21 Essential Spices for Your Spice Rack

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What would cooking be without spices? Bland, boring and bad for your health. Spices are an excellent way to flavor a dish without over-relying on fats, sugars and salts. Moreover, spices often bring their own health benefits to a dish.

Whether you’re restocking your kitchen or starting your spice collection from scratch, here are 21 essential spices for your spice rack.

1. Allspice

Allspice comes from evergreen trees that grow in the rainforests of South and Central America, and gets its name from its aroma: a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and ginger. Allspice is frequently used for Spanish, Indian and Jamaican dishes, especially jerked meats, cakes and pies.

2. Bay Leaves

The bay leaf is a versatile and worldwide seasoning tool. Add a leaf or two to a soup, stew or sauce to lend an extra punch of flavor. Just don’t forget to remove the leaf before serving.

3. Black Peppercorn

Although it’s tempting to skip a step and buy pre-ground black pepper, you’re much better off investing in a simple peppermill and whole black peppercorns. As with any food, fresh is better, and freshly ground peppercorns are a staple spice for countless dishes.

4. Cayenne

Cayenne pepper is another versatile and widely used spice. If you’ve ever watched Food Wishes, you’ve seen it used in everything from chocolate desserts to gumbo. Made from finely ground — you guessed it — cayenne peppers, it adds a dash of spice and flavor to seafood, soups, barbecue, meats, stews, marinades and curries.

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5. Chili Powder

Chili powder, like cayenne, is a spice made from ground hot peppers. It is a popular ingredient and source of heat and flavor for Chinese, Indian, Korean and Tex-Mex meals.

6. Cinnamon

Cinnamon — the inner bark of a tropical evergreen — is a popular baking spice that is also used in Middle Eastern and North African dishes. While you shouldn’t attempt to get your dose of cinnamon from the cinnamon challenge, studies have shown that the spice has a number of health benefits.

7. Cloves

Dried cloves are very strong in flavor, so use sparingly. Due to their intensity, cloves are often pressed into roasts, just like nails, to provide flavor while cooking.

8. Cream of Tartar

Although it sounds like you might be adding tartar sauce to your baking (ew), in actuality cream of tartar is an acidic residue that is used in popular desserts such as meringues and snickerdoodles.

9. Cumin

Cumin is an extremely popular spice in Mexican, Spanish, Indian and Middle Eastern dishes. Use it for marinades, meat rubs, soups, salsas and other dishes.

10. Garlic

Fresh pressed garlic is an aromatic and delicious addition to dishes of all cuisines. If you don’t wish to press fresh garlic for each meal, you can buy it pre-pressed by the jar. Dried and powdered garlic is also handy. Just remember it will act and taste a bit different than fresh-pressed.

11. Ginger

As with garlic, nothing beats fresh ginger, but there’s nothing wrong with powdered, either. Ginger is a staple in Eastern cuisine and is also a popular baking spice.

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12. Nutmeg

The pungent aroma of nutmeg is always a clear sign of the holiday season. Nutmeg is most commonly used in baked goods, especially apple pies and spice cakes.

13. Old Bay Seasoning

Old Bay seasoning is a blend of roughly a dozen spices that is most commonly associated with crabs and other seafood dishes. However, there’s no rule it can only be used on seafood; add a dash in other recipes or in unexpected places, like on corn-on-the-cob.

14. Onion Powder

Onions are an important flavor base in an untold number of cuisines. For those times you want to avoid watery eyes or have run out of fresh onions, keep a bottle of onion powder on hand to substitute.

15. Oregano

Oregano is mostly known for its use in Italian dishes, although it lends its slightly bitter flavor to dishes from a variety of European, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries. If nothing else, keep it on hand for pizza night.

16. Paprika

Paprika is most commonly associated with Hungarian and Spanish dishes and can be used throughout the cooking process or as a garnish. Use it for meats, soups, casseroles, vegetables or even salad dressings.

17. Red Pepper Flakes

Red pepper flakes — or crushed red chili — are a spicy garnish for pastas, soups and stir-fries. Keep them near the oregano and use both to spice up your pizza slices.

18. Rosemary

Rosemary has a strong, woodsy-yet-sweet flavor that is a popular choice in Mediterranean dishes. Rosemary’s strong flavor makes it a great choice for seasoning meat, seafood and game.

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19. Sage

Sage is known for its piney flavors and grease-cutting properties. Pair it with fatty meats or use it in stuffings and other savory dishes.

20. Thyme

Thyme is as versatile as it is pungent. Western and Middle Eastern cuisine uses it for casseroles, meats, soups and stews.

21. Vanilla

Vanilla extract is a key ingredient in tasty treats like cakes, cookies, puddings, custards and ice cream. Pure and imitation extracts are both available, but not always interchangeable. Do your research before deciding which to use.

These spices are only the tip of the iceberg. As you branch out and try making a wider variety of cuisine, you will find your spice collection expanding to reflect your tastes and needs.

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