Ten Basic Spices Every Cook Should Have on Hand
Common Kitchen Spices
A kitchen without spices is much like a beauty queen without her make-up kit. She may look nice sans make-up, but make-up will enhance her natural beauty. Too much may not be flattering, but just the right amount may accentuate her features to good effect. The same goes for food. With the right amount and kind of seasoning, plain food can become at once delectable and irresistible.
Perhaps that’s why since ancient civilization, spices are priced for their ability to add aesthetic value to food. History records revealed that Queen Sheba (about 1,000 BC) carted more “120 measures of gold, many spices, and precious stones” to visit the legendary wise and revered King Solomon. Spices were put on the same worth as precious stones and gold, and so we can infer that they were very valuable then.
Moving along the spice timeline, spices featured prominently in many cultures. From the Egyptians to the Greeks, spices were used in food preparation, as preservatives and for their medicinal value. Hippocrates (460 to 377 BC) wrote of using spices and herbs for medicinal use. He mentioned herbs like cinnamon, thyme, coriander, mint and marjoram. Ancient Greeks weaved parsley and marjoram into their head garlands to prevent drunkenness. In the third century, Chinese courtiers stuffed their mouths with cloves to sweeten their breaths before approaching their Emperors.
As the world grows and expands, spices have become commonplace and easily accessible. Once, only the privileged and wealthy could afford the use of spices, now, we can find spices in every grocery store. Most kitchens are stocked with spices. The choices of spices are determined by personal and cultural preferences. In this hub, I will share some common spices every cook should have on hand. My only qualification for making my top ten must-have spices? I love to cook and often, you can catch me playing and experimenting with food.
Onion, Ginger and Garlic
The Greeks called it stinking rose, but its pungency aside, garlic has a rich history of culinary and medicinal use. First found growing on the mountains of Central Asia, this versatile fresh spice is quite a staple in many culinary explorations. Stir-fry would lose its characteristic flavor, garlic bread would not be in existence and certain sauces, soups and foods would be rather flat. Whether it’s minced, chopped, roasted whole or pickled, garlic can transform and upgrade any number of dishes.
Garlic belongs to the Allium family and gives off a strong pungent smell, due to the presence of allicin. The smell can reputedly ward off vampires (and any hot dates), but it is also the chemical responsible for a number of health benefits. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, allicin and other sulfur compounds in garlic may help lower cholesterol, reduce risks of heart disease and prevent certain cancers.
The onion needs no introduction. It is after all, the oldest edible source known to mankind. We’re familiar with it since it’s quite ubiquitous in many cuisines—Indian, Asian, Mediterranean, Mexican and Continental, to mention just a few. It is quite indispensable in curries, stir-fries, soups, stuffing, pastes, and sauces and can be used as a garnish or a condiment. Its strong robust flavor and characteristic pungency help to complement and enhance the flavor of foods. Its versatility is far-reaching: toss thinly-sliced onion in a salad for that extra kick, add it to sandwiches, sauté chopped onion in stir-fry for added flavor, simmer it in soup to add sweetness and blend it in sauces and condiments to add excitement, or caramelize it to release the burst of flavor.
Culinary prowess aside, onion also exerts strong health benefits—even more reason to include it in your diet. Onion is naturally high in antioxidants, quercetin and chromium (helps to maintain proper hormonal balance) and low in fat and calories. Eating approximately two teaspoons of onion a day may significantly lower the risk of prostate cancer, according to a study from the National Cancer Institute. Another study conducted in the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute reveals that onion increases a key enzyme for removing toxins in the blood cells of healthy women. Quercetin exerts anti-carcinogenic, anti-inflammatory and anti-diabetic properties and is quite a fat blaster too.
Ginger has been used as a cooking spice for at least 4,400 years. An underground stem (rhizome is the technical word), ginger not only imparts flavor, zing and zest, it is also used in many cultures as a medicine. It is reputed to have many splendid uses: relieve nausea, treats common cold and flu, aids digestion, headaches, menstrual cramps and arthritis, amongst others. However, these uses should not be dismissed as folk medicine. A number of studies have been done and have validated some of the claims. Among them—ginger is beneficial for treating nausea, motion sickness, as a digestive aid for mild stomach upset, reducing the pain of osteoarthritis and in cancer chemotherapy.
Ginger continues to be a favorite in culinary uses. It is used in many and varied ways. From flavoring main entrees to soups to flavoring desserts and drinks, ginger has found a permanent place in the halls of delectable cooking. Ginger cookies, ginger-infused chicken, ginger tea, ginger beer, ginger candy—the world would be a sadder place without these culinary indulgences.
White, Green, Red and Black Pepper
4. Pepper (White, Green, Red and Black)
Peppercorns once as used interchangeably as money—they were used to pay rent, tolls and wages in Eastern Europe, are much loved in many countries and have been used creatively in many dishes from peppering steak to creating exotic desserts and drinks. In essence, peppercorns are dried fruits and the color depends on the time of harvest and the processing method. In general, they are pungent and aromatic, with the white pepper leading on the pungency barometer. Green and black peppercorns are more aromatic.
Different cultures have developed certain pet preferences, though not exclusively. For instance, in Thailand, fresh green peppercorns are used in stir-fries and curry pastes. The Chinese and Japanese have a preference for white pepper, using it to good effect to “spice up” their soups. Western cuisines also prefer white pepper to coax flavor out of white sauces or white meats. However, black pepper is used in almost all of the world’s cuisines, hence its domination in production and consumption. A dash of black pepper can enhance the flavor of any dish.
