Updated on 02.07.07

$1 Kitchen Secrets: Ten Herbs And Spices That Will Make Simple Foods Pop

Trent Hamm

SpicesAfter my post yesterday about essential cookbooks, a reader contacted me by instant messenger to ask a really basic (and interesting) question about food preparation. Basically, they felt competent preparing simple dishes at home, but these dishes were always bland, which usually made even prepackaged meals taste better. Thus, they were often spending a lot of extra money buying takeout and such simply because of the flavor.

The real secret is almost always herbs and spices, which most beginning cooks seem to forget about, underestimate, or are intimidated by. The truth is that adding a few dashes of an appropriate seasoning to a dish can really make it flavorful – and make you forget about takeout.
Here are ten utilitarian herbs and spices you should have in your cupboard for general use; once you’re familiar with these, you can try expanding your repertoire (knowing my readers, they’ll likely throw up several suggestions in the comments).  The dried herb and spice section at your store is the best place to start: most grocery stores sell small containers of each of these for less than a dollar. I’d recommend trying them one at a time in appropriate dishes before mixing them very much, because awkward herb and spice mixes can be atrocious, even if they’re quite good on their own.

Bay Leaves Get some of these if you grill or prepare stews. Almost every grilled meat is wonderfully accented with some crushed bay leaves pressed into the meat before grilling, and they’re also great in soups and stews.

Chives You can add these to almost any vegetable dish (especially steamed vegetables) to pop a good deal of extra flavors. Unsurprisingly, they’re also great on potatoes, along with sour cream, and can also mix well with eggs.

Cumin This is an essential ingredient for making any Mexican dish pop, plus it’s good as a general spice for meats and cheeses.

Marjoram A healthy dose of marjoram is one of my most vital secret ingredients in my spaghetti sauce. It also adds “Italian” flavor to pretty much any meat or vegetable.

Oregano Oregano goes well with any dish that uses a substantial amount of tomato in it, particularly anything Italian. It’s another key ingredient of a great homemade spaghetti sauce, for example.

Pepper (coarsely ground black, preferably) This stuff is fantastic on almost everything I’ve ever tried, from soups to meats to sauces. Don’t skimp on this, though – get some coarsely ground black pepper to start with and you’ll eventually find yourself wanting your own pepper grinder and making your own pepper mixes. Or maybe I’m just a crazy foodie.

Rosemary This is the stuff dreams are made of for both chicken and potatoes. That is all.

Sage This goes good on any poultry and any type of pork, and is also a great ingredient for hearty stuffings. It creates a very rustic and hearty “soul food” flavor.

Tarragon If you ever eat scrambled or fried eggs, buy a small container of tarragon to add to the mix. It also goes good on salads, on chicken, and on seafood.

Thyme It basically goes with just about everything: meats, vegetables, and especially in any soups you might prepare.

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  1. Chris says:

    Me and my dad bought a bunch of spices at http://www.penzeys.com/cgi-bin/penzeys/shophome.html. They are about 100 times better than the little bottles at the store, and although the shipping is outragous, it goes down with more purchased, so just go in on it with a few friends, and don’t get carried away like I was.

  2. LeisureGuy says:

    I’m surprised that you omit turmeric—it has potent health benefits. See this article, for example.

    Studies have established also that cinnamon reduces insulin resistance, and cayenne pepper is also beneficial in various ways.

  3. Michael Langford says:

    Beware with sage. It is a leaf to use occasionally. Overuse of sage causes medical problems.

    It is perfectly fine to have it some times though. (I don’t have the book here that says *what* condition*, It’s McGee’s food and Cooking).


  4. I usually buy cheap herbs at the dollar store (the 99 Cent Store, in my area) or in the Latino/Foreign area of the supermarket – you can buy packaged plastic bags of spices and herbs for a fraction of the price of the same spices in tiny bottles a few aisles over in the baking section. If you find a spice you love, try buying online from the San Francisco Herb Company, they have terrific prices. My fiance makes oatmeal with pumpkin pie spice almost every morning…so I ordered a 1-pound bag of it from them for about $3.50. Check out their website for bulk buys – I hear they also have a great selection of teas for cheap.

