Tip #2 – Find your spice staples

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Part of what allows me to have tasty food no matter what is that I have found what works for me spice-wise. Granted, I am always looking to add to my collection because you can never have enough herbs & spices. However, I’ve found a way to make sure I have the bare essentials while I work with my limited means. Combining these few things adds pizzazz to your meals no matter how simple they may be, and you’ll learn to find what works for you. Here are just a few of my absolute must-haves:

  • Sea salt
  • Garlic salt (I prefer Lawry’s over Schilling or Morton’s or McCormick because it has far more garlic, while the others use more salt)
  • Cumin
  • A good curry powder
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Black peppercorns & a grinder (ground pepper is fine but you’ll get a lot more flavor from freshly ground peppercorns)
  • Lemon pepper (I get the one from Trader Joe’s because it’s made with real lemon rind, sea salt, and black peppercorns. WAY better than the synthetic powdered stuff. And it comes in a handy li’l grinder!)
  • Oregano (when I’m really rollin’ in it, I make sure I have both Mediterranean and Mexican, as their flavors do vary)
  • Thyme
  • Rosemary
  • Red chili pepper flakes
  • Cinnamon (both ground and whole sticks)
  • Chinese Five Spice powder

Again, this is just the absolute bare-bones minimum that I ever have on hand. On a good day, I’ll also have:

  • Herbes de Provence (if you’re lucky, you can find some good blends at your local farmer’s market.  Or you can just make your own.)
  • Saffron (both ground and in threads)
  • Nutmeg
  • Allspice
  • Paprika (regular & smoked)
  • Coriander
  • Tarragon
  • Mustard seed
  • Dill
  • Fennel seed
  • Vanilla extract (and when I’m really lucky, whole vanilla beans)
  • Etc, etc, etc.

I also make sure to keep plenty of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and either white or red wine vinegar on hand. I am a big dressing maker and prefer to make it from scratch (though my dressing weakness, I will admit, is Wish Bone Italian), so it’s important to have these on hand. Good olive oil should always be in one’s pantry anyway because it’s used in many ways, from actually cooking to making dressings, aiolis, etc. Unfortunately, good olive oil is also worth a pretty penny, so I recommend heading to Trader Joe’s and getting one of their bottles of oil. A small bottle of their extra virgin olive oil will run about $5.99, an absolute steal compared to the $9-15 most grocery stores will charge. Trader Joe’s also carries other for cooking and for health, such as grape seed and flaxseed oils.

 Herbs and spices can be expensive if you go the prettily packaged, name-brand route. There are a couple ways to get around this. When it comes to herbs, I prefer buying them fresh at the farmer’s market then drying them on my own.

Spice-wise, instead of buying bottles and jars that can run from $4-7 each, head to the “Hispanic foods” aisle of your grocery store. There, you will find a ton of the same spices in little plastic packets for about $1-2 tops. They’re the same spices you’d find in a jar, sometimes fresher and of a better quality and larger quantity.

You’ll also find random stuff you might not usually find in a regular spice aisle, and for such tiny prices, you can afford to experiment with stuff you’ve never tried before. Don’t worry, most of these packages have the names of the spices in English as well, so you will know what you’re buying. Taking a trip to your local Latin American/Mexican food market will also uncover a whole new world of very inexpensive spices. Don’t have a place to store ‘em? If you’re really in a pinch, keep each opened package in it’s own little Ziploc bag. Otherwise, head to a thrift store and invest in some cute jars & bottles. You might even score a nice spice rack in the process!

Anyway, the whole point is: build your spice pantry. Salt and pepper are great, and ketchup is too; but if you want to eat more “gourmet” or “grown up meals”, start experimenting with herbs & spices. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at the new flavor combinations and will also be eating a wee bit healthier if you start substituting them for the standard salt or fatty/sugary condiments that line the store shelves. Simplicity can sometimes be your best friend when it comes to cooking.

What are some of your go-to herbs & spices?

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singer. writer. artist. champagne taste, 2 buck chuck budget. good cook. kooky. chocoholic. patron saint of cats. talker. listener. thinker. sometimes to a fault.

4 Responses to "Tip #2 – Find your spice staples"

  1. himtnc13 says:

    Love my cinnamon, ginger especially, greek seasoning blend and ground chipolte are also favorites. Recently got my spices out of the kitchen cabinet…over 2 shelves full, and put them on 3 spice racks which are hanging on one wall near my kitchen doorway. Since doing this, I found I use my spices more, and am able to be more creative. When they were in the cabinet I used to have them falling over, and never could find what I want. Now, I just look at the wall, and decide what “flavors” I want to use. Made my own spice labels from plain paper in a word doc, cut them out and secured them with glue. looks uniform and much easier to read.

  2. Ronnie Moye says:

    I have a cupboard full of various herbs and spices and am always adding more as a new recipe requires it.
    That being said, my go-to items are definitely garlic powder, onion powder (I prefer them to the “salt” versions as it’s all garlic/onion and no salt… I can then add salt to it as I please), fresh ground peppercorns and dried parsley. I add them to almost every dish I make, whether it’s to season my salmon as I pan-sear it (I can’t afford wild sockeye so I settle for the less tasty pink salmon and drench it in seasonings to add flavour), or added to olive oil, along with paprika to season home fries, or, added to bread crumbs (again, along with paprika) to season chicken tenders or white fish for home-made fish sticks, or added to tomato sauce and ground beef (along with turmeric and oregano) for home-made pasta sauce… the list goes on and on.

  3. Laura says:

    I use a ton of cilantro – I used to buy a tiny bunch for one dollar at my overpriced food store in center city Philadelphia, but recently I went to Rice and Spice, an Indian/Pakistani store in West Philly and bought about a quart of dried cilantro for $3. Even if I double the amount to make up for it not being fresh, it’s still way cheaper. (And now I get to run to West Philly for all my spice needs, combining savings and exercise!) I also use a lot of cayenne pepper, italian seasoning and extra basil.

  4. Mallyn says:

    My family is from the Deep South and we’re also Creole, so I cannot LIVE without creole seasoning. One of my easy meal staples that lasts for days is red beans and rice in a crock-pot (also a staple for soups, stews, etc) and that’s what gives the dish its kick. Another thing not listed here but that we use constantly are dried bay leaves. I’ll have to try the greek seasoning blend mentioned here since that’s mainly what I fix.


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