Essential Herbs and Spices

Many cookbooks include a laundry list of essential pantry items, cooking tools, and so on. In my experience most are fine, though they tend to be overly inclusive. For many cooks the process of stocking a kitchen full of pots, pans and tools encompasses several or many years. Pantry and spice drawer selections and priorities are definitely the result of several years of trial, error and experience.

So what advice to give a new, enthusiastic cook who is starting from scratch? In these posts I'll share my preferences and recommendations for provisioning a new kitchen. I break it down to three major categories:
  • Herbs and Spices
  • Pots, Pans and Tools
  • Pantry and Crisper
Later, for more intermediate and advanced provisioning, we'll cover exotic staples (for example walnut oil, crystallized ginger) and specialty pans and cooking tools (e.g., crepe pans, olive pitters, the chinois) and specialty ingredients. Before we get to the items themselves, you'll also want to consider what is already on your shelves and in your drawers. If you have herbs and spices that are more than a year old - throw them out. If you already have some of the pots, pans or tools that I list, but they are many years old, inexpensive or worn out - keep them for now, but make plans to replace them in time. In each section I'll provide a rationale and recommendations on how to select high quality provisions and tools.


I. Everyday Necessities

  • Thyme*
  • Rosemary*
  • Dill
  • Oregano
  • Cumin
  • Basil***
  • Bay Leaf
  • Tarragon
  • Herbs de Provence
  • Chili Powder
  • Cinnamon
  • Nutmeg
  • Paprika
  • Sesame Seed
  • Cayenne Pepper
  • Whole Black Peppercorns
  • Red Pepper Flakes
  • Kosher Salt
  • Sea Salt

II. Other common herbs & spices

  • Sage
  • Coriander Seed (whole)
  • Fennel Seed
  • Marjoram
  • Curry Powder
  • Chinese 5 Spice Powder
  • Turmeric
  • Black Sesame Seed
  • Saffron
  • Mustard Seed
  • Allspice (whole and ground)

The strategy for buying herbs and spices is to find a high quality brand and buy in relatively small quantities. For the past few years I've liked the Morton and Bassett brand, but also have had positive results with Frontier. Spice Island is widely distributed and is a good second tier choice, but not if the others are available. I avoid truly mass-market brands like McCormack's, as it is generally believed that their products are often years old when on supermarket shelves.

In an earlier time and a more cosmopolitan place, I used to buy all my herbs and spices in bulk at gourmet or other specialty stores. I bought a couple dozen glass jars and hand wrote an initial or two indicating the spice on plastic screw top lids. This is a very cost efficient method, but there are few of these stores left. You might find some items in the bulk section of high end groceries, but you'll have to judge quality and freshness carefully.

The asterisk * indicates that it is nearly always better to use fresh versions of these herbs rather than dried. Though most recipes don't call for fresh herbs, they will be improved by using fresh. A general rule of thumb is to use 2 to 3 times by volume of fresh than dried. Exceptions would be sage and maybe oregano - but there herbs are not in the asterisked category of "definitely" substitute.

Basil *** is a special case. Fresh basil is one of the most fundamental herbs used in cuisines from Italian to Asian. It stands well nearly alone (slices of fresh mozzarella, tomato and olive oil), as a seasoning (in tomato sauce or pesto), or as an edible garnish or finishing flavor (strips tossed over past or meats). However, dried and fresh basil are not always interchangeable. Generally if a recipe calls for fresh basil, you are going to need fresh basil. If it calls for dried, you can substitute, though it isn't always recommended. In my herbed feta cheese dip, I would never use fresh basil, nor would i use it in the sauce for osso buco. Most of the time you can use fresh in place of dried. But I also don't particularly care for dried basil - to me it's a bit of a red flag indicating a questionable recipe, especially if it is one of the predominant seasonings.

A couple other notes:
  • Herbs de Provence can be assembled by mixing basil, rosemary, oregano and a few other herbs; already mixed versions tend to include lavender seeds and other minor amounts of ingredients I tend not to keep on hand. Plus, if it's a good mix the proportions will be the same in every bottle, which may not be true of home made.
  • Curry is awesome if made from scratch, and will have a pretty long shelf life. However, it also requires a number of unusual products that won't be used too often - I'm thinking of a jar of cardamom pods that has been barely tapped into. So I recommend, making your own curry sometime, but not as a primary way of keeping it in your spice drawer. Oh - also - some brands of curry powder are simply awful. Find one you like and stick with it.
  • Kosher salt can be used for nearly everything but baking. I find it more flavorful, easier to control saltiness, and overall improvement over table salt. A basic sea salt has some of these same characteristics, only more so. But cannot be substituted as easily as Kosher can be for table salt. Specialty sea salts - well, that's as much a budget consideration as a flavor one to me - but I've not plunged into many varieties.
  • Bay leaf grows will as a potted plant or outdoor tree. Fresh bay flavor is generally a little stronger, but can be used interchangeably with dried.
III. Your Herb Garden

Having read the prior comments on fresh herbs, here are my recommendations for an herb garden. All of these are easy to grow, several are perennial in the south, and sometimes even the north. I'd like to grow even more, but this selection already goes a long way and only required twice a year maintenance. A good sunny plot is all you need, very little water, definitely less than what lawn gets. Some, like thyme and oregano can be used as decorative ground cover, and I"ve seen them used in front yards I've grown plants from seed, but tend to just buy a couple pots of what needs replenishing in the spring to get a faster start. They tend to run only about $2 per pot anyway - less than the cost of one package of fresh herbs in the grocery.
  • Thyme - my favorite fresh herb
  • Oregano - not called for fresh in many recipes, but a wonderful flavor that differs substantially from dried. Will take over garden over time, so needs annual thinning (but not as aggressive as mint)
  • Sage - fuzzy leaves in an aqua/green shade. Also would like more recipes that use fresh sage
  • Basil - the backbone of the summer herb garden. Volunteers from prior year will be hardier than new plants.
  • Lavender - I grow it but have not used it for cooking that I can recall. Makes a nice addition to the garden, thought.
  • Chives - in garden and in pots. Would like to get these plants to be more prolific, as I seem to cut about 1/3 of my plant to get 2-3 T. Garlic chives and scallions are sometimes sold as plain chive. You'll want the delicate thin stalks for sure. The other varieties are useful, but do not have the delicate flavor of the classic chive.
  • Rosemary - after reaching maturity (thick, woody central stalk) will need to be thinned every couple yearsMint - in pots, since it will take over a garden in a matter of a 3-4 months. Many, many varieties and flavors.
  • Parsley - in large pots to grow full plants. Need to protect them from caterpillars, which can eat an entire mature plant in a day and a half. Grow both flat leaf and curly.
  • Cilanto - dried cilantro is not ever a reasonable substitute for fresh. Fortunately this is usually inexpensive and plentiful in the grocery store. In fact, Cilantro is a core herb in cuisines from Europe and the Middle East to Asia.
Cilantro and parsley do require daily watering in the south - so we grow them in pots and water them along with our flowers.

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