Catalyst Cooks

Make. Food. Happen!

Catalyst Cooks’ Top Must-Have Spices June 18, 2010

If you’ve been following me on Twitter, you’ve seen this picture before.  It’s one of the best features of my small kitchen – a spice drawer!

If you have a shallow drawer in your kitchen, I must advocate for using it for your spices… you can lay them down and see them all. 

I can find what I need in the blink of an eye!

If you don’t have a drawer – heck, if you don’t have spices beyond Salt & Pepper (or, in my case, Sea Salt and Peppercorns in a Grinder) – I figured I’d empty out my entire spice drawer (ok – the both of ’em) – and group them into Absolute-must-have, Must-have, Really-Nice-to-Have, and Nice to have. 

This way, if you’re investing in spices, you’ll have a prioritized list of what to have around!

Of course- there is no wrong way to stock your spice drawer.  I invite comments from those of you that have an opinion about this list and would advocate a different order.

It is very dependent on what you cook most often as well.  If you cook a lot of Asian or Indian dishes, your spice rack will look very different!

As for me, I’m a big fan of cooking a wide variety of things… from French to Spanish to Greek to Mexican to Indian to Thai to Chinese to Japanese to Grilling to American to…..

As a result I have a pretty well-balanced set of spices.


Absolute-must-have – My Top 5

  • Ground Cumin – a staple in most Middle Eastern/Indian/Mediterranean dishes.
  •  Paprika – gorgeous rich red color.  I love Hungarian sweet.
  • Cayenne Pepper – a small amount adds a kick to anything from chili to lime butter for corn.
  • Nutmeg – the secret ingredient in the Scandinavian recipes handed down from my grandparents.
  • Thyme – used in recipes from around most of the world, especially great in slow cooked stews or sauces (like spaghetti!)


  • Oregano leaves – like Thyme in its universal application.  Leaves can be ground for recipes that call for ground oregano.
  • Dill weed – often found in soups and pickles, though my favorite application is my mom’s garlic-dill bread!
  • Dried Parsley – less flavorful than fresh, but great to have the dried in the spice drawer if my Parsley plant isn’t blooming.
  • Bay Leaves – in most soup and stew recipes.
  • Fennel seeds – My favorite to toast and add to homemade bread, savory tarts, salads- if I don’t have Caraway or Anise, I use Fennel as a substitute.
  • Cinnamon – need I say more?


  • Basil – I much prefer fresh but in the middle of winter when I’m making soups or sauces this is the thing.
  • Ground ginger, Curry powder, Allspice – for my Asian, Middle Eastern or Indian cooking days
  • Chili powder – I could use Cayenne pepper with a bit of cumin and oregano as a sub, but why?
  • Dried Sage and Rosemary – Great in Italian food, Roasted Poultry, with veggies…
  • Celery Seed – Found in pickling, soups, and Cajun food
  • Whole Cloves and Cinnamon Sticks – for addition to beverages, infused in Indian cooking…  and homemade chai.

Nice to have

  • Mustard Seed/Ground Mustard – You can use prepared mustard (yellow, dijon) to impart this flavor when this is called for.
  • Ground Oregano or Cloves –   If you don’t have room for this in your spice rack, choose leaves/whole cloves instead and use a grinder when a recipe calls for it.
  • Cardamom, Coriander, Marjoram, Tarragon – there just aren’t too many recipes I cook that call for these spices.
  • Anise, Caraway – I use fennel if I’m out of these.
  • Dried Chives/Garlic Chives – have a nice, fresh spring-like onion flavor.  Use onion as a substitute.
  • Dried, crushed mint – so easy to grow in the backyard.  I use this in winter when a mint flavor is called for – which is not often.
  • Curry Powder – I use canned yellow or red curry when I make one, so the dried spice doesn’t come into play much.
  • Saffron – so expensive, brings a very subtle flavor and beautiful color but I consider it optional.
  • Tumeric, Wasabi, Ground White Pepper, Crystallized Ginger, Summer Savory, Herbes de Provence and Cream of Tartar round out the list.

Other notes-

No, I didn’t mention Minced or powdered garlic and onion.  I much prefer using the abundant and cheap fresh versions.

I didn’t put down Lemon Pepper, Garlic Salt/Pepper either.   Lemon pepper = zest of lemon, black pepper, cumin, cayenne, oregano, thyme, garlic, paprika.  Garlic Salt/Pepper often includes, in addition to the garlic and salt or pepper- onion, parsley, dried bell pepper.  I’m an advocate of getting the base spices and mixing them yourself before you buy a bunch of compilations.

Speaking of….  If you have the basics, you can make your own:

  • Pickling Spice (Mustard Seed, Coriander, Bay Leaves, Dill Seed, Allspice)
  • Italian Seasoning (Basil, Marjoram, Oregano, Bay Leaves, Rosemary)
  • Mexican Seasoning (Chili powder, Cumin, Coriander, Oregano, Basil, Thyme, Garlic and Cayenne pepper)
  • Chinese Five Spice (Ground peppercorns, Anise, Fennel, Cloves, Cinnamon, Salt)
  • Dry Spice Rub (often include pepper, salt, paprika, chili powder, garlic, onion, cayenne pepper with brown sugar)

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