Cooking 101: Is there a "spices and seasonings starter pack" I can buy?
April 16, 2021 6:06 AM   Subscribe

Watching too much America's Test Kitchen and SortedFood (and Mythical Kitchen) during lockdown made me realize I don't have many spices in my pantry, just your basic salt, pepper, and a few other odds and ends. So, is there a "starter set" that one should get? That comes with, say 10-20 of the most frequently used ones?

I tried searching on Amazon but I keep getting gift sets and exotic blends that costs like crazy amounts of money for stuff I'll never use (well, maybe ONCE).

Should I just head down to my local supermarket and grab one of each from the spice aisle? :D If so, which ones?

I'm not really a home cook, as I just occasionally throw in some ingredients and "it seems edible", and I don't have an oven (just a toaster oven), and I have an air fryer.

To show you how lowsy of a cook I am, the other day I made "ground beef and broccoli" in my air fryer. It's... edible.
posted by kschang to Food & Drink (57 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Penzeys is my go to (when I can cross the border)

The American Kitchen box might be a good start. Or more pricey the "spice replacement gift crate"
posted by Ftsqg at 6:14 AM on April 16, 2021 [18 favorites]

I'd just pick up a few at the grocery store, then as you find what kind of food you like, you can pick up more/higher quality spices from somewhere like Penzey's. I would get salt, pepper, garlic salt, cinnamon and maybe chili powder or cayenne to start with. If there are particular things you like to eat, pick up the spices you need for those recipes: I like tzaziki, so I always have dill, and I like ginger cookies, so I keep ginger, cinnamon, and cloves on hand.
posted by mareliz at 6:25 AM on April 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

I think this is really going to depend on the kind of food that appeals to you. If you want to cook Indian food, then things like cumin, paprika, coriander, and garam masala are going to be important. If you want to cook Italian food, then oregano and red pepper flakes are going to be pretty crucial.

What I would do is look up a recipe for something you want to cook and then go to the store and buy the ingredients for that recipe (including spices). If you keep doing that you will, over time, learn the kinds of spices that you need and what they taste like. Other than salt and pepper, I don't know that there are any "one size fits all" spices that every kitchen should have.

The challenge with the "spice kits" from either Amazon or Penzeys (which I love, BTW) is that they are often pitched towards people who already cook a lot, so they are more likely to include "interesting" spices and less likely to include your basic day-to-day things.
posted by Betelgeuse at 6:29 AM on April 16, 2021 [22 favorites]

Spices, especially ground spices, degrade in quality over time. I think you are better off buying a few things for the recipes you want to make versus having a gift set of spices you may never use.

I would just buy the nicer store brand of spices for the things you need and if that doesn't exist, the cheapest of the premium brands. Once you do enough cooking you can start comparing and contrasting i.e. what does the store brand chili powder taste like vs. the nicer brand.

Places like Penzey's are great in the sense that they can get you access to 8 different types of mustard seeds or things like Garam Masala that aren't likely to be in most American supermarkets. They also have a ton of different spice blends if you just wanted to do a simple veg/protein plus spices.

It depends on the style of recipes that you are following but often you aren't going to use spice blends but rather individual spices (oregano, basil, cumin, garlic, cinnamon, etc.). In which case you should start with the supermarket.
posted by mmascolino at 6:33 AM on April 16, 2021 [10 favorites]

I think even if you find a set, you would only end up using half of what’s in it - cooking is pretty specific to each persons taste. I would look at a few recipes you’re interested in trying, see what spices they require, and buy those. Repeat gradually over time, while replenishing what you end up using, and you’ll end up with a solid collection of spices you use regularly.
posted by MartialParts at 6:52 AM on April 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

Expect a lot of folks to sprinkle in here. When everyone has done their thing, make a list and tick the number of times each item is mentioned then select the top ten and buy from your big supermarket whatever they have. What they don't have is likely to be minority interest so not beginners. I'm a kitchen-bodger rather than a cook :
Spices: White pepper for eggs; Coarse ground black pepper for salads, stews and everything else; Red pepper: one of [hot] cayenne, chili, paprika [mild]; Cumin/jeera: essential / distinctive for “chili”; Bay-leaves, whole [find a bay-tree! they sell for $500/kg]; Turmeric/haldi for yellow = ginger for heat [same family]; Curry powder; Fenugreek/methi: distinctive for curries. Curry powder gets the proportions correctish: too much turmeric can be bleh.
Baking: Cinnamon: drinks, cakes, cookies; Whole cloves: 1 or 2 for wholesome apple pie; Allspice: what it says on the tin! Nutmeg
Herbs: Basil, Thyme, Oregano = Marjoram. Italian. Locate rosemary bush in neighbourhood
posted by BobTheScientist at 6:56 AM on April 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

what's available at the supermarket will be 100% fine. McCormick is the leading brand.

