The essential herbs and spices every kitchen needs
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Variety is the spice of life – and spices give variety to our cooking. Herbs and spices are a great way of adding flavour and aroma to dishes. They’re also a healthy alternative to loading up on salt or adding ready-made sauces to make your food taste better.
If you’ve been browsing the spices at your local supermarket, you’ve probably already realised that there is a lot of choice. Don’t worry – you don’t need to buy every single spice on the shelf. Start with the basics and build your way from there. To help, we’ve put together a guide of the essential herbs and spices that every kitchen needs.
While fresh garlic is our preferred ingredient, garlic powder is the next best thing. We all know what it’s like peeling and chopping up garlic – sometimes we just want a quick pinch that we can just chuck into a dish on a busy night. As well as its health benefits like lowering cholesterol and blocking the growth of cancer cells, garlic powder adds a burst of flavour to pretty much anything savoury. You can also use it in rubs, marinades and dressings. There is also the option of garlic salt, which is just garlic powder with added salt.
Like garlic powder, onion powder is a handy ingredient to have when you don’t feel like peeling and chopping onions. It’s essentially just ground, dehydrated onion so it packs all the same health benefits as a fresh onion would, as well as keeping its pungency. Use it how you would use whole onions – in stews, soups, pastas, meat dishes, rubs and dressings. Like garlic salt, you can also get onion salt for a two-in-one combination.
Cumin seeds come from a flowering plant native to the area from the Middle East to India, and is commonly used in Latin American, Middle Eastern, African and Indian cuisines.
The spice comes in two forms: whole dried seeds or ground powder. Which one you use totally depends on how much effort you’re willing to put in. The best way to use whole cumin seeds is to dry roast them in a pan to release the flavours. Ground cumin is the more traditional form of the spice, and is much easier to use as you can just throw in as much needed. Cumin has a warm, earthy flavour and aroma with slight hints of sweetness and bitterness. Add it to stews, soups, curries, gravies, pickles and meat rubs and seasonings.
Another great savoury spice is ground turmeric. This spice comes from the ground up rhizome (underground stem) of the turmeric plant, a flowering plant of the ginger family. Turmeric is a great anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, and has the potential to prevent diseases like Alzheimer’s, cancer and heart disease. As well as having multiple health benefits, turmeric is also a fantastic spice to have in the cupboard. It has an earthy, musky, warm and slightly peppery taste. It’s a very versatile spice, and is used to flavour and colour everything from curries and meat dishes, to smoothies and lattes.
Also from the ginger family is ginger itself. Ground ginger (sometimes labelled as powdered ginger) is made by drying, peeling and grinding fresh ginger root. Ginger adds a refreshing zest to dishes, with its citrusy, earthy and warming flavours. It’s also packed with plenty of health benefits, including aiding digestion and blood circulation. Ginger is an essential spice as you can use it in a wide variety of dishes. As well as savoury dishes like curries, soups, stews and meat and seafood dishes, you can also use ginger in desserts and baked goods like gingerbread, cookies, puddings and cakes. Ginger also works really well in drinks like teas, smoothies and fresh-pressed juices.
Cinnamon is a must-have in your spice cabinet. This delicious, aromatic spice should be familiar to anyone with a sweet tooth, as it’s a commonly used ingredient in baked goods like muffins, cookies, cakes and breads, as well as drinks like coffee and hot chocolate. But cinnamon can also be used in savoury dishes, as it lends a warm, earthy flavour to curries, chillies, stews and rice. You can use cinnamon sticks if you’re looking for a subtle flavour, but ground cinnamon is a lot more potent, and will impart a stronger, more pungent flavour. It’s worth noting that there are two main types of cinnamon – cassia cinnamon and Ceylon cinnamon. Cassia cinnamon is the most commonly consumed type, and has an intense flavour. On the other hand, Ceylon cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka and is considered ‘true cinnamon’. It has a mild delicate taste and tends to be a little more expensive than cassia.
Paprika is another must-have. In its simplest form, paprika is made from ground bell peppers. It has a fruity, slightly sweet flavour and makes a wonderful addition to a whole range of dishes, from seafood to red meat to vegetables. It doesn’t have much heat, which makes it a great garnish. There are different kinds of paprika. Sweet paprika (usually just labelled as paprika) doesn’t have much heat and has a sweet, peppery taste. Hot paprika is the Hungarian variety and adds a spicy kick to dishes. There’s also smoked paprika, often called pimenton or Spanish paprika. The peppers are wood-smoked and dried before being ground, adding a lovely rich, smoky flavour.
If you’re a fan of spicy food, you’re going to want cayenne pepper in your spice rack. This chilli pepper is a type of Capsicum annuum, and is closely related to bell peppers and jalapenos. Often used in Indian, Cajun and Southern dishes, this fiery chilli powder adds a kick to any dish, and a little goes a long way. If you don’t want to overpower your cooking, you can use chilli powder instead, which is much further down the heat scale. There are plenty of other chilli alternatives out there, many of which are named after the region from which they hail, including Kashmiri chilli powder, Aleppo pepper and Ancho chilli powder.
Black peppercorn is an essential for every kitchen and dining table. Black peppercorns have much more flavour than ground pepper, and will give the right kick to basically any dish. Peppercorns are actually tiny fruits which grow on a vine called Piper Nigrum. Black isn’t the only variety – there are also white, pink, green and red peppercorns. Some are also named after the places where they are cultivated, for example Lampong pepper and Muntok pepper which come from Indonesia. Want to know more about peppercorns? Take a look at our post here.
If you’re a fan of Italian or French cuisine, then basil is a must-have. Although fresh basil is also recommended, dried basil should be an essential in your spice rack. Dried basil has a mintier, more intense flavour and actually complements fresh basil in a dish. Use it in pasta sauces, soups, stews, salads, marinades, rice and sprinkled onto pizza. It also complements potatoes and egg-based dishes.
Like dried basil, dried oregano is an excellent herb to keep handy. Originating from the mountains of Greece, this perennial herb is an essential ingredient in Mediterranean cuisine. It has an aromatic, minty, warm and slightly bitter taste, and goes well in a large range of dishes, including vegetables, meat, fish, salads, marinades, pasta sauces and eggs.
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