Ten Ingredients You Absolutely, Positively, Must Have on Your Spice Rack

Today Simple Bites is honored to welcome spice enthusiast extraordinaire Lydia Walshin from The Perfect Pantry. After hearing about our Spices 101 series, she readily agreed to guest post and we are most fortunate to have her share her wealth of knowledge with us.

Welcome, Lydia!

My first kitchen, the one in the third-floor walk-up apartment I moved into post-college, had no pantry. No cupboards, no shelves, just a bit of a ledge behind the stove where I lined up a few essentials (not a great idea, but I didn’t realize back then that I was shortening the life span of my oils and spices by bathing them in stove heat).

I didn’t know much about cooking, so I didn’t need much in the way of herbs and spices. I’m sure I had salt and pepper and cinnamon, and maybe Hungarian paprika because my mother always seemed to sprinkle it on fish. I probably had oregano, which I knew to use in spaghetti sauce, and most likely I had garlic powder, for the same reason.

That was then.

Today, though I have more than 60 spices on my spice rack, I know exactly what I’d want on that little ledge behind the stove in my first kitchen, if that’s all the space I had for my herbs and spices.

Photo by Lydia

Lydia’s top ten spice rack essentials

1.   Kosher salt

My go-to, for everything including baking. It’s inexpensive and readily available in every market. Salt draws maximum flavor out of every other spice. It makes mild tastes pop in your mouth, and even brings out the chocolate flavor in chocolate.

2.    Black pepper

I actually use far more black pepper than salt in my cooking; I buy Tellicherry pepper pre-ground (heresy, I know!) from The Spice House in Chicago, which grinds it fresh every week, and I also keep whole Sarawak peppercorns in a grinder. I love to experiment with different types of pepper. Though the typical proportion is one-half pepper to one salt, I tend to use equal amounts of the two in my cooking.

3.    Curry powder

A blend – okay, a convenience food – that comes in sweet or hot varieties. Because curry powder can contain more than a dozen spices, the pre-mixed powder available at the grocery store saves lots of space on the spice rack. If you can, buy from a local Indian market; if not, buy the Madras powder that comes in a tin, in the spice section of every supermarket.

4.    Chili powder

Same as curry powder, a convenient blend that replaces many individual jars on the spice rack. Don’t confuse this with ground chile peppers; chili powder usually contains chile peppers plus cumin, coriander, oregano, and many other spices.

5.    Ground cumin or cumin seed

Fundamental to many cuisines (Mexican, Indian, Caribbean, North African), I can’t imagine cooking without it.

6.    Cinnamon

Not just for baking, where it is an indispensable companion to apples and pears, but also for savory dishes like meatloaf, tagines and stews.

7.    Thyme

My personal favorite of the green herbs, I love thyme with eggs and potatoes. Buy it in leaf form, rather than ground, so you’re sure of what you’re getting.

Photo by Lydia

8.    Ground ginger

As with cinnamon, not just for baking.

9.    Cayenne pepper

Or a smoky pepper, Spanish paprika – sweet or hot — OR ancho chile powder. I love heat, so I can’t envision a spice rack without hot pepper.

10.    Arrowroot

Surprised? I thought so. A thickener that doesn’t turn your sauces cloudy, arrowroot substitutes for cornstarch in my kitchen. It’s neither herb nor spice, but a small jar sits on my spice rack at all times, ready to add a bit of oomph to stir-fries and stews.

Editor’s Note

Thank you, Lydia! I thought I might score ten out of ten on this quiz, but you got me on the last one! I’ll definitely be sourcing some arrowroot and incorporating it into my cooking. I’m particularly interested in your arrowroot cookie recipes.

Readers, for further information on any of these ingredients and recipes that utilize them, visit The Perfect Pantry and type in ingredient in the Lijit search bar. Prepare to be inspired!

People’s spice racks can be as interesting and varied as their book shelves. What’s on yours?

About Lydia

In her log house kitchen in rural northwest Rhode Island, Lydia Walshin writes about food, teaches cooking classes, and runs a nonprofit organization. On her blog The Perfect Pantry, she shares her favorite ingredients, stories, sources and, of course, recipes.

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  1. What’s the difference between arrowroot and Therm Flo?
    .-= Jennifer Jo’s last blog: Something strange =-.

  2. This has been such a great series, both informative and fun; thanks so much for inviting me to add my thoughts about my spice rack.

  3. Jennifer, I had to go look this one up. Therm Flow (I’d never heard of it before) is an Amish thickener. I don’t know more than that, so I hope other readers can answer your question. I learn something new every day on Simple Bites!
    .-= Lydia (The Perfect Pantry)’s last blog: Other People’s Pantries #118 =-.

  4. I have everything on the list but the arrowroot. I will have to try that. Thanks for all the great information in this series.
    .-= Rana’s last blog: Wordless Wednesday =-.

  5. Lydia, I use Therm Flo all the time (and I’m not Amish either, just Mennonite). It thickens things beautifully, without the watery separation that often occurs with cornstarch. I just don’t know how it compares to arrowroot. I can look it up, too, so no worries. I just thought you might know…
    .-= Jennifer Jo’s last blog: Something strange =-.

