How many spices do you have in your kitchen? How many do you use regularly? If you're like how I used to be, you had a nice collection of different spices in the kitchen but stuck to a few that you used regularly and rarely pulled the others out. To start building flavor in your food you need to use spices. Not only do they help with flavor but most of them have medicinal properties to help with things like digestion, heart health, blood circulation, skin health, and so much more. Historically different cultures had their main spices that really were a type of medicine. Now a days we don't see spices as a medicine as much but we can still use them for flavor and by incorporating them into our diets regularly, we can enjoy those natural benefits over time.
When you first want to start using more spices though, it can be a little scary. There are so many out there, what works with other spices, what goