On Friday, I shared my list of essential foods that every Kitchen should stock. Today, I’m following up with my list of essential Herbs and Spices that every serious cook should have on hand. And I’ll also offer some tips on buying and storing them to help preserve their freshness and flavours…
Some dishes are what they are, not because of their lead protein or starch, but because of their signature flavours. Think Hungarian Goulash, Jerk Chicken, Chili, and India’s amazing Curries. Whole culinary traditions are thought of in terms of their signature flavours: Sezchuan, Hunan, Tex-Mex, Cajun… The list goes on and on.
So, let’s run down what I consider to be the essential flavourings every kitchen should stock.
Herbs are, essentially, the leaves, flowers or stems of plants. They’re rich in aromatic oils that can make your meals magical…
Parsely is, perhaps, the essential Herb. It’s used in a wide variety of dishes, as an earthy, woodsey flavour base.
Thyme is a compliment to almost any rich, savoury dish. And it’s best buddies with Parsley. Now a days, there are even variants of this Herb, like Lemon Thyme, which are fun to experiment with.
Sage is essential for poultry dishes. Its pungent perfume and bold flavour will forever be associated with Christmas Turkey Dinner, for me. It’s particularly good with game birds. A little goes a long way!
Rosemary is the d’Artagnan to the previous three Herbs’ Musketeers. All four are often used together to great effect. Whereas Sage is deep and earthy, Rosemary is piquant and flowery in flavour and aroma. It’s great with Lamb, savoury Beef Dishes and in Stews, in general. Again, a little goes a long way.
Oregano is the signature flavour of Italian and Greek cookery, It’s bright, flowery and insistent. And there’s nothing else like it.
Basil has a rich, almost sweet flavour and is almost always found in company with Oregano in Italian dishes.
Bay Leaf is often called for as a base for savoury Soups and Stews. It has a rich, full, earthy flavour. Most cooks prefer to use the whole leaf and remove it before serving.
Tarragon has a light, flowery flavour. It’s great with Fish and Poultry when you want a light, gentle flavour, not a deep, bold savoury one.
Spices are the dried berries, seeds, bark or roots of plants. Often sold ground, sometimes available whole. I prefer the whole versions, because there’s nothing like freshly ground spice.
Cinnamon is used in Asian cookery as well as in western baking. It’s a pungent signature flavour. Comes in both whole pieces of curled, dried Bark or ground. As the dried bark of a tree, it is unique among the Spices.
Ginger has a pungent, almost Peppery flavour often used in combination with Cinnamon in the west, but widely used on its own in Asian cuisine. It’s the dried root of a shrub, and can be bought in most supermarkets’ produce departments whole and fresh, ready for grating or slicing, as needed.
Nutmeg is an almost sweet flavour. The nut of a tree, it is often found in the company of the two foregoing Spices in western cookery. You can get whole Nutmegs at some specialty shops, but most folks buy the ground variety.
Cloves is unique among the spices, in as much as its flavour is almost medicinal. I’d put it in the same category as Licorice. A little goes a long way. Cloves is the d’Artagnan of the Spices, opposite the three Spices above.
The four spices above are used predominantly in baking, in the west, but appear in a wide variety of dishes in the east.
Mustard comes in a variety of colours which offer a variety of shades of flavour. But all are piquant, almost peppery. The dried berry of a bush, Yellow Mustard is the basis of ‘prepared’ Mustard, which also incorporates vinegar, water, lemon juice, wine, or other liquids. Some prepared Mustards include small amounts of other flavours. A little goes a long way. It’s a perennial favourite as a condiment in prepared form, and it’s also used in many recipes to add a little kick to the overall flavour top note. I maintain that you can’t make Deviled Eggs without it.
Turmeric has lately been found to be valuable as a heart health aid and an anti-cancer agent. That’s because of its chief active ingredient, curcumin, which has been getting pretty close inspection by researchers. Curcumin also gives Turmeric its signature flavour. It’s commonly used in Asian cookery. In fact, it’s what makes Yellow Curry yellow!
Chili Pepper is well known to almost all of the word’s cooks, and every region has its own traditions for using it. It’s hot and, of course, peppery. The heat is contributed by Chili’s principle active ingredient, capsaicin. Chilis are available whole and fresh, now, since Asian and Tex-Mex cooking became popular. It’s also available ground, as flakes, a form you often see in Italian recipes. Some restos even place a shaker of Red Chili Flakes on your table.. There are as many varieties of Chili as there are cusines that use it. Chilis come in a variety of flavours – all hot – and a variety of strengths, from relatively mild Japapeños to potentially harmful volcanic-hot Carolina Reapers. Chili has, in the new century, almost become a cult.
The next two spices are essential to Asian, Mediterranean, Tex-Mex and other cookery. They’re often found listed alongside Chili in prepared Chili Powder blends. You can consider them optional, if you don’t make any Asian, Med or Tex-Mex dishes. But they are essential if you do…
Cumin is pungent and, like Rosemary, has a flowery flavour with a hint of evergreen.
Coriander is a nice complement to Cumin, with a deeper, more savoury flavour.
Buying and storing Herbs and Spices
I buy mine at the Bulk Store. Their prices are super low compared to the little bottles at the supermarket. You can check on the freshness and pungency of your herbs at the Bulk Store, whereas the little bottles are sealed. And who knows how long they’ve been sitting there.
Herbs and Spices get their flavours from compounds that will oxidize if left open to air, so you need a means of keeping the air away from them.
When I get home from the store, I transfer my Herbs and Spices from the little bags they offer you to 500 ml (half-litre) sealer jars. They’re available, for about a dollar apiece, at the hardware store and most supermarkets during canning season. Sealer jars have great screw-on lids, which seal up air-tight with a rubber ring. If anything happens to the lids, you can get replacements where you got the jars. Sealer jars are great for keeping Herbs and Spices Fresh.
I have about fifty sealer jars in use in my Herb and Spice cupboard at any given time. But I love to experiment with other cultures’ cusines and to dream up my own recipes. I need all that. You don’t. But you should have on hand the Herbs and Spices I’ve listed above so you can make the most popular dishes we all enjoy whenever the spirit moves you.
~ Maggie J.