folks here can recommend what ought to be included in a "kit" for whatever kind of food you like. As noted above, you'll need different stuff for cooking Italian-ish vs Indian-ish vs Mideast-ish vs "baking spices", although there are overlaps.

a few for each off the top of my head:

red pepper flakes

garam masala or "curry powder" just to make things easier

cayenne (ground)


bay leaves show up a lot of places and I'd put them in the "basics" category.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:57 AM on April 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

Offhand I like to have around at very minimum to feed myself happily: basil, oregano, thyme, paprika, cumin, pepper, chili powder (which is a blend), curry powder (also a blend), hot pepper flakes, ground ginger, garlic powder [I prefer the ground/powder versions of these for some things but I can also make do without these and use fresh ginger/garlic], cinnamon, nutmeg (though I think the only non-baked item I use it in is cheese sauces)

things I usually have around but I think use less often overall or use in fewer dishes: ground coriander, garam masala (a blend), dill, rosemary, turmeric, dried parsley. and mostly for baked goods: allspice, ground cloves, cardamom (tends to be pricey and you can probably skip it til a recipe needs it)
posted by needs more cowbell at 6:58 AM on April 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

Okay, do you have a co-op/luxury health food store near you? When I want small quantities of spices, I go to the co-op and buy tiny amounts from the bulk jars.
posted by Frowner at 6:58 AM on April 16, 2021 [12 favorites]

I started in the grocery spice aisle, went to Penzeys and the Spice House for a several years, and then returned to the spice aisle when I realized my tongue is made out of some kind of sturdy cloth that cannot tell a difference At All, probably from boiling it in coffee every single day for the last thirty years. (I do have violently strong and snobby chocolate and coffee preferences, so maybe all my tastebuds tuned in on those two, allowing me to save money on every other flavoring.) I do get everything in glass jars, though very likely I wouldn't be able to tell the difference there, either. But the big plastic "jars" of ubercheap spices creep me out.

For my everyday phoned-in throw-it-in-a-pan heat-the-pan eat-out-of-the-pan lifestyle I mostly need to have stocked, along with fresh onion and garlic:

black peppercorns and a grinder
curry powder
ground dried chipotle
soy sauce and toasted sesame oil

I also have lots of the sweet-tooth spices
posted by Don Pepino at 7:02 AM on April 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

Agreed to all upthread about buying what you use; aspirational spice buying is the trail to ruin and clutter that will result in a kitchen clean out and wondering when you bought that jar ten years from now, which may result in another askme "can i eat it 2031 turmeric edition."

BUT there are some building block spices out there that are used across different culinary traditions that are always nice to have on hand. Cumin, coriander, pepper, and dried chilis (which I consider more of a spice) I buy in bulk (up to maybe a pint to quart at a time? I use a lot of chilis, so thats a different thing entirely) If the item is powdered, its going to lose its edge pretty fast, so I tend to only buy a couple ounces at a time, or even just buy what I'm going to use for a single recipe. If you start googling "Type of Cuisine + Pantry" you'll get lots of ways to kit out your spice cabinet in a way that appeals to your tastes.

All that said; find a place that allows you to buy in bulk, and has a high turnover. Bulk sections allow you to buy as you go. This way you're not ending up buying stale ass jars of tasteless paprika and stuff. Most bulk sections even have handy-dandy empty spice jars on display nearby to store your newfound spice in.

And for actual spice blends; fuck that noise! You say that you're not a great home cook, but you're trying and that IS what makes a home cook great: one great way to level up your cooking game is to make your own spice blends. There's thousands of recipes out on the internet, that combined with a blade-style coffee grinder, you can make your own spice blend from whole spices real easy. If you used some five spice powder on it, there's a recipe for that. Toast your spices for a minute (optional, but great) and then grind them up, shaking that coffee grinder. You have better five spice powder than you can source from most grocery stores. You have now earned a spice blend merit badge. (side note, don't use that blade coffee grinder for coffee AND spices, that gets gross fast. Having a dedicated one for spices is clutch). It is an extra step, but it is one of those steps that gets you MUCH better quality food for the effort you're putting in to it...and it takes just a few extra minutes.

I also use MSG as a spice. It's not bad stuff, it just has some racist baggage attached to it. While its mostly used to amp up 'meaty' flavors, it can work magic on roasted veggies.
posted by furnace.heart at 7:03 AM on April 16, 2021 [5 favorites]

Oh, yeah, MSG. Bonus, Ve-Tsin comes in a beautiful blue and yellow tin.
posted by Don Pepino at 7:06 AM on April 16, 2021

Given your cooking style, I'd recommend just picking out a selection of spice blends to start. They are such an easy shortcut when cooking and a great way to learn what you like. Spices expire after a year anyway.