  5. Tim says:

    I was expecting Basil to make the list. Basil goes excellent with (of course) anything Tomato, and also with Eggs. I often find myself adding it to other dishes as well. Finally, it also compliments oregano very nicely.

  6. Michael says:

    isn’t Marjoram the same thing as Oregano?

  7. Kevin Neely says:

    I agree with having a good number of spices on hand in every way you state above, except that it looks like you are using dried, store-bought herbs. Stop doing that right now! You need to use fresh herbs if you want your food to taste good.

    Spring project: get a couple pots and plant some herb plants in them (Let Simon and Garfunkel be your guide: parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme). This will cost about $2/plant, or, the same that the herbs would be if you bought them fresh at the store. Let them grow a week or two, and then start using them. You will save money and your food will be much, much better.

    Another food tip: instead of buying boullion, make your own stock whenever your have meat & bones leftover from a meal. Freeze it. Yum.

  8. Seth Miller says:

    I’d suggest finding a good natural food store for spices. You can usually buy as little as you want and they sell them by weight so its super cheap.

  9. eric says:

    If you’re unsure about spices, try buying some of the mixes. One I particularly like is italian seasoning, which is primarily dried oregano, basil, marjoram, and a few others.

    I can’t believe you overlooked garlic! One thing: try putting in a little. Garlic can overwhelm a dish if you aren’t careful. (I know, some people like that. :) If you must go with powdered, don’t get garlic salt – get garlic powder, and leave it alone in a little bit of liquid for ten minutes before you use it to let it rehydrate.

    Get some cayenne pepper! You might think, “I don’t like spicy foods,” but just a little bit of cayenne (think 1/8 of a teaspoon) wakes up many dishes without making them spicy.

    Get a whole nutmeg. Yes, you need to grate it yourself, but it lasts forever and is wonderful in creamy sauces. Don’t use too much, and it will be a good friend.

    Finally, kosher salt really isn’t that much more expensive, and it adds wonderful taste. As an added bonus, you might find you don’t need as much of it!

  10. eric says:

    One more thing: I love Penzey’s, and swear by them, but they’re not frugal if you don’t cook regularly. Spices, like any other food, lose their flavor in time. (Some, like nutmeg, lose their flavor when ground in a month or two!) They are more expensive, but are higher quality. If you don’t use them, however, they are wasted money!

  11. Mardee says:

    Check around your town for an ethnic grocery store – we have a Mediterranean import store that has the most wonderful spices. And you can buy them in very small quantities if you like. Cinnamon is not only good for diabetics, but is great if you’re trying to lose weight as it increases your sense of satiety.

    By the way, I second the recommendation for turmeric – it’s a very tasty and healthy spice. If you want to try a recipe with turmeric, make Mollie Katzen’s Gypsy Soup from the Moosewood Cookbook. You can find the recipe at http://www.tenspeedpress.com/inside/page.php3?ftr=167

  12. Spears says:

    I just wanted to say that rosemary is good in several things, not just chicken and potatoes.

    Try cooking sliced up steak with a little lemon, olive oil and rosemary. If you really want to get fancy, ad some cheap red wine.

    Rosemary really brings out the subtleties in red meat.

  13. Pam says:

    I buy bulk spices at my grocery store in the natural food section. I can refill the bottles I already own for pennies. How does 20-40 cents sound compared to $3-5 dollars? It’s even cheaper than the dollar store.

    Growing fresh herbs is even better. I live up North and grow chives and mint as perennials. I think I really need to try basil or rosemary with a grow light. Mmmm.

  14. Karen says:

    Here’s my list: cinnamon, cloves, ginger, allspice, cumin, basil, oregano, red pepper flakes, hot chili powder, garlic bits. I have about 3 dozen little bottles of other seasonings, but I rarely even get them out of the cupboard.