Cinnamon Is Commonly Used in Desserts
When they say spice and all things nice, they must refer to cinnamon. Warm, sweet and fragrant, it is the spice most favored in the winter months to beat the cold and blue. Cinnamon, the oldest spice known—was mentioned in the Bible and used in ancient Egypt to flavor beverages and often used as an embalming agent. It is also used in medicine, as a preservative and to mask strong odors. Various studies have pointed to several health benefits with cinnamon use: has natural anti-infectious compounds, helps to regulate blood sugar, reduces harmful LDL cholesterol, reduces menstrual pain and may prevent the proliferation of cancer cells.
There are typically two kinds of cinnamon—the sweeter, more refined Ceylon cinnamon and the more common Chinese cinnamon (cassia). They are available in sticks or powder. A sprinkle of cinnamon can work wonders with desserts, breads, cookies, pies, candies, beverages and even savory dishes. They work well with sweet vegetables such as squash, sweet potatoes and pumpkin—hence the spiced pumpkin pies.
Cumin comes from the dried seeds of an annual plant in the parsley family. Nutty, aromatic and earthy, cumin is a regular spice of choice in Middle Eastern, Indian, Asian, Mediterranean and Mexican cuisines. It is often sold whole or ground, and it is available in three colors: white, black or amber, with the amber being the most widely available. You may choose to roast cumin seeds to enhance flavor.
It works well in many types of dishes and is one of the main ingredients in curry powder. You can pair cumin with beans, chicken, lentils, chickpeas, potatoes, sausages, soups, stews, eggs, couscous, chili and it can be used in condiments and sauces as well.
Spices Commonly Used in Asian Cuisine
Cayenne pepper is invaluable if you love spicy food. The active ingredient, capsaicin, imparts a spicy hit and the degree of spiciness varies with varieties of red chili pepper used. You can use fresh chili pepper or the powdered form. It can be added to food to enhance the spice factor and to add color. Can you imagine a bowl of chili without a touch of cayenne?
Cajun and Creole cooking feature cayenne often, and so do the cuisines of Southeast Asia, China, Southern Italy and Mexico. Gumbo, curries, Kung Pao chicken, fajitas may never taste the same without the characteristic spicy hit of cayenne.
Apart from culinary use, the capsaicin in cayenne has been utilized in a number of cream and ointments to relieve arthritis, shingles and personal defense sprays.
Pesto Sauce With Basil
Widely used in Italian, Mediterranean and Thai cooking, basil is rich, spicy, slightly peppery with a hint of mint and clove. This lovely culmination of flavors makes it delight to use, whether fresh, dried or frozen. Basil is considered part of the mint family, and there are about 40 varieties. The sweet basil is the most common. The Vietnamese and Thais use a spicy, smaller-leafed version called Thai basil. It is characterized by its purple stems and dainty purple flowers, and it carries a sweetness akin to licorice and anise.
Basil is incredibly versatile. The leaves can be eaten fresh or cooked. Fresh leaves add extra zing to salads and can double up as beautiful garnishes. Minced, chopped or blended together with other herbs (works especially well with garlic, thyme and lemon), there are countless ways to enjoy this aromatic herb. It greatly enhances the flavor of veal, chicken, fish or lamb. When used with mild vegetables such as cauliflower, potatoes, cabbage, squash, eggplant or zucchini, basil accentuates the taste factor. Soups, stews, sauces and marinades with basil add zip and zest.
Small grayish-green oval leaves characterized Oregano. Crush some fresh leaves between your fingers and it will exude a warm, peppery and sweet fragrance. This herb boasts high levels of vitamin K, manganese, iron, calcium and dietary fiber. Oregano means “mountain joy,” and this herb has no doubt brought joy to the culinary experience.
Oregano belongs to the same family as marjoram and is often mistaken as a result. However, oregano has more pungency and is less sweet. It is steeped in Italian cooking and oregano is an indispensable spice in common fares like pizza and spaghetti sauce. It is also used extensively in Mediterranean and Mexican cooking. Fresh oregano can be tossed on top of pizza, in salads, in omelets and works well with sautéed mushrooms and onions. Infuse essential oils of oregano by immersing a few springs in a bottle of olive oil. The oregano scented oil can then be used for salad dressings, as a dip for bread or cooking.
Shakespeare called it the herb of “remembrance” as it is long believed to enhance memory. It is also traditionally used to provide relief for headaches, improve memory, relieve muscle pain, stimulate hair growth and support circulatory and nervous systems. This is often achieved through aromatherapy or ingestion. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, some studies showed that rosemary may help prevent thrombosis, inhibit foodborne pathogens such as Listeria monocytogens, B. cereus and S. aureus and help to reduce stress and anxiety.
Woodsy, fragrant and aromatic, rosemary is used in many Mediterranean dishes and works well in gravies, risotto dishes and stocks. It pairs well with chicken and lamb. Fresh bouquets add a beautiful touch as a garnish and it can be used to flavor vinegars, wines and olive oils.
Not every cook will agree on this list and not every cook will agree on how best to use them but that’s quite alright. But one thing all cooks will agree on: The judicious use of spice in cooking adds flair and flavor and gives food an attitude. A good one at that.
Spices and Flavors
Spices that enhance sweet flavor
Spices that enhance savory flavors
Korean Red Pepper (Gochugaru)
My Example Recipes
Here are some examples of dishes I made with the spices I have on hand.
Questions & Answers
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