best spices

April 22, 2024 •

5 min reading

A list of the essential cooking spices you should have in your kitchen


A pinch of this and a dash of that can transform the taste of an entire dish. With herbs and spices, a little bit can go a long way. Professional chefs know how to expertly balance and elevate a dish using the perfect blend of herbs and spices but this talent takes years of practice, and trial and error. This article is for the home cook or aspiring chef who wants to get started on their journey to familiarising themselves with the best spices to stock in their kitchens and how to use common spice blends. There are hundreds of different spices and spice blends available in many stores, knowing which ones to buy can be daunting. This article will provide a list of essential cooking spices to get any budding chef started.

What are cooking spices?

But what exactly are cooking spices? Spices are the magical essence that comes from the seeds, fruits, bark, rhizomes, and various other parts of plants. They have been used for centuries to add flavor to food, preserve it, and even as remedies, dyes, and perfumes. The word "spice" itself originates from the Latin word "species," meaning merchandise or wares, highlighting their historical value as trade goods.

Spices are typically sold in dried form, but don't be fooled into thinking they last forever. Over time, their robust flavors can diminish, especially if they are exposed to light and air. So it's important to store them properly to ensure they retain their aromatic qualities for as long as possible.


How to store spices

Store spices you use often in opaque glass jars or tins in a dark cupboard. Spices you don’t use frequently can be stored in airtight containers in the freezer. (Remember to bring frozen spices to room temperature before opening to prevent condensation.) Label spices with their purchase dates, and give them a sniff every few months to make sure they’re still pungent.

Ground spices tend to oxidize more quickly than whole spices due to their large exposed surface area, and will lose their flavor within a few months, while whole spices can last up to a year. Since we use them in such small amounts, spices should be packed with flavor.


How to decide what spices to buy

What type of cook are you? What are your favorite flavors? Ensure your spice drawer is stocked with all the essentials for your go-to dishes and exciting culinary experiments. After all, you can't whip up a masterpiece without the necessary ingredients. Here are some suggestions to kickstart your spice collection.

The baker:

For those with a sweet tooth, essential baking spices include cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cardamom, along with the versatile vanilla available in liquid extract, paste, or whole bean form.

Spice lover:

For those who like it hot. Buy chili powder or make your own by mixing chili powder from chipotle or ancho chilis. Crushed red pepper, cayenne pepper, aleppo pepper, black pepper, cumin, coriander, oregano, garlic, and onion powder are all you friends.

Mediterranean lover:

French and Italian cuisine are known for their reliance on aromatic herbs such as basil, oregano, thyme, and rosemary. Don't forget to also have black peppercorns, cinnamon, and nutmeg on hand for both sweet and savory dishes.

South-American inspired:

For a taste of the vibrant flavors of the Mexican kitchen, be sure to stock up on various chili powders like ancho or chipotle, achiote, anise, cloves, cumin, cinnamon, and vanilla.

10 essential spices every pantry should have

While everyone has different tastes, we have put together a list of ten spices you will certainly want to consider putting in the shopping cart during your next grocery shop. Or skip to the comprehensive list of 17 herbs and spices and how to use them based on the type of protein you're cooking or the type of cuisine you want to cook.

Black pepper

As the counterpoint to the always-prevalent salt, black pepper is a flavorful spice that tastes good on most savory dishes in small doses. There are certain recipes, such as lemon-pepper pasta or fried chicken that can benefit from a healthier dash.

Garlic powder

Even if you choose to use fresh garlic on a regular basis, having garlic powder around can be beneficial too. It’s a great way to add some quick garlic flavor to a dish or you can use it to mix into your own spice blends.


Thyme is woodsy, lemony, and mild. It is most often used as a flavor for meats and stews, but it can add some zing to vegetables as well.


While Cinnamon is probably best known as an additive to sweet dishes or on your morning toast, this spice can be an excellent addition to certain savory dishes as well. Use it in very small doses in chili, tomato sauces, and other products.


Nothing says Italian quite like Oregano does. A little dried oregano will give your tomato sauce a real Italian vibe. It can also be a pungent addition to Greek and Mexican dishes.


Dried Rosemary is a must for French and Mediterranean cooking. It is earthy, woodsy, and piney. Rosemary can be an acquired taste for some, but it does give your dishes a one-of-a-kind flavor that helps them stand out from the crowd.

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Cayenne pepper

Another form of pepper, cayenne pepper has a definite kick. This spice is a great way to add heat to any dish. Whether you’re making your famous chili or buffalo wings, cayenne pepper lets you get the heat you desire.


Cumin has a smoky, earthy taste. You’ll find this flavor is great for many ethnic dishes including Indian, African, and South American. A gentle touch of cumin can add spice and flavor to unexpected dishes like eggs or grilled meats too.


Nutmeg works well in both sweet and savory dishes. It is a must for bechamel sauces and other cheese dishes. However, you’ll probably use it most often in sweet treats that contain cinnamon as well.


While fairly tame compared to other pepper-based spices, paprika adds warmth and earthiness to a dish. You’ll find that there are many different versions, some with a smokier or “hotter” flavor than others.

While these are the ten “musts” for your spice cabinet, remember--this is only the beginning. Don’t be afraid to slowly expand your spice collection and add more flavors so you can enhance the overall taste and profile of everything you cook.

Plus, keep in mind that many spices offer additional benefits too. As Charlemagne was famed for saying: “Spices are the friend of physicians and pride of cooks.”


Comprehensive list of herbs and spices

spices list


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