  15. Lisa says:

    I bought a basil plant a couple of weeks ago. So many things taste so much better with fresh basil.

  16. Sarah says:

    My essentials: cumin, garlic powder, chili powder, red pepper flakes, fresh ground pepper, cayenne pepper, and poultry seasoning.

  17. Sami says:

    Majoram is the same as oregano, actually.

  18. Vanessa says:

    They are in the same genus, but different species.

    Oregano: Origanum vulgare
    Marjoram: Origanum majorana

    Apples and Crabapples-which taste entirely different, are in the same genus.

  19. David says:

    If you want to add the next layer, buy the following: (1) Paprika, (2) Smoked Paprika by McCormick, (3) Goya Adobo con Pimiento, (4) Chipotle Pepper by McCormick, (5) Chinese Five Spice by McCormick and (6) Allspice.

  20. Mary says:

    Bay leaves are also really good in rice pudding. I know it sounds weird, but it’s seriously delicious.

  21. Peter Trent says:

    I have’nt noticed anyone referring to Curry powders or to ginger.

    Montreal has some fabulous resteraunts, many of them Indian or Pakistani: yum !

  22. Karen says:

    I have to mention my favorite, dill seed or weed. Great for eggs, rice, pasta or potato salads, or mixed with lemon and olive oil for fish. Yum…

  23. Gino says:

    WTF is “spaghetti sauce”? If you put it on ziti is that like combining matter and anti-matter?

    And marjoram is an “italian” flavor?
    What planet are you on?

  24. AnnJo says:

    Great post, but like many readers said, you omitted some favorites:

    Cayenne in tiny quantities perks up the flavor of many dishes, especially those with eggs, potatoes, tomatoes and cream sauces. It doesn’t taste spicy, it just tastes better.

    An 1/8th of a teaspoon or less of curry powder in a cheese sauce will allow you to cut back on the quantity of cheese without loss of flavor. In small quantities it adds a subtle, delicious and unidentifiable background flavor.

    Paprikas, mild, hot or smoked, are kitchen essentials. Add to vinaigrette dressings, spaghetti sauce, bean dishes, stews, BBQ sauce. Chicken, mushrooms, onions and LOTS of mild paprika browned, cooked with a little white wine and a scant tablespoon of tomato paste until done and finished with sour cream stirred in, served over rice or noodles – yummm! Comfort food indeed. Variations with veal or pork are good too.

    Mustard is a spice, and who could live or cook without mustard?!

    Technique counts. You’ll get more herb and spice flavor into meats if you marinade them. In soups and stews, some of the spice/herb added at the beginning helps the flavor permeate the dish for subtle flavor, while a little added at the end gives a fresher, bolder flavor, so you can do either or both depending on mood.

    But salt is the most basic spice for flavor. People who are trying to cut down on salt often think they will have more control over their salt intake if they don’t salt food until after it is served. Big mistake.

    Pasta, rice, beans, meats and vegetables that absorb water or oil as they cook will be terminally bland, or require much MORE salt at the table to taste good if they are cooked in unsalted water or not salted before frying.

  25. Ken Sloan says:

    I stumbled upon this post and thought I’d throw in my two cents. I wrote a post a couple months ago about designing the “Ideal” spice rack and I had a bit of difficulty narrowing it down to 12, but I managed! I believe you can concoct pretty much anything with these spices and a small herb garden.

    turmeric, paprika, cinnamon, fennel seed, dried red chilies or cayenne, cumin seed, coriander seed, bay leaves, whole cloves, whole nutmeg, dried oregano and dried thyme.


  26. Steve says:

    Acme and Safeway charge over $5 for each little (read tiny) jar of spices and herbs. I go to the nearest Farmers’ market for 3 to 6 times the quantity for $2 to $3. Some healthfood stores will measure out an ounce or so and charge you by weight — nowhere near the supermarket prices!

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