What Herbs and Spices Should You Have?

Part of Herb Garden
From top, clockwise:
Rosemary, Sage, Thyme, Lavender, Chives
Oregano is hidden behind the sage

The Spice Drawer

Fresh Herbs You Ought to Grow and Use Regularly

Thyme – a workhorse across many cuisines. Very easy to grow.
Basil – summer herb, can be grown indoors in pots.
Rosemary – strong contributor to many cuisines. Very easy to grow.
Bay Leaf – a small tree, more powerful fresh. Can be potted to retard size.
Chives – a wonderful, gentle taste. Purple chive flowers are edible.
Mint – grows like a week. Many varieties with differing taste.
Oregano – least appreciated fresh herb. Unique. Easy to grow.
Sage – grows easily, beautiful purple flowers in spring. Several varieties.
Tarragon – tender, difficult to grow, but worth it. Awesome fresh herb.

Dry Versions of Herbs You Should Stock – just in case

Bay Leaves
Tarragon – especially important because the fresh plant is so delicate

Dried Spices and Herbs You Should Have On Hand At All Times

The list below is in priority order based on importance to good and interesting cooking.

Kosher Salt
Whole Black Pepper
Ground Cumin – it's surprising how versatile a little cumin is.
Whole Fennel Seeds – a truly secret ingredient, with a familiar taste
Whole Coriander Seeds – my super-secret ingredient – surprising bright citrus taste
Cayenne Pepper
Dried Red Pepper Flakes
Paprika – Hungarian, of course
Chile Powder – a few variations (like ancho) or home-ground are good additions too
Fresh Vanilla Bean – really no substitute
Cinnamon, ground
Cinnamon, sticks
Nutmeg and metal grinder - not pre-ground
Chinese 5-Spice Powder – Unique blend, store-bought is OK. Homemade better.
Dill – not a big fan, as it's overused in most home cooking

Spices and dried herbs for Advanced Cooking or Exotic Dishes

Again in somewhat priority order based on frequency of use

Whole Yellow Mustard Seeds
Smoked Paprika – Pimenton (Sweet, Bitter and Hot versions)
Sichuan Peppercorns
Ground Coriander
Marjoram – oregano is easily substituted
Whole Allspice Berries
Turmeric – adds bright yellow color and a little unique flavor
Saffron – most expensive spice in the world. No flavor substitute.
Curry - you can make your own blend which is better than store-bought
Star Anise
Whole Cloves
Ground Cloves (very small portion – buy a small amount from a bulk seller)
Dried Yellow Mustard
Cardamom Pods
Pickling Spices – you can assemble your own blend from other spices
Poppy Seeds
Caraway Seed
Ground Ginger (not a substitute for fresh ginger) – mostly for desserts/cakes

Spices You Should Never (or Rarely) Use:

Onion Powder – use an onion. PLEASE.
Garlic Powder – use real garlic. PLEASE.
Onion Flakes / Dried Onion
Garlic Flakes / Dried Garlic
Dried Parsley – use fresh, or skip it.
Dried Chives – use chives, which can also be cut and frozen

A Couple Other Staples That Live in My Spice Drawer

Vanilla Extract
Almond Extract
Sesame Seeds – buy in Asian markets for best deal, or Asian section of grocery
Black Sesame Seeds – Use almost interchangeably with tan sesame seeds
Instant Coffee (Italian) – occasionally used for tortes, flourless cakes, etc.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Ken posted a comment asking how long he could reasonably keep spices in a cool, dry place.

    The answer - it depends on how old they were when you put them on the shelf in the first place.

    If they came from a grocery store, major market brand, they're probably pretty old.

    If you buy a high end brand (like Morton and Bassett or Penzey's) or have access to bulk spices, they can last a year or slightly longer.

    Uncommonly used spices, say, cardamom pods, will lose intensity over time. But maybe, since they might be a new taste to some eaters, this waning of taste will help introduce people to new flavors with a little less shock to the palate.



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