Penzeys excels at their blends. The trial bags page seems to give a good overview of their more popular spice blends.

Grocery store spices are also fine and blends are definitely available. They are overpriced though, and would usually be less fresh. Since you want to buy multiple bottles at once, if you are in the U.S. I'd go with Penzeys for sure.
posted by veery at 7:13 AM on April 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

I love Penzey’s—not only are they great quality, I love that the owner is unabashedly left-wing, anti-racist, and puts his money where his mouth is. They run frequent promotions for free or heavily discounted jars of spices, so it’s worth signing up for their newsletter.

The most frequently used spices in my kitchen (but I agree with those who suggest buying on a per-recipe, as-needed basis, as this all comes down to what YOU like to eat):

Cumin (both whole and ground)
Bay leaf
Fennel seed
Smoked paprika
Garlic powder
Red pepper flakes
Black and white pepper
Black mustard seed
Curry leaves
Szechuan peppercorn
posted by music for skeletons at 7:17 AM on April 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

I would buy chili powder, poultry seasoning, Italian seasoning, garlic powder and seasoning salt for basic savory cooking, cinnamon for sweet cooking. That's what I pack on road trips. Also, soy sauce and toasted sesame oil. Trader Joe's has frozen fresh ginger in packets where you can just use what you need, and you have to have fresh ginger for Asian cooking. Buy some extra virgin olive oil and good vinegar to dress salads.

Really, I recommend getting a good basic cookbook, maybe Betty Crocker, so you can cook with more intent. Once or twice a week, try a recipe. Cooking is learned by doing, making mistakes, learning techniques, finding what you like. Read Smitten Kitchen, which is a totally reliable, sometimes inspired food blog. There's probably some great food blog or youtube series you could learn to cook with, perhaps others will know. There are a lot of hit-or-miss food blogs.

Start adding cinnamon to some oatmeal, maybe even some nutmeg if you feel like being adventurous.
Poultry seasoning is mostly sage, add some to chicken or a dash on a fried egg.
You can make chili, and you should. My chili didn't always come out well until I learned to use plenty of fat. Oil for sauteing onions, regular ground beef (not the lower-fat). Same with red sauce for pasta; I use Italian sausages for fat and flavor.
Fried rice is pretty easy and very satisfying.
posted by theora55 at 7:18 AM on April 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

Nth'ing everyone above about "buy what you tend to use as you go". The problem with these kinds of "starter packs" might be that there's always one lone spice that you somehow, just by chance, don't really use very much and so it's always in the way (I tend not to have dill on hand for precisely this reason).

However, I have an idea if you'd still like to prepare yourself a bit. In the old Moosewood Enchanted Broccoli Forest cookbook, there's an appendix with about seven or eight different types of cuisines, with a list of the ingredients - including spices - that tend to get used a lot in those cuisines. So if you know you want to try cooking Italian food a lot, you could borrow a copy and write down the spices from the "Italian" list. Or the Indian list if you know you're going to be using that a lot. Or whatever. You may still have to make the occasional spice run, but that'd be a good way to arm yourself for basics.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:19 AM on April 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

My take is that the best-tasting spice is the one that has not been sitting around for five years.

So I keep these around: Garam masala, Cajun seasoning (w/o MSG), Italian seasoning, garlic powder, curry powder, cayenne, salt and pepper.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:25 AM on April 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

If you like food from (say) India and there's somewhere near you where lots of Indian people live, it will be much cheaper to buy those spices from the locally owned grocery store in that area. They come in bigger packets instead of fiddly little jars. Cumin, coriander, cinnamon and garam masala are all staples that you can use in easy veg soup recipes as well as curry.
posted by quacks like a duck at 7:32 AM on April 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

From the grocery store:

Box or cardboard can:
Morton's Kosher or Diamond Crystal salt (flaky)
Tony Chachere's or Zatarain's Cajun seasoning (get the no-salt version if you want to control that part yourself)
Cavender's All-Purpose Greek Blend
Costco has this no-salt blend that I think is a better (and better value, and better texture) version of Trader Joe's 21-Seasoning Salute, both of which have dried lemon and tomato in them for the acidic punch you often miss in home cooking.

Note: I think all starter cooks (and many experienced ones) can get a lot of use from a few blends or "seasoning salts". You tend to use them as pre-seasoning, in marinades, as a little oomph, it doesn't need to be highly specific but a flavor profile is preferable to just salt and pepper.

