Over the past few weeks, I have been sharing what the essentials are in my kitchen! The first part was focused on grains and legumes, the second part was focused on baking ingredients, and this week I am focusing on spices.
Spices are one of the things that I knew nothing about until around three years ago. I didn’t know what went well together, and I didn’t know what each spice tasted like. That really limited my cooking, and inevitably I got bored. When I went to culinary school, I really just wanted to learn how to use spices to develop flavors in different dishes. I was at a loss and had no idea how to even begin. They intimidated me, a lot. Over the course of school and my internship, I really learned how to use spices. I had always thought that by the end of my schooling, I would have a magic combination for different options written on a piece of paper. That didn’t happen at all. The only way I finally learned how spices went together was by trial and error. It was all about balance, and I wasn’t good at finding that for months. Now, I keep a wide variety of spices and dried herbs in my pantry. I don’t think I could live without them! I have way more than are necessary, but for this post, I have nailed it down to a few essentials: chili powder, cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, garlic powder, onion powder, smoked paprika, thyme, sage, salt and pepper.
I use chili powder for a lot of things. I mainly put it in Mexican food, tofu scramble, breakfast potatoes, or soups. It is one of the few things that I have known how to use for years, and I have gotten used to using it a lot in my cooking.
Cinnamon is great for sweet or savory dishes. It is a really versatile spice because it is used so widely throughout desserts and different ethnic food. I will sometimes add it into Mexican food to add a slight sweetness. It is also seen a lot in Middle Eastern food for that same purpose.
Cumin has a nice earthy flavor and I use it in Indian food or in Mexican food. It brings balance to all of the heat and other bold spices used in those two cuisines.
Turmeric is great for a lot of different things. Most people these days will put it into a “golden milk” drink, or a tofu scramble (my favorite use). I also put it into a lot of my Indian curries because it adds a nice color. The flavor is slightly bitter, so I don’t tend to use a lot at a time.
Garlic and onion powders are pretty self explanatory. I will typically cook with fresh garlic and onion, but when roasting vegetables in the oven, I like to use the powder version. By using the powder, it prevents burning. I have tried roasting vegetables with aromatics like onions and garlic, and they always burn before the vegetable itself is done cooking.
Smoked paprika is one of my more recent favorite ingredients. I like it because it adds a natural tasting smokiness to foods. I never was a fan of liquid smoke, so this has been a great solution. I use mine on shiitake or tempeh bacon, blackened tofu, in barbecue sauce, in my seitan seasoning, in soups and really anything else I want to add a neutral smoky flavor to. It works well because regular paprika has a very neutral flavor.
Thyme has also become one of my favorite ingredients over the past few years. I love it because it has a nice earthiness, but it is a very subtle flavor. It lends itself very well to a lot of different cuisines. I use it in Italian food, Mexican food, soups, stew, and anything that I want to add an extra savory note to.
I have been guilty of putting sage in everything lately! I love how versatile it is. It can really enhance a savory or sweet flavor. It pairs best with cream sauces, winter squashes, seitan, and tempeh. It can be over powering, but I like mixing it with vegan proteins to create a meatier flavor. It especially works well when trying to create comforting holiday meals, or to replicate the flavors of sausage.
Of course I couldn’t leave out salt or pepper. I use salt and pepper in just about everything. Salt brings all of the flavors in any dish, sweet or savory, together. Without salt, food would be incredibly bland. It took me a long time to learn how to properly salt things. It is one of those things that took almost as long as learning how to use spices. I use pepper mostly for savory applications. I will use it in some spice cakes or cookies, to add extra depth of flavor and a slight savory note.
Overall, this is what I find absolutely essential in my spice cabinet. I use all of these on a weekly basis, some on a daily basis depending on what I’m cooking. It is so important to have lots of spices otherwise, cooking at home gets boring really quickly!
In next week’s tip, I will go through my favorite condiments. They’re something that every average person has and frequently uses, but not many people focus on them.