  6. And here I thought I had nearly every spice imagineable (or close to it) – arrowroot is new to me too! The only time I’ve seen it is in baby teething biscuits. Now I want to learn more.
    .-= Kathy – Panini Happy’s last blog: The 2nd Annual Grilled Cheese Pageant =-.

  7. How interesting. I use 5 of the items on your list, but the other 5 I don’t recall ever putting in a family recipe. Just goes to show how varied people are!

  8. Great list! I heartily agree and use all 10 (well except for kosher salt). I love arrowroot, which comes from a root vegetable and is a nice alternative to GMO cornstarch.

  9. No basil or oregano? I still fully use them in dried form.
    I also like my caraway seeds, fennel, and Spanish paprika.
    .-= Cheryl Arkison’s last blog: Interweb Adventures =-.

  10. Cheryl, I don’t use dried basil (spoiled by having a large herb garden!) and only rarely use dried oregano, though I do have it on my spice rack all the time. But if I had to cook with only 10 herbs and spices, oregano wouldn’t be on the list. And I do love Spanish paprika; I have all three “strengths” on my spice rack.
    .-= Lydia (The Perfect Pantry)’s last blog: Other People’s Pantries #118 =-.

  11. Kathy, I’ve done posts about arrowroot on The Perfect Pantry. It’s definitely my thickener of choice, and just happens to reside on my spice rack, which is how it managed to get on this list!
    .-= Lydia (The Perfect Pantry)’s last blog: Other People’s Pantries #118 =-.

  12. I’m 10 for 10! We use arrowroot sometimes as an alternative to flour in thickening, since we’re gluten-free, or as an ingredient in certain GF baked goods. But I would have to add oregano – we use it all the time as our go-to herb for meats. Yum!
    .-= Katie ~ Simple Organic’s last blog: How To: Repurpose, Reuse, Refinish Furniture =-.

  13. I love and use all of the spices listed, except Arrowroot. I’m familiar with the name, but wasn’t sure how it was used. Now I know, so thanks! Like Cheryl, I would definitely have oregano on my list, and I also love zatar (za’tar?) and tarragon…oh, and nutmeg too!
    .-= Jan (Family Bites)’s last blog: The Family Road Trip (and our favourite sandwich recipe) =-.

  14. I have Arrowroot, but I can’t remember why I bought it! I remember having some Arrowroot cookies that were so good – I’ll have to try your recipe.

    I live down the street from The Spice House and I spend way too much time there!
    .-= Claire’s last blog: What is Your Playground Personality? =-.

  15. Yay! We have all of those spices in our spice cabinet 🙂

    Before I started living a Primal lifestyle I never added spices to any of my food. It is amazing that when you sincerely make a change you really make a change and do a lot of different things! I rarely eat without adding spices nowadays.

  16. Like most, I have all but the arrowroot. I don’t think it is a must-have in my kitchen, but it is nice to know that it is around and its purpose. Great post!!

  17. I am with Cheryl. I cannot live without Basil and Oregano.

  18. great list! i often use arrowroot instead of cornstarch, but i think it should be noted that it doesn’t mix well with dairy. it does freeze well, however. and, like most spices, it’s far cheaper if you buy it in bulk.

  19. Like others, I had 9 out of 10 spices (arrowroot was the missing link). I had sent a link to a GF who is gluten-intolerant who laughed and said Arrowroot is a staple in gluten free cooking. I can’t wait to try it out. Thanks everyone who contributed to the article. I always learn so much here.

  20. Thanks to all for your great comments. I’m betting you all have more than 10 things on your spice racks. You can check the list of everything on mine, on my blog.
    .-= Lydia (The Perfect Pantry)’s last blog: Szechuan peppercorns (Recipe: spicy green beans with ginger and garlic) =-.

  21. Growing up, my mom’s spice rack was mostly herbs, so that’s what I bought when we got married. I remember when I added cumin and curry powder for the first time – it felt so “exotic” – and now they are my favorites.

    I’m curious, do you only use Kosher salt, or do you keep the boring stuff in the shaker around, too?
    .-= Alissa’s last blog: Oreos =-.

  22. Alissa, I use kosher salt for both cooking and baking. I live in a part of the country where there is no iodine deficiency, but for those who live in areas where there is not iodine in the water, I would recommend using iodized table salt. I don’t love the taste of it; I think kosher salt has a clean taste. I strongly recommend Diamond Crystal, which has a different structure than Morton’s.
    .-= Lydia (The Perfect Pantry)’s last blog: Szechuan peppercorns (Recipe: spicy green beans with ginger and garlic) =-.

  23. Miss Brown Eyes says

    10 for 10 on the spice rack. 2 for 10 for actual use — black pepper and cinnamon (in baking only). The rest have been sitting on the spice rack for 20 years and never touched.

  24. Swap the thyme for a mix of parsley, oregano and basil from my garden ground and smushed into a bottle and you have described my spice rack!
    I love to blend spices and make my own Masala Garam for curries and a Sri Lankan spice for salads and stews.
    Though recently I discovered Spice Blends from http://www.madewithlove.ca and now everyone comments on how great a cook I am!
    .-= Krystal’s last blog: Dreaming a Life =-.

  25. I WIN!! Have them all on hand 🙂

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