Tall jar or rectangular metal can:
Black pepper
Onion powder or granulated (I prefer these granulated for the heft - powder can just poof into the air, but sometimes "powder" is clearly granulated in the jar so look at the texture not the name)
I also like dried minced onion, but it's not mandatory
Garlic powder or granulated
Cumin, ground
A mild chili powder (often "chili powder" with no (hot) indicator, that one will be nearby and you can get that too if you want)
Italian Seasoning (you can get the components if you want, I'm an experienced cook who hates thyme but even I use the mix)
Garam Masala

Short jar:
White pepper
Cinnamon (it goes stale really fast, don't get the tall jar)
Pumpkin Pie Spice
Poultry Seasoning (this has too much thyme in it for me, but it's a decent spice blend for poultry for most people)

That's going to get you 85-100% of the way to most weekday cooking. You can pick up the rest as you need it for specific recipes.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:34 AM on April 16, 2021

Echoing most above posters: if you don't cook much, buying a lot of herbs and spices now will not be useful. They will dry up and become tasteless. Most dried spices and herbs last about a year.
I'm thinking about your example of ground beef and broccoli. To me, that could go in several directions, and your job is to figure out what you like.
The first thing I thought of was Korean food, which I am not an expert in. Look at this recipe. For that you need soy sauce and Gochujang in your pantry. And some other delicious things that you are likely to use again, like garlic, and rice wine/sherry, and ginger. These are things I always have in my pantry.
Then I thought it might be a ragu for pasta. In that case you could want some chili (for a southern style ragu), and some oregano. Again, garlic will be helpful, though I might prefer a regular white wine.
Or it could be the base for a cottage pie. In that case, a bit of thyme and bay leaf would be good. And Worchester sauce.
For a Middle Eastern flavor, you will need cumin and perhaps some paprika in addition to the above.
Going east to India, you will at the very least need Garam Masala, turmeric, coriander seeds and mustard seeds.
Where I live, there is a recipe called millionbøf, (millions beef), which is just onions and beef, salt and pepper and one bay leaf. Served with mashed potatoes.

I usually advise young people to start with one or two food cultures, and build out from there.
Leaving spices and dried herbs to die is not economical, and you will learn more about how to build up flavor by starting with one or two traditions than trying to do all the world at once.

Good luck!
posted by mumimor at 7:44 AM on April 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

If your store carries Badia spices, usually in the spanish/international section, they are great and a fraction of the price of McCormick's. They will come in little cellophane packets not in nice little jars and their freshness, just like McCormick's, will depend on the store. There will be many spices they won't have but you can easily put together a useful starter kit.
posted by InkaLomax at 7:51 AM on April 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

Oh, Lyn Never has reminded me of some advice about spice blends. There are some very common spice blends that get used themselves a lot - "pumpkin pie spice" is one, and so is "poultry seasoning". Two absolutely classic French ones are "herbes de provence" and "fines herbes".

However, you can also DIY these yourself if you want - this can come in especially handy if you have a huge jar of thyme you're worried you'll use up in time or whatever. Or, if the only jar of Herbes de Provence you can find is from a company that uses lavender in it and you know you don't like lavender; there are versions of the Herbes de Provence "recipe" that don't use it, so you can just make up your own and leave the lavender out. Or, if you know that the only time you really use pumpkin pie spice is for Thanksgiving for one pie; instead of getting a whole jar of pumpkin pie spice and using one spoonful, and the rest goes bad, you can just look at a DIY Pumpkin Pie Spice recipe (there are SCORES online) and calculate that "okay, so half of that is cinnamon, 15% is ginger, 15% is nutmeg, and there's like 10% each of allspice and clove" and then just calculate how much of the individual spices you would need for the recipe you're doing.

The reverse is also true - if you notice that you have a set group of the same spices you tend to use for everything, then making up a big jar of the blend and just having it handy can save yourself some time (instead of doing the "one spoon of thyme, one spoon of rosemary, a half a spoon of sage" or whatever, you just dump two parts each of thyme and rosemary and one part sage into a big jar and you're good to go).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:52 AM on April 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

Another Penzey's fan here; in addition to the many great lists above, I find myself using a lot of pimentón/smoked paprika and powdered chipotle pepper.
posted by sriracha at 7:53 AM on April 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

Don’t knock spice blends! How to use them is right in the name! One you find what you like you can read what’s in the blend and go from there. Italian seasoning, poultry seasoning (a fave and I don’t eat poultry), Cajun seasoning, chili powder.

Also, if you’re using salt and pepper anyway, try things like garlic salt and lemon pepper. Easy ways to add flavor.
posted by kapers at 7:54 AM on April 16, 2021

Oh, and another tip about powdered spice blends in particular!

