into a garlic salt or garlic and herbs mixture, is the perfect addition to give any meal or snack a little more taste. You can put it in everything from scrambled eggs to spaghetti sauce, on pizza, or on a piece of toast with melted cheese for simple DIY garlic bread. If the leftover Chinese is seeming a little bland, just stir in a pinch of garlic and heat. It goes with virtually every savory dish.
2. Cinnamon: Similarly, ground cinnamon can add class to any sweet food. Put it in cookie dough, or sprinkle it on just before baking. Use it to top cakes, pies, or even just your bowl of ice cream. Mix it with sugar and sprinkle it on toast. Add a pinch to make your hot chocolate, tea or coffee more interesting. You can put it on or in pancakes, with or without sugar, and it’s one of the keys to excellent French toast. It can even be used as a flavor booster in sweet or fruit-based curries and other entrees.
Spices for the Occasional Cook
Here are a few additional spices you might want to have on hand if you’re cooking on a semi-regular basis, but you prefer to stick to the basics.
1. Ginger: For cookies, stir fries, and everything in between. Ground ginger is a key ingredient in most curries, and you can make an simple, tasty sauce for cooked veggies by mixing soy sauce, sugar and ginger. Together with cinnamon and the next three spices, it forms the Holy Quintet of baking – the five spices that can be added to almost any baked dessert for instant deliciousness.
2. Nutmeg, Cloves and Allspice: In addition to baking, these spices (plus cinnamon) are the essential elements of pumpkin pie spice (and work well in many fruit pies as well). Nutmeg and cloves are also great on eggnog, in curries, and mixed with a bit of paprika and ginger in mac and cheese sauce.
3. Cumin: An exotic spice that is perfect for curries, stir fries, soup, and chili. Personally, I like it in scrambled eggs.
4: Basil and oregano: Whether you buy it dried or fresh, these two leafy spices are definitely required for top-quality meatloaf, spaghetti sauce, and most other Italian-inspired pasta sauces, as well as Advanced Spice-Sprinkling on many of the same dishes you already learned to add garlic to.
Really Cool Spices for Aspiring Gourmets
Finally, in this category we have a few spices that I’m personally fond of for anyone who loves to cook but doesn’t really know where to get started. (Hint: look through a few cookbooks for recipes that sound appealing, write down the required spices and pick out the ones that appear frequently or in your most favorite dishes.)
1. Sage: My mother never cooked with sage because she’s allergic to it, but I adore it. It’s the final, Expert-Level addition to the foods you enjoy with garlic, basil and oregano. If baking is your thing, these four go well together in breads and biscuits as well.
2. Cardemum: This is a great spice for desserts and baking. Shortbread, scones and sugar cookies all benefit from a little pinch. Put a little bit on ice cream, in milk shakes, on eggnog, or in tea. (But be careful when you’re buying to get it ground, unless you really want to dig little chunks of spice out of their seed pods and grind them yourself.)
3. Cinnamon Sticks: If you spend a lot of time cooking, you may prefer to use cinnamon sticks rather than the ground stuff in hot drinks, curries, and other dishes with enough water to let the flavor diffuse. Grittiness is greatly reduced, and cinnamon sticks are reusable, unlike ground cinnamon, which may run out quickly if you’re using it frequently. And it can make any dessert look much more elegant for all those fancy dinner parties you’re going to want to be throwing.