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