If you have a powdered spice blend that you are trying to use up, you can use it to season nuts. Get like a pound of roasted nuts - salted if your spice blend doesn't have salt in it, or unsalted if your spice blend does have salt (some do). Preheat your oven to about 400 degrees. Then melt a couple tablespoons of butter in a saucepan, dump in about 2-3 tablespoons of that powdered spice blend, and let that mix around in there for half a minute. Then pour the nuts into a roasting pan, drizzle the spiced butter over the nuts, and mix that up real good. Sling that in the oven and bake at 400 for about 15 minutes, stirring the nuts around once or twice during the cooking time.

I have used this method to make Indian-spiced cashews, Cajun-spiced peanuts, Steakhouse-spiked mixed nuts....even gingerbread-spiced nuts (you can add a little brown sugar into the mix too for sweet blends).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:59 AM on April 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

I kind of disagree with the spice aisle advice above, it's SO MUCH cheaper to go to a bulk store for spices so you can buy a few tablespoons of each spice/herb you want to try. Buy a few little jars from the dollar store and you're set for a fraction of the price of buying jars of herbs.
posted by Sweetchrysanthemum at 8:02 AM on April 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

Cumin, chili powder, cayenne, curry powder and bay leaves are my most used spices.

I prefer to grow basil, parsley, thyme, sage.

I also have cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg that I use quite often.

Spice blends are great too, ras el hanout, chinese five spice.

If I could only pick one it would be cumin. It features heavily in middle eastern, indian and Mexican foods. I go through jars of cumin so fast.
posted by pazazygeek at 8:02 AM on April 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

Is your goal to keep being a low-key, kinda improvisational cook, and just have slightly better results? If so, yes to spice blends. Pick one or two where the label says it goes well with the kinds of food you like to eat.

Is your goal to be able to cook recipes by-the-book, maybe on the way to getting more skilled or more planned/formal about your cooking? Then yes to lyn's list or skeleton's (the first 3/4 at least, I think the end gets a little more obscure) - and buy small jars as new recipes call for them, and see what you like that way.

Side comment: ingredient meal kits like blue apron are a good way to try out recipe-driven cooking, especially if your kitchen is pretty empty of basics.
posted by february at 8:07 AM on April 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Any thoughts on dollar store spices and seasonings in those plastic bags?
posted by kschang at 8:13 AM on April 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

There are spice racks at, e.g., Bed Bath and Beyond that come with herbs and spices. Generally pretty basic ones like thyme and paprika. We got one for our wedding. Some of the spices still haven't been opening 6.5 years later, and I'm a pretty good home cook. But there's your starter pack.

I don't actually use that many spices. Garlic powder, cayenne pepper, thyme, smoked paprika, onion powder, and that's really about it. Over time, as you realize what you like, you'll probably find yourself going back to the same few things over and over, especially if you're not particularly spicy.

I'm a big fan of spice blends, however, especially when you're just starting. I used to be really snobby and make my own taco seasoning from cayenne pepper and cumin and all this other stuff. But honestly, buying a package of Ortega or Old El Paso taco seasoning tastes the same, and it saves a bunch of time. I think a couple of blends are good to have on hand: taco, Cajun (Tony Chachere's - the low sodium kind), Italian seasoning, Greek (Cavender's), Montreal Steak. If you like Indian food, it's easy to find pre-mixed curry powder and garam masala. Chinese, five spice.

If you're looking to go deep into a specific cuisine, Serious Eats runs occasional features on "how to stock a _____ kitchen" that goes deep into ingredients, including spices. E.g., how to stock an Indonesian kitchen, how to stock a Jamaican kitchen.

I've had this idea for a while that I've never actually done, which is to purchase one new spice every week. It's not that much different than going to the grocery and buying one of everything, in terms of waste or cost. But the idea is that you could isolate the new flavor better. Just a thought.
posted by kevinbelt at 8:28 AM on April 16, 2021

I'm not sure about dollar stores spices in plastic bags, but our household saves a lot of money and gets good stuff by 1) buying Mexican spices at the grocery store in the little bags (always fresh in our area), 2) buying more specialty spices in plastic bags at the MIddle Eastern grocery store, and 3) filling in any gaps from the bulk spices at the co-op / natural foods store.

My mom also loves Penzeys and sometimes gives me fancy stuff from there, which is nice.

I think the glass and plastic bottles from the grocery store are probably the worst bet, in terms of price and freshness.
posted by See you tomorrow, saguaro at 8:31 AM on April 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

Any thoughts on dollar store spices and seasonings in those plastic bags?

