If you cook at home, you’ll find yourself using black pepper a lot, for almost every savory dish. Buying whole peppercorns means that the oils inside the pepper don’t break down as quickly, keeping the flavor preserved longer. There are white and pink peppercorns too, for more advanced spicing levels, but plain old black peppercorns are great, and vital for everything from cacio e pepe to black pepper curry chicken. Buy them whole and grind them in a pepper grinder for the best results.
You know that earthy, aromatic, slightly nutty note that you get in a pot of chili? That often comes from cumin, a spice that’s incredibly versatile. Cumin is naturally rich in oils, and you don’t need a lot of it to get that rich, earthiness. It’s great to get cumin whole and grind it up as needed, and it lasts longer that way. (It’s an essential ingredient in many spice blends, like curry powder and chili powder. But if you’re realistically not going to have time or energy to do that, a small bottle of ground cumin is a good choice. Add it to pasta with grilled vegetables, or to lamb noodles with eggplant, or just to roasted cauliflower.
Crushed Red Chili Flakes:
If you like a bit of spice in your meals, having chile flakes or whole dried chiles on hand is the way to go. Crushed red pepper flakes are the kind that you see in shakers in pizza places, and they’re made from a mixture of peppers, but the most commonly used one is cayenne. A little bit of heat is useful for many dishes, like honey-chile chicken wings and spicy guacamole, or just sprinkling onto your next plate of pasta or vegetables. Whole chile peppers are useful for crushing up to make curry pastes, or for putting in a pot of beans or chili as it simmers, and then fishing it out. There’s a wide array of dried chiles available, so look for ones that have a heat level you’re comfortable.
Turmeric is a real essential. It’s so versatile! It’s true—you might know the striking yellow-orange spice because of its use in Indian and Thai cooking, or in wellness food trends, but you can use it for a lot more. Turmeric is part of the ginger family and has a bright, floral, mild taste. Good-quality turmeric is a home kitchen gamechanger, whether you’re adding it to chicken and rice or chickpea soup.
One of the staples of French cooking, bay leaves can come off as mysterious. After all, it’s a whole dried leaf that you usually want to fish out of whatever you add it to. (Bay leaves aren’t poisonous but they are often unpleasant to eat, since they’re fairly pointy, and could be a choking hazard.) Older bay leaves don’t do much, it’s true, but more freshly dried ones have a beautiful, herbaceous aroma.
Garlic is a building block in the kitchen. Fresh is ideal, but we don’t live in ideal times, so it’s a great idea to have either granulated or powdered garlic in the cupboard to add that zingy, spicy garlic flavor when you can. It’s a great quick addition to guacamole or spice mixtures. While dried garlic flakes (sometimes called minced garlic) and garlic powder are made using similar processes, the powder is more pungent, since a teaspoon of it is filled with more garlic than larger bits of dried garlic flakes.
It adds a little rich smokiness to a dish. It’s in the same family as cayenne, but it’s very mild. It really carries that smoke flavor really well. It’s particularly good if you’re cooking vegetarian food but want to replicate the smokiness that meat can bring to a dish, like in this hummus with smoked paprika butter.
Dried oregano is a fundamental spice in many Mediterranean and Latin American dishes, and another one of those spices that you see in shakers in pizza parlors. The flavor is warm and slightly bitter, making it a wonderful spice for all kinds of things, like grilled shrimp, roasted chicken, or just sprinkled over roasted potatoes or raw tomatoes.