Geekade Top Ten: Stock Your Spice Rack

You’ve graduated from ramen and mac n’cheese and Sriracha isn’t doing it for you anymore. But when you venture into the spice aisle, row after row of little glass bottles stare you down, each more gnomic than the last and each price tag suspiciously steep for an ounce of dried leaves or colorful powder, and you always slink out of there with nothing more than another set of those disposable McCormick’s salt and pepper shakers.

You deserve better. This list includes ten essential seasonings to keep your salt and pepper shakers company without breaking the bank. Most of them mix and match well, and appear (or can be substituted for more esoteric ingredients) in basic recipes. (You can substitute dried herbs for fresh, but dried herbs have a more concentrated flavor than fresh, so use less.) When you want to cook these seasonings will enrich your marinades and dry rubs; when you don’t they will punch up your frozen pizzas and jar sauces.

Image by Raymond Shobe Image by Raymond Shobe

Foodies will tell you that herbs come from the leaf or stem of an aromatic plant, and spices come from their roots, bark, fruit, and seeds. This list includes both. Foodies will also tell you that you should buy spices whole and grind them just before using them. They’re not wrong, but unless your idea of a relaxing after a long day of work includes laboring over a spice mill, go ahead and buy pre-ground. I won’t tell on you if you don’t tell on me.

Without further ado, here are the top ten seasonings to start your spice rack:

Image by Raimonsocial Image by Raimonsocial

#10. Celery salt – Celery salt is just what it says on the tin, a mixture of ground celery seed and salt. You know that bright, sharp, green snap of aroma fresh celery gives off when you bite or cut into it? Celery salt is that snap, dried and concentrated into the secret weapon for all your dry rubs, marinades, and broths. Used sparingly – you never want your food to taste of celery salt – it neutralizes gaminess in chicken, pork, and occasionally beef, perhaps most famously in the classic Chicago hot dog. If a recipe calls for fresh celery and you don’t have any on hand, a tiny bit of celery salt can cover for you. And if you like Bloody Marys – I understand such people exist – celery salt smooths out the acid and umami collisions between (*shudder*) tomato juice and Worcestershire sauce.

Image by Trish Reyes Image by Trish Reyes

#9. Garlic powder – After a long day, one of the biggest obstacles between me and a home-cooked meal is the prospect of peeling and mincing garlic. (Yes, the blade-smash trick is excellent, but it doesn’t make mincing any less of a PITA.) I may love garlic, but I love being a lazy bastard more. Enter garlic powder: all the flavor of garlic and none of the fuss. This shelf-stable shortcut can help along marinades, sauces, and breading mixes, especially on those nights when you Really Just Can’t, and/or you belatedly realize that was the one thing you forgot to grab at the grocery store. I have swapped it into marinades that called for actual fresh garlic cloves and mixed it (along with Italian seasoning) into breadcrumbs for everything from chicken/eggplant parmigianas to breaded zucchini to stuffed mushrooms. It’s not quite as good as the real thing, but it’s still pretty damn good.

Image by The Coffee & Tea Exchange, the best herb/spice/tea/coffee shop in Chicago Image by The Coffee & Tea Exchange, the best herb/spice/tea/coffee shop in Chicago

#8. Cumin – Cumin seeds come from a flowering plant related to parsley. They provide the pungent signature notes of chili and shakshouka and add an unmistakable and unmissable richness to spice blends. On those winter days when you are too cold and miserable to bother with anything, potato wedges or cauliflower pieces tossed with olive oil, salt, pepper, and cumin and roasted in the oven will warm the cockles of your grim and frozen heart.

Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

#7. Coriander – Coriander seeds (technically a dried fruit, but who wants to buy “dried coriander fruit?”) are an enduring mystery to me, because I do not understand how it is possible for my arch nemesis, cilantro (aka coriander), to produce something so delicious and essential. Coriander is both earthy and fresh, with an almost lemony aroma that brings out the best in fish and chicken. It pairs well with cumin, with which it often appears in salsas, curries, and dry rubs. Alongside orange peels, coriander also traditionally flavors Belgian Witbiers, so you home brewers have an extra reason to keep some on hand.

Image by Trish Reyes Image by Trish Reyes

#6. Chili – Every spice rack should have at least one kind of chili pepper, even if you don’t like spicy food. Chilis, bell peppers’ spicier cousins, are sweet, bright, occasionally smoky and always delicious. They enliven everything from goulash to roast chicken to toasted nuts. Mixed with salt, they make a savory rim for tequila- or mezcal-based cocktails. If you only have one chili powder, cayenne has a bright heat that’s welcome almost anywhere. The jack-of-all-trades chili, cayenne powder can heat up a stew, a plate of eggs, a batch of cornbread, or even a mug of hot chocolate. But if heat really isn’t your thing, grab a bottle of smoked paprika instead. Its smoky, mellow notes add a nice touch of chili flavor with almost no heat. I wouldn’t add it to cocktails or hot cocoa, but it’s still great in marinades, dry rubs, and stews. In a pinch, you can mix either cayenne or paprika (I do both, but I’m a capsaicin fiend) with cumin, coriander, garlic powder, and a little oregano or Italian seasoning for a quick chili powder.