....That you'd be getting what you paid for in terms of quality. If you're hoping to get small quantities for a lower price, trying to find a place that does spices in bulk is a better bet.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:33 AM on April 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

If your grocery store sells spices in bulk, buy them in bulk. They will be vastly cheaper that way—like 20¢ vs $5. Buy 2-4 tablespoons at a time. Get your own jars and label them or reuse old jars you have lying around (you can buy empty spice-jar sets on Amazon for about $1/jar).

As to what to get, it depends on what you'll cook, of course, but off the top of my head, the spices we use are turmeric, ground ginger, ancho, chipotle, cumin (seed), cumin (ground), mustard seed, garam masala, rosemary, thyme, tarragon, bay leaves, oregano, clove, sage, allspice, 5-spice blend, cinnamon, sesame seed, coriander seed, peppercorn
posted by adamrice at 8:39 AM on April 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

If you start to assemble your own collection, I bought this spice rack several years ago and it makes me happy to easily grab a spice jar organized alphabetically vs my previous experience of never being able to see which bottle is which in a shelf full of them.

I also bought glass jars at the container store so they'd all match and now i can just refill the spices via the bulk option at the grocery store mentioned above, instead of buying the specific spice brand containers. That also allows me to have fresher spices on hand as some of my main spices that make the rack still aren't used as frequently as others. When I bought the jars I bought all large sizes, but wish that I'd done about six to eight in the smaller size, so that I could double stack some of my lesser used spices in one slot on the rack.
posted by icaicaer at 8:39 AM on April 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

As folks say, it depends on the cuisines you like best and what you are likely to cook. That said here is my list of what I need to regularly replace because I actually use them up, as a frequent home cook but only for one or two people who makes a pretty wide variety of cuisines and does a lot of no-recipe improvisation:

Kosher salt and whole black peppercorns of course
Garlic powder
Onion powder
Sweet Hungarian paprika
Smoked Spanish paprika
Herbs de Provence
(The above spices are often what I put on potatoes or chicken in varying ratios for default tastiness before roasting)
Chile powder blend (this varies, it’s for mexican and Tex mex food so sometimes a hatch blend, sometimes mccormicks, sometimes something I got at the farmer’s market...)
Gochugaru (that’s Korean red chili powder, I keep it in the freezer)
Cinnamon (I often put this in savory dishes like tacos, chili, Indian-ish roasted veg)
Whole nutmeg (I only need one every few years, I grate it fresh on a micro plane into my dish)
Fennel seed
Sesame seeds
Do bonito flakes count as a spice?

As you can see it’s culturally all over the place and I have a drawer full of all sorts of things I didn’t list here that I should probably throw out because they are all very old. I also have a ton of condiments, those end up used more for the East Asian inspired things I make, it seems.

Probably the best thing to remember when cooking with spices is that they are usually oil soluble. That means to be able to really taste them and have them properly flavor a dish, you need to heat them up in some kind of fat. Typically that means making a space in your pan, putting a little extra oil or butter in that space, dropping in your spices and letting them toast for half a minute or so before stirring them into your food. Or, mixing the spices into oil before tossing that with what you’re roasting. Another technique is to toast spices in a separate dry pan before sprinkling them on finished food, this is good for sesame seeds and fennel seeds, other whole spices.
posted by Mizu at 8:40 AM on April 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

Dollar store: I'd compare it to eating a red delicious from the airport, vs a honeycrisp right off the tree. It's still an apple and it'll do the apple job. If it's what you have access to, go for it, it's definitely better than nothing. But there is a quality difference that you don't need a whole lot of perception to notice.
posted by february at 8:43 AM on April 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

You know I cook a fair bit but probably my only ESSENTIAL herbs/spices are smoked paprika, dried dill, and this extremely specific spice blend with stuff like fennel powder and orange peel in it. I own way more than this but if I had to start from scratch I’d start with those.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:11 AM on April 16, 2021

Everybody starts as a lousy cook, it's the starting and the continuing on that make the difference. Do you have any friends nearby who cook regularly, and who might have extra spices that they would be willing to offload to you? As a single person I am always aware that the spices I buy are likely to expire before I can use up the whole package, so when I can give some away, I'm glad. Some level of waste in early stages of cooking is kind of inevitable though, so I try not to feel bad about that either.
But another thing that might be helpful for you here as far as getting good useful answers would be to post, say, several dishes that you like to cook, along with several dishes that you would like to learn to cook, or cuisines that particularly interest you.
posted by notquitemaryann at 9:13 AM on April 16, 2021

I strongly recommend getting spices one at a time. That way, you get to "meet" the seasoning and absorb its qualities, and it will be fresher when you use it the first time.

However, I do keep a number of spices and herbs long term, but in my freezer to preserve their freshness.
posted by amtho at 9:30 AM on April 16, 2021

I agree with most of the rest that to start using spices, it's easiest to start cooking from recipes. Those recipes will call for certain herbs and spices. I'd shy away from most blends to begin with, mostly because recipes won't call for your particular blend, and then you don't end up using it.

