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When I was seven, I went to my best friend’s house for dinner and her mom served us boiled chicken and steamed broccoli. While it sort of looked like what I was used to having at home, it had absolutely no flavor at all—but I set to work eating it anyway because I didn’t want to be rude. I finished everything on my plate, said thank you, and I went home obsessing over why my mom’s chicken tasted so different. So I started watching her cook, trying to suss out exactly what her secret was.
Eventually, I noticed how she’d season dishes to taste. A hefty shake of garlic powder, fresh ground pepper, and salt—all without measuring. She’d taste the dish and adjust accordingly, letting me try it out and explaining what flavor was missing. And that’s how I learned to use spices when I was cooking.
As I’ve grown and experimented as an enthusiastic home chef, I’ve expanded my repertoire. Trusting more seasoned pros to teach me about how to pair different spices with different foods and trusting their judgment on measurements—sometimes to my detriment but most times with delicious results.
Properly seasoning a dish will be the difference between it being OK and outstanding. It never hurts to check recipe reviews either; even the best can get it wrong sometimes. It’s best to start by adding less. It’s harder to fix too much seasoning. Here are some of the best spices I like to have on hand:
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Garlic powder: I sprinkle this on pretty much everything. I also buy the dehydrated ground garlic that has no additives or fillers (game changer). If you’re local, Clements sells it in a big shaker. It’s great in soups, on meat, in sauces, curries, even in a stir-fry. It’s pretty challenging to find a dish that doesn’t benefit from a little garlic. If a recipe calls for roasted or sautéed fresh garlic, don’t sub in powder. You won’t get the same taste.
Salt: This might be the most important seasoning because it helps enhance flavor. In desserts a little bit of salt brings out the sweetness, and in savory dishes it helps enhance that umami flavor. While there are many kinds of salt here are the basics. Kosher salt is what you’ll use most often for your meals, but having table salt on hand for baking is smart too. It never hurts to have a flakey salt too for a finishing touch on certain meats or even desserts. If you want to learn more about why this spice is so important, pick up a copy of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking.
Fresh ground pepper: I think this adds a richer, fresher flavor and it makes sense since the pepper hasn’t been exposed to air. You end up with more flavor if you grind it fresh. Obviously, pre-ground pepper works too. It just lacks some of the spicy punch you might be looking for and you’ll end up using/needing more than if it was fresh ground.
Red pepper flakes: So versatile, they’ll add heat to any dish. I love that it crosses cultural divides as well, some of my favorite Italian recipes call for red pepper but so do some of my favorite Asian recipes.
Cinnamon: Always great to have on hand for baking, it seems to be the most called for ingredient in everything from breads to muffins. It adds warmth without being spicy, heat-wise.
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Curry powder: If you like Indian food you’ll want to keep this spice around, obviously it forms the base curries. The savory flavor curry imparts also makes it equally great to season soups, meat, or sauces.
Hungarian paprika: I feel like the Hungarian version has more of complexity to it than the regular. It also adds a gorgeous color and sometimes it’s a nice way to finish a dish. It tastes great with roasted veggies, potatoes, on meats, even in mac and cheese if I want to give it a little kick.
Rosemary: On chicken, meat, potatoes, or sauces, rosemary adds a savory flavor to anything it’s sprinkled on. I honestly get away with using dried a lot, but fresh rosemary is so fantastic too.
Onion powder: Sort of like garlic powder’s cousin, I end up using it in dressings, as a seasoning for burgers or meatloaf, or in soups. It has a more concentrated onion taste and it helps add that umami flavor.
Cumin: Tacos, tacos, tacos. It has a nice aromatic sort of nutty, earthy flavor. It tastes amazing with meat, which is why you’ll find it in almost any chili recipe. It’s also usually included in curry mixes as well.
Ground mustard: The acidic touch of this spice makes it a great component for rich, creamy sauces. I always season my mac n’ cheese with it. You can also use it for rubs or dressings.
Nutritional yeast: Sounds crazy but this health food store staple adds a cheesy flavor without the cheese. I sprinkle it on my salads, on my avocado toast, on roasted broccoli, or add it into butternut squash (or any other sweeter roasted veggie) soup.
Everything bagel seasoning: Exactly what it sounds like! Basically all the good spices off the top of an everything bagel. You can sprinkle it on your avocado toast, eggs, almost anything really. I swear it could make cardboard taste good.
Dried Spices & Seasonings
I usually use fresh, but any of the below dried work in a pinch. Just make sure you adjust the ratio. Dried spices are more potent so you’ll need less. Typically you need three times less if you’re swapping dried for fresh:
Thyme: Adds a savory, almost-cozy flavor to dishes. I notice I use thyme more in the fall/ winter. It’s perfect in stuffing, roast chicken (or any chicken for that matter), or on potatoes.
Parsley: Obviously potatoes, but it works in marinades, sauces, salads, and dressings. Again this is a real cooking genre crosser and it’s used a lot in Italian, Indian, and Middle Eastern food.
Dill: Pairs amazingly well with fish/ seafood. It is a game changer in the shrimp salad I make in the summer. I love the cool, tangy flavor it adds to sauces, dips and dressings too.
Sage: Just like thyme it does add savory flavor. I love sage in potatoes, sauces, and with different meats. It tastes amazing in stuffing too. It has a more distinct taste than thyme though. A little goes a long way.
A basic spice collection is like a magic trick for making dinner out of the pantry! I also love coriander (ground and seeds) to blend with cumin and paprika for chili and veggie stews. Cheers!