And Building a Better Kitchen is back! It’s been gone for so long. Today, we conquer the spice rack. Having a few spices on hand will make your cooking (and your semi-homemade) life so much better. Sometimes, I need to go out to the store to get a new spice. Mostly, I just use these few, over and over again. They’re the winners. Go get them. Love them. And if you really want to be good about it, store them in a dark, cool place and replace them after six months. (My roommates and I do not do this, as you can see by our spice shelves, that are right next to our kitchen window.) Also, as a last word of general advice: McCormick is for suckers. I have some McCormick, as you can see above, because my need for convenience sometimes wins out over my need to not be a sucker. But the spices from the Latin American section — like Badia or Lisy (above) — are cheaper, you get more, and they’re just as good. And bulk spices, which they sell at the food co-op, but maybe nowhere else (?), are even better. So let’s just jump on in.
– Crushed red pepper: This is my number one pick, of all spices, to keep around and use all. the. time. I sprinkle it on soup, chili, eggs, stir fries, curries, usually after they’re done and I’m about to eat, but sometimes into the cooking process. It gives a good, controllable, level of heat, because you can see the flakes clearly, so you know exactly how much you’ve added. Buy it. Start using it. It will revolutionize your cooking, and your take out, and your everything.
– Cayenne powder: I use this the same way I use crushed red pepper, but it’s a lot more potent, so I use it less frequently and in lesser quantities. Still good to have on hand when you really want a kick.
– Cumin: Cumin has a great toasted, earthy, warm flavor. Good for stir-fries.
– Whole dried oregano: Dried oregano dresses up a store-bought tomato sauce like nobody’s business, and is an important addition to homemade. I also use it when we get pizza delivered, and — along with the crushed pepper — it’s just like a pizzeria in here.
– Bay leaves: These show up in just about anything that you are stewing or simmering for a while, particularly stock, and you never know when a whole chicken carcass is going to come into your possession and you’re going to want to make stock, and so you never know when you’re going to need bay leaves.
– Paprika: I use this with surprising frequency, which is to say about once or twice a month. Still, for paprika that seems like a lot. I’m glad to have it around.
SALT AND PEPPER (which, yes, do get their own category)
Salt and pepper have their own category because, to really get cooking, you’re going to need a few more kinds than just table salt and finely ground pepper. In fact, you should never be using finely ground pepper! You can get by with just those two, but here’s what I have, and recommend accruing….
– Whole black pepper and whole salt crystals in grinder: This is the most important item I have in the kitchen, and what I mean when I say “freshly ground pepper” in recipes (I have the salt because it’s in the same place in the spice aisle, so I always remember to buy it, though it’s not as important as the pepper). Pepper mills are expensive and often, unless you buy a really expensive one, can break easily. Just buy a $3 disposable grinder, and you’re good to go. The main reason for buying these grinders is the fresher (and better) flavor of the spice when freshly ground; a secondary reason, that applies to salt also, is that it’s easier to control the amount you add to a dish with these than, say, sprinkling from a canister.
– Whole black peppercorns: Stew, stock, and soup recipes often call for these. They get strained out before serving the final product, making for a fairly easy way to gently infuse your dish with pepper flavor without giving it too much heat.
– Ground black pepper: You do need some, even if you’re almost always using freshly ground. I use freshly ground to taste; when a recipe calls for adding a teaspoon or more of ground black pepper, I just use this stuff. Coarsely ground! Not fine.
– Sea salt: I use fine ground sea salt (not coarse crystals) instead of iodized salt. It’s a little nicer.
– Kosher salt: Now, here is an important thing for cooks to have on hand. Kosher salt crystals are wider and flatter than other salt crystals, so they dissolve better into food — whether it be into a simmering soup or a sprinkle over a dressed salad. You shouldn’t use kosher salt for baking, but I use it for most savory ventures.
– Fleur de sel: If you want to get fancy. I now try to incorporate fleur de sel into basically every sweet baked good I make. You may not want to. It’s amazing, and — at about $8 — more expensive than iodized but not prohibitively expensive for a nice treat. Plus, a little goes a long way.
– Cinnamon: For baking, for sprinkling on toast (or fried tortillas), for sprinkling on soy milk, for life.
– Nutmeg: Much like cinnamon, though a little earthier. Again for baking, and for sprinkling on soy milk. I feel less attached to nutmeg than cinnamon for some reason, but any recipe that calls for one is likely going to call for the other also.
– Vanilla: Almost all baking will want vanilla. You should spend the money for pure vanilla extract, as opposed to vanilla flavoring. Stay away from the vanilla flavoring! It’s like the difference between Wisconsin cheddar and cheez-wiz. But maybe even worse, because at least with the cheese you’ve made a conscious choice to eat fake cheese, so you know why your snack tastes…artificial. Vanilla flavoring is much more insidious, infiltrating your entire batch of cookies or your beautiful cake, and making the whole thing taste artificial, with no clear reason why. Artificial vanilla is the reason. Stear clear of it.
– Baking powder: Most baking recipes will call for this, and/or baking soda. Keep it around. It’s not technically a spice (neither is vanilla, I guess), but it lives with the spices in my apartment, so I’ve included it here.
– Baking soda: Same as above.
Do let me know, in comments below, if there’s something you keep around that I don’t. Maybe you will revolutionize my life!