Chatelaine Kitchen

10 herbs and spices for a well-stocked spice drawer

Start your spice drawer with these basics, then add to it as you discover your personal favourites.

Spices. (Photo, iStock.)

Spices. (Photo, iStock.)

For thousands of years, spices and herbs have been used in cooking as a simple and economic way to add flavour to any dish. The difference between a spice and herb comes from which part of the plant is used. The leaf of a plant is used as a culinary herb, while any other part of the plant (often dried seeds, bark or roots) is a spice. Keep in mind that herbs can be used both dry and fresh; spices are only used in their dry form.

While the ‘perfect’ spice cabinet will be unique to individual tastes, here are 10 basic herbs and spices to give you a good foundation to build on.

Tip: Although whole spices and herbs can have a shelf life of up to 3 years, they gradually lose flavour over time. To keep them tasting their best, purchase in small quantities and store in glass jars with metal lids in a cool, dark place.

1. Black peppercorns.
Pepper is a spice that’s familiar to everyone. This slightly pungent and aromatic spice should be ground fresh for optimal flavour. Whenever possible, opt to buy whole peppercorns and use a pepper mill instead of the pre-ground spice to give you the most flavour and heat.

Try it:
Peppery beef tenderloin with crispy shallots
Quick-pickles with quatre-epices

2. Ground cinnamon.
A warm spice packed with antioxidants, cinnamon adds a touch of sweetness to dishes. Typically used in baking and sweet preparations, it can also be found in savoury Indian and Moroccan-style dishes.  But did you know most of the cinnamon we purchase isn’t really cinnamon after all? Cultivated throughout Asia, cassia bark is sold as cinnamon around the world as it’s more affordable than the real deal.

Try it:
Spiced lamb with pine nuts
Cinnamon-sugar snowshoes

Related: 4 common types of salt used in the kitchen

3. Chili powder.
Known for a bright red or orange colour, chili powder is a combination of a variety of chilis. Often used in taco seasoning and curries, this spice can be found with different levels of heat (mild, medium and hot). As it’s a blend of spices, sometimes you’ll find chili powder contains cumin, paprika and salt.

Try it:
Turkey chili with cheddar cornbread
Homemade taco seasoning

4. Hot-red-chili flakes.
Chili flakes are a great way to add heat to any dish. Made from crushed, dried red chili peppers, you’ll often find this spice used in pasta and pizza, but it’s also added to pickles and oils for flavour.

Try it:
Sesame pita chips with smoky tomato dip
Mediterranean fettuccine

5. Cumin.
Warm and earthy, cumin is the world’s second most popular spice and a great addition to North African, Middle Eastern or Indian dishes. It’s best to add cumin early in the cooking process to  increase the depth of flavour.

Try it:
Big-batch Moroccan chili
Creamy hummus

6. Ground ginger.
It’s most often used in baking, but ginger can also be found in spice blends such as jerk spice, curry powder or tandoori seasoning. Its sweet, peppery-lemon notes complement both savoury and sweet dishes.

Try it:
Gingerbread cookies
Gingerbread spiced nuts

Related: 10-minute homemade chili oil

7. Nutmeg.
It’s important to note that a little goes along way with this powerful and pungent spice. Grown in the same seed as the less-commonly-used spice mace, nutmeg is sweet and warm and goes well in hot drinks, baked goods or with root vegetables. For the best flavour, grate nutmeg fresh with a microplane grater.

Try it:
Classic lasagna
Fruit and nut oatmeal

8. Smoked paprika.
Smoked paprika is slightly sweet with notes of smoke that can be either mild or hot. It adds a beautiful red colour as well as some sweetness and smoky flavour to meats, fish and vegetables. Used worldwide in a range of different cuisines, it should be essential to your spice drawer to add extra depth to dishes.

Try it:
Spicy and sweet nuts
Pork tenderloin with rapini and creamy polenta

9. Dried oregano.
A versatile herb used in Mediterranean and South American cooking, dried oregano has a bold floral and lemony flavour. Dried oregano wants to be the star of any dish so be careful as it can overpower other flavours.

Try it:
Mole-braised beef short ribs
Herbed cheddar soda bread

10. Bay leaves.
Bay leaves are the background star of soups and stews; while the flavour isn’t as in-your-face as oregano or cumin, if used in large quantities they will add bitterness to dishes (just one or two leaves will add enough flavour). Add them at the start of the cooking process and remove before serving.

Try it:
Stout braised beef stew
Beef barley soup

Read more:
A guide to seven common apple varieties
5 essential pots and pans for every kitchen
10 common cooking techniques explained