Cooking seems to occupy most of our days right now. We spend hours sifting through recipes, planning meals and shopping for groceries. For most people the meal is planned according to a specific recipe. This can be a tedious and exhausting way to cook. Do you ever feel like you are reinventing the wheel each and every time? Next time you want to make a simple dinner, consider diving into your spice rack.
Why check out your spice rack to plan your meals?
- You will be able to tap into your creative juices without being a trained chef
- The meal will be less expensive
- You may discover flavours that you haven’t tried before
- Flavour will be added with nearly zero calories or fat
- It’s practically effortless
- Best of all, spices are low maintenance: they last a while (we will get into this below), and they’re always available and shelf stable
Which spices should you have on hand?
First, there are the obvious staples: salt and pepper. Salt is a flavour enhancer. It turns up the volume on any flavours that are already simmering in your food. Pepper is a great sidekick because it adds pungency to any dish, which will help round out the other flavours. Think of pepper as adding the punctuation, while salt adds the volume.
Now, which other spices should be on your “must-have” list? Your choices should most certainly be determined by the type of food you like to cook and eat.
Here are my spice essentials:
- Pepper corns: black, green, red and white peppercorns all come from the same berries on the pepper tree, they’re just harvested at different times. They have common notes such as heat and a bit of spice, but there are also differences that are fun to explore in the kitchen.
- Cinnamon has antimicrobial and other health-promoting effects.
- Crushed red pepper flakes
- Granulated garlic (not garlic salt or garlic powder)
- Dehydrated chopped (granulated) onion (not onion salt or onion powder)
- Paprika (smoked or regular)
- Sumac adds a lemony, fruity and earthy flavour, without the liquid of lemons.
- Dried oregano
- Dried mustard
- Chili powder is a cousin to cayenne, but it’s smokier and not as spicy. You can also find chipotle chili powder, ancho chili powder or ground jalapeno pepper at most grocery stores. It marries beautifully with chilies, stews, and tacos. It’s also wonderful sprinkled on oven-roasted cauliflower, potatoes or sweet potatoes.
- Fennel seeds
- Dried mint
How to use combinations of spices
- Chicken or steak rub (ready for the grill): fennel seeds, dry mustard, a little salt and crushed red pepper flakes.
- Lamb rub: dried mint, cumin, paprika, allspice, salt and pepper. Yum!
- Sumac: sprinkle it over hummus, a chopped vegetable salad, in a tomato and feta salad, with roasted sweet potatoes, eggplant, or cauliflower as well as on chicken, fish and lamb.
- Greek marinade: turmeric, oregano, garlic, olive oil, lemon.
- Sweet potato sprinkle: drizzle with a little oil and season with coriander, paprika, cumin and a little salt.
- Broccoli: drizzle with a little oil, sprinkle with chili powder, paprika and granulated garlic.
- Salmon: sprinkle with a little salt, paprika, chili powder, oregano and a tiny amount of cayenne
- Tofu: drizzle with oil, sprinkle some granulated garlic, sesame seeds, pepper and chili powder.
- Barbecue rub for chicken, steaks, fish or tofu: dry mustard, chili powder and a little salt.
- Middle-eastern mix for ground chicken, beef or turkey (make them into kebabs): allspice, dried mint, granulated onion, granulated garlic and pepper.
I’m often asked how long spices last
Generally, dried spices stay flavourful for about six months. If you’re not sure whether they’re still usable, smell them. Do they have much of a scent? If not, they’ll have no taste either. Get rid of them and start fresh.
I recommend buying dried spices in small quantities. This way, you’ll use them up before they get stale and lose their flavour.
Store your spices in short, stackable round jars, with labels on the top lid and also on the side. Keep them away from heat and light, so that rack next to your stove might not be such a great idea. Move spices to a drier, cooler place.
If you’re like me, you will sleep better knowing your spice pantry is beautifully organized.
The next time you don’t know what to eat for dinner, look into your spice pantry for inspiration!