Image by Arthur Bovino Image by Arthur Bovino

#5. Crushed red pepper – You might be thinking that I already told you to get a chili pepper, but crushed red pepper flakes’ texture set them apart from their ground counterpart. If I told you, for example, to sprinkle cayenne or paprika on your pizza instead of crushed red pepper flakes, you would be well within your rights to get me blacklisted from every reputable pizza parlor on the Eastern seaboard. The fact that they’re more whole than ground chilis but small enough to require no extra work from you means you can sprinkle them directly on a dish (like pasta or frozen pizzas, which often need the help) or infuse them in another solution, like a salad dressing or a dipping sauce. If you’re not persuaded enough to buy a bottle, just stow those little pepper packets from the pizza place. One day you’ll need a little heat, and your palate will thank you.

To get rid of Apollo, Daphne had to turn into a laurel tree. Image by Alvesgaspar To get rid of Apollo, Daphne had to turn into a laurel tree. Image by Alvesgaspar

#4. Bay leaves – The dried leaves of the laurel tree, bay leaves add a savory, grassy, faintly woody aroma to broths, soups, and stews. This is one herb to buy and use whole. A leaf or two will do for a whole pot of chili or chicken soup or braised pork shoulder or tomato sauce, and almost anything improved by braising or long simmering will benefit from the addition of a bay leaf. It is best to pick them out when you’re done cooking, though; they don’t soften, and much like tea leaves, they’re not something you actually want to eat.

Image by Darya Pino Image by Darya Pino

#3. Italian seasoning – Despite the name, Italian seasoning has applications way beyond Italian cooking. A collection of savory herbs that go well with broths, meats, sauces, and stews – it usually includes oregano, thyme, basil, rosemary, and marjoram – Italian seasoning pre-mixes spices that frequently get used together anyway. You can often get away with using it any time a recipe calls for just one of the herbs it includes. Mixed with coriander, celery salt, and black pepper, it makes a decent chicken rub. With olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and Dijon mustard it rounds out a sweet and savory steak marinade. A few shakes can help along a jar of red sauce that leaves something to be desired or turn plain olive oil into a dipping sauce for bread or breadsticks. Italian seasoning is the spice rack equivalent of a pocket multitool: It gives you versatility in exchange for precision and specialization. In a perfect world you would buy your oregano, thyme, basil, and marjoram fresh and dry them from the rafters of your picturesque kitchen, snipping off bits as needed. In the real world you crack open a bottle of Italian seasoning and call it a day.

Bonneville Salt Flats. Image by the Bureau of Land Management Bonneville Salt Flats. Image by the Bureau of Land Management

#2. Kosher salt – This is miles apart from the iodized salt sitting in your salt shaker. Iodized salt contains iodine, which can lend the salt – and any food you season with it – a vaguely metallic flavor. The metallic edge is negligible unless salt will play a defining role in a flavor profile, as it does in brines or when sprinkled directly on a good cut of meat or fish. Kosher salt comes in bigger grains and packs more salt punch by volume* than iodized salt, and the lack of iodine means a clean, unadulterated flavor. Less complex but also less expensive, it’s also a cheap but viable alternative to sea salt, which can get real pricey real fast. Once you try Kosher salt on a steak instead of iodized, you will wonder where it has been your whole life and you will never go back.
*The two major brands, Diamond and Morton, produce different-shaped salt crystals. Morton’s are flatter, so a teaspoon of Morton Kosher salt is saltier, by volume, than a teaspoon of Diamond. Most recipes base their measurements on Diamond’s crystal size; if you’re using Morton, start with half the specified volume and adjust to taste.

Image by Bertrand Thiry Image by Bertrand Thiry

#1. Cinnamon – Cinnamon is the sweet, fragrant, inner bark of a tree from the same family as the bay laurel. Although best known for spicing baked goods like apple and pumpkin pies, cinnamon is the flavor you never knew you always needed in a surprising variety of beverages and savory dishes. You can sprinkle it over grounds before brewing or directly into your cup for more flavorful coffee, or add it to hot cocoa alongside cayenne. It is essential for mulling cider or wine and pairs well with whiskey and brandy cocktails, either directly or simmered into a simple syrup. And a tiny dash added to beef or pork, as a dry rub or in a stew, produces a result as irresistible as it is inexplicable.

The secret to stocking your spice rack affordably is to avoid that supermarket aisle as much as possible (except for the Kosher salt, which has less pricing variance). The absolute cheapest way to maintain your spice rack is to purchase from a bulk supplier. This is easier than it sounds – even Target carries bags of bulk herbs and spices, mostly for $1-2 a pop. The second cheapest way to stock your spice rack is to start at Trader Joe’s and World Market, both of which price their seasonings very reasonably and package them in durable, reusable glass bottles. Buy the glass bottles once and you can refill them from bulk purchases pretty much forever.

Now go forth, and never eat bland food again.

Trish Reyes

The cake is a lie, but I haven't let that stop me yet.

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