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Quick Guide to Essential Spices and Herbs

If you’re just learning to cook or just organizing a household, chances are that you don’t yet have a well-stocked pantry. Novice cooks generally take things one step at a time, perhaps first buying common staples and then purchasing other items as needed. This is probably true for spices, herbs, and seasonings as well, especially the dried variety. It’s rare that the person just learning to cook has a full spice rack, opting instead for salt and pepper and maybe a few other favorites that Mom always used.

Experts suggest a handful of essential spices and herbs that can take the novice cook from bland and boring to tasty in no time at all. These spices and seasonings are the ones that are most often called for in recipes – besides standard salt and pepper – and can be used simply to add a bit of pizzazz to the simple recipes that beginning cooks often include in their repertoire. No doubt, cooks will eventually develop their own personal preferences, but buying the spices listed below represent a good start.

Parsley – This mild-flavored herb is used in tons of recipes and also as a garnish. It’s great for adding color and is often the last thing you sprinkle atop a particular dish before serving it.

Garlic Salt – Often, this can be used instead of standard salt to enhance the taste of any number of foods, ranging from roasted veggies to steaks and seafood. Simply a blend of salt and garlic powder, it’s also essential for Italian foods

Onion Powder or Salt/Minced Onion – Dehydrated onion – regardless of what form it’s in – can also be used instead of salt. And, in a real pinch, minced onion can substitute for real onions when there are no real onions to be had.

Oregano – This green herb is a common ingredient in many different ethnic foods including Italian, Greek, Mexican, and others. If you’re trying your hand at homemade pizza, it’s a must. Oregano is actually a member of the mint family but doesn’t taste as such.

Cayenne or “Red” Pepper – A bit spicier and hotter than normal black pepper, red pepper adds a zing to any dish but doesn’t totally overwhelm the other flavors. It’s commonly used in chili and in hot sauces. Use sparingly at first!

Rosemary – Like oregano, rosemary is a member of the mint family. It is easily recognizable for its needle-like leaves. It’s commonly used on meats such as lamb or chicken and can also be found in sauces and salad dressings. It is considered a standard Italian herb and is often combined with oregano, thyme, and basil.

Ginger – Dried, powdered ginger is very prolific. It is often used in Chinese or other Asian foods but is also often called for in baked goods. The powdered kind is not quite as sharp as fresh ginger so you may need to use more if you’re substituting in a recipe.

Cinnamon – If you’re going to give baking a shot, you’ll want to be sure to keep some cinnamon around. It’s one of the most aromatic spices available and baking with it is sure to fill your kitchen with that old-fashioned smell that reminds you of Grandma’s house. Cinnamon is also commonly used in curry dishes.

Nutmeg – This aromatic spice is generally used in baked goods – similar to cinnamon – but can also be found in savory dishes and in some cream sauces, bisque soups, chowders, and stews.

Most beginning cooks do indeed opt for the dried variety of herbs, spices, and seasonings while a few choose to take their chance with the fresh stuff. Amounts used in a recipe will vary according to which type you’re using, so it’s not always a good idea to substitute, especially when you’re just learning the ins and outs of spices.

And, remember, the dried variety of most spices and herbs stay fresh for only about 6 months, so replenish your spice rack often to insure that you’re still getting maximum flavor.