That being said, I would start with an 'Italian seasoning' blend. This will have some combo of basil, oregano, thyme, marjoram, maybe fennel, maybe garlic. You can use this in place of the same amount of thyme called for in a recipe, or marjoram, for example. Use it in any vaguely Mediterranean-type of dish. Start with about a teaspoon and add from there. It's dried, so add it with some wet ingredients so it can re-hydrate a bit.

My other recommendations are: peppercorns with a grinder (if you're using pre-ground pepper, it's probably bland); garlic powder; onion powder; ground cumin. Maybe curry powder or garam masala if you like that flavor profile or chili powder if you prefer that; cinnamon and vanilla if you want to bake. Red pepper flakes are a great way to wake up a dish - they often send them when you order pizza. Hold onto them, and add them to the ground beef next time you make beef and broccoli. Add in some some garlic powder and onion powder, and maybe some italian seasoning, and you've improved the dish.
posted by hydra77 at 9:31 AM on April 16, 2021

Costco sells a spice carousel that comes with 20 spices supplied and free refills for 5 years for about 30 bucks (27 if on sale, 36 if not I believe) Pretty hard to beat that deal.
posted by jcworth at 9:43 AM on April 16, 2021 [4 favorites]

If you have access to Trader Joe’s, their spices are often much more affordable than the grocery store.
posted by bq at 10:13 AM on April 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

i really like the idea of incrementally building your collection. but a pantry has to begin with a basic selection. lots of good ideas for that in prev comments. i think no more than five to ten max would be a great start.

after some googling, this seems like a fine guide to an ongoing spice-learning adventure.
Harness the power of spices to take your dishes from simple to spectacular with 125 exciting recipes, plus find easy spice blends you can use many ways.

Spices: You probably have a cabinet full of them, but do you know how to make the most of them? Spiced opens up the world of possibility hidden in your own pantry, with six chapters, each of which shares a way to use spices to amp up the flavor of your cooking, along with foolproof recipes that put these simple techniques to work.
posted by j_curiouser at 10:14 AM on April 16, 2021

Any thoughts on dollar store spices and seasonings in those plastic bags?

Closeout / overstock groceries can sometimes be good, though you may also end up staring at a lot of weird blends that nobody wanted to buy. I've managed to get some decent turmeric and black peppercorns that way.

This previously covers similar ground, and I'd agree with a) buying as you go; b) starting with the herb/spice combinations of one or two regions; c) Badia over McCormick; d) Italian and poultry seasoning, smoked paprika, and maybe also Old Bay; e) speciality groceries for things like garam masala.
posted by holgate at 10:22 AM on April 16, 2021

Any thoughts on dollar store spices
In every town there will be one place where a LOT of people buy their spices, due to the high turnover they will be the freshest, best tasting spices. Your task is to figure out where, it might be a supermarket, it might be the local whole foods store or a small Chinese/Indian speciality store. One clue is that the prices per gram are likely to be low, regular spice buyers are a price sensitive lot.
posted by Lanark at 11:32 AM on April 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

Some of the seasonings in plastic bags, particularly the Mexican and South American ones in plastic with the sealed cardboard hangtag top, are absolutely fine and that's just the format that is common for them - it's expected you're refilling a container at home. I also shop at a Middle Eastern market with an entire wall of these and they turn over constantly, which is the most important thing and would be my concern at Dollar stores, as any spices there may have sat for a long time in a distribution center before then sitting on the dollar store shelf for who knows how long.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:41 AM on April 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

I think everyone's covered which ones are a good start for you, but given you are a Spice Noob (no offence intended), it might be worth looking at some simple guides on which to use with what, for example here's one on the most commonly used ones which might help?
posted by greenish at 1:03 PM on April 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

Dollar store spices. They're okay for basic stuff like seasoned salt, chili powder, garlic powder, red pepper. I'm probably a Philistine but I don't taste a major difference in some herbs & spices. Though pre-mixed curry powder is really, really a wild card and varies wildly. Italian seasoning is okay, oregano is the main ingredient, and it's not subtle, lasts okay.

But parsley, basil, cilantro are not great dry. It's really worth it to grow them in summer, and they're easy to grow. Make a bowl of fresh salsa with canned crushed tomatoes, chopped onion, lime juice, mild green chili peppers, jalapenos, fresh cilantro. It's just so delicious, you'll eat a lot, but it's healthy and makes up for the corn chips. Grow a pot of basil, many groceries carry it in the produce dept as a plant, I divide it and put it in pots, several stems to a pot, and when it's nice and bushy, make pesto with olive oil, pine (or pecan or walnut) nuts, olive oil, good parmesan (not in a shaker), and it's heavenly. Fresh parsley wakes up lots of pasta dishes.

