I’ve had some questions about spices and herbs recently, and I thought I’d take some time out to answer them:
- What spices and herbs should I keep on hand?
- How should I store them?
- What herbs are better fresh or dried?
- How do I substitute dried herbs for fresh?
This is where that lovely Culinary Arts degree I spent so much time and effort on comes in handy 🙂
Q: What spices and herbs should I keep on hand?
A: Well first of all, the answer to this question is really going to depend on what you cook and bake. I have a very vast spice and dried herb collection because I cook a wide range of ethnic foods. Below is a list of what I keep in my pantry. I have two separate “groupings” of spices – one for baking, one for savory. A lot of spices are used in both, but this helps me stay organized and makes my life easier! Note: You won’t see Salt and Pepper here. I keep those out on the countertop because we use those with every meal. I use Kosher Salt and Freshly Ground Black Pepper.
- Bay Leaves
- Bouillon, Chicken & Beef Granules
- Cayenne Pepper
- Celery Salt
- Chives, Freeze-Dried
- Chopped Onion, Dried
- Coriander (Also for Baking)
- Chili Powder
- Cumin, Ground
- Curry Powder
- Dill, Freeze-Dried
- Fennel Seed, Ground & Whole
- Garam Masala
- Garlic Powder
- Garlic Salt
- Ginger, Ground (Also for Baking)
- Italian Seasoning
- Mustard, Ground
- Onion Powder
- Parsley, Freeze-Dried
- Red Pepper Flakes
- Sage, Ground
- Seasoning Salt
- Sesame Seeds
- Steak Seasoning
- Summer Savory
- White Pepper, Ground
Some of these are only used for special dishes, e.g. Garam Masala for Chicken Tikka Masala, Fennel Seeds for a Meat Rub, Saffron for Risotto Milanese, Summer Savory for Mushrooms stuffed with a cheesy filling. I don’t expect that anyone else has this exact assortment of spices, but it’s what we use in my house.
Some of these I buy in bulk because buying those little containers at the grocery store can really add up for spices like Chili Powder, Cumin, and Italian Seasoning. I also buy a bulk container of Black Peppercorns for my $10 pepper mill – there’s such a difference in taste when you grind your own pepper.
- Allspice, Whole
- Cinnamon, Ground & Sticks
- Cloves, Ground & Whole
- Cream of Tartar
- Nutmeg, Ground & Whole
- Poppy Seeds
Q: How should I store them?
A: I use a very unconventional method to store my spices and dried herbs. I use a filing system composed of a snap-close container, sandwich ziptop bags, labels. I have a large box for the savory spices and a small box for the baking spices. I don’t know about you, but spice bottles were coming out of my ears before I switched to this method. I could never find what I wanted and ended up buying more that I did not need. You can get directions on how to set up your own spice box here. Keep your spices out of direct light and away from moisture and heat. Exposure to the elements can drastically decrease the life of your spices and herbs. Labeling your containers with the date you opened them is a good idea. If you haven’t done this and need to check their freshness, let your nose do the detective work. If their aroma is weak, they’re probably past their prime.
I’ve heard all sorts of timelines for spices – 6 months, 1 year, or 10 years for my grandma’s ground allspice (eek!) I can honestly say that I’ve had some spices for over 2 years, and they’re still doing a fabulous job. My advice is to use your best judgement and your senses when deciding whether or not to retire that dried spice or herb.
Q: What herbs are better fresh and/or dried?
A: While I use a lot of different dried spices, some herbs are sometimes better fresh. I prefer fresh parsley, rosemary, basil, and thyme over their dried counterparts. That doesn’t mean I don’t have the dried version on hand though – sometimes it’s just not cost-effective/feasible to buy fresh. I do use dried basil and thyme is stew and soup recipes, but fresh is really the way to go for most everything else. And note, if the main ingredient is a fresh herb, use fresh! Can you imagine a pesto sauce made with dried basil – that would never work!
Q: How do I substitute dried herbs for fresh?
A: There is a simple rule when substituting dried herbs for fresh. Use 1/3 of the amount when using dried vs. fresh. For example, if a recipe calls for 1 Tablespoon of fresh thyme leaves, use 1 teaspoon of dried thyme (there are 3 teaspoons in 1 Tablespoon.) When a herb has been dried, it concentrates the flavor so simply swapping one out for the other could leave your dish lacking in taste or overpowering your palate.
Take advantage of your annual spring cleaning days to organize and weed through your spices and dried herbs! Let me know how it goes, and I always welcome your organizing and culinary questions!