A fried egg is a good carrier, test savory herbs and spices by sprinkling on an egg.
posted by theora55 at 4:34 PM on April 16, 2021 [4 favorites]

I neglected to mention rosemary. Get some rosemary, roast some potatoes with olive oil & rosemary. It has a strong, almost pine-y taste, but it's really good and really classic, will turn up a lot.
posted by theora55 at 4:36 PM on April 16, 2021

“cilantro [is] not great dry”

Cilantro isn’t good fresh, either. ;)
posted by kevinbelt at 4:38 PM on April 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

Sage anecdote: one day long ago I tipped a Sage shaker over a soup and the lid accidentally fell off (a meat & potatoes-style-soup). I scooped some of it out with a spoon, but wayy more went in than I'd expected. It actually ended up tasting pretty not-bad at all! Ever since then, I could use "plenty" of Sage in a savoury-style soup or stew.

Sage is a thing for hearty winter pots if that's part of your menu.
posted by ovvl at 5:36 PM on April 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'll just take the opportunity to vent about the bottles of the McCormick Organic line. The opening at the top is too small to admit a teaspoon. What were they thinking?
posted by SemiSalt at 6:06 PM on April 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

Echoing theora above when it comes to growing herbs fresh - but adding the caveat that this can be tricky if you don't have enough light. Herbs like a lot of light - I've got both eastern and western facing windows with deep windowsills, and I'm on the 4th floor and my apartment gets a lot of light, but for some herb plants I have, it still isn't quite enough. They grow, alright, but the thyme I have never gets quite as full and lush and the leaves never seem to be quite as big as the sprigs of thyme you can get fresh in grocery stores.

My rosemary plant, on the other hand, is growing like nuts. I've had that damn thing for about 15 years and it's still hanging in there, and kind of looks like a bonsai. I often have to hack big fistfulls of it off when it looks like the bottom branches are getting spindly or it threatens to take over my chair. I also just got a mint plant that is already looking like I may need to repot it already (after only two weeks!).

If you don't want to muck around with growing them, more and more grocery stores are starting to sell fresh herbs - but often you only need like half the huge bunch they have. Fortunately, a lot of fresh herbs can be frozen - just get an empty ice cube tray, chop the herbs up and stuff them into the cavities in the ice cube tray (really pack them in there) and add just enough water to each cavity to take up the excess space. Then freeze - and when they're frozen, just pop the cubes out, group each kind of herb cube into a baggie and leave 'em in your freezer. Each herb cube is like a couple tablespoons, and they're already chopped so they can be dropped directly into a soup or thawed out for about ten minutes before you stir them into whatever you're making. (Usually you need three times as much fresh herb as you do dried.)

Or you can make (and freeze) pesto. Everyone knows about the basil pesto, but you can make pesto out of any herb - mix up what kind of cheese or nut you use, if you like, but pesto is really just some kind of herb chopped up all to hell and mixed with some nuts and oil to make a thick paste. This is another good way to store fresh herbs long-term, and you can use them much the same way as the chopped fresh herbs - I needed fresh dill for a recipe recently, which I didn't have, but I DID have some cubes of frozen dill pesto and used a cube of that instead. Worked a treat.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:24 PM on April 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

Your profile lists San Francisco as your location. If that's current, I suggest Rainbow Grocery for spices in bulk.
posted by aws17576 at 9:07 PM on April 16, 2021

I got a fantastic spice education by watching videos on YouTube by Alex the French guy, a young engineer who is a hobby chef. He is young, funny, and charming but could easily be a professional if he chose to. The first four or five videos in that list are exactly what you want to watch, and I bet most people who responded to this question would get something good from them as well.
posted by seasparrow at 12:37 AM on April 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

Since Badia brand has been mentioned, I will state that according to my tastes, their "Southern Style Poultry Seasoning" is a dead easy way to create delicious chicken every time. Sprinkle on, sautee, perfection. (your mileage may, of course, vary)
posted by WaywardPlane at 5:10 AM on April 17, 2021

I’m going to keep it simple, since that seems to be what you’re after. Go to a grocery store, the main brands they carry are fine for what you’ll be doing.

Garlic powder
Onion powder
Chili pepper flakes
Italian seasoning
Herbs de Provence
If you specifically want to make Mexican food, add cumin and oregano.
If you want to try making Asian food, get some Chinese Five Spice powder and soy sauce.

This is a good starter set that will cover a lot of things. Later you may want to add other things, but that can be another question.
posted by MexicanYenta at 6:50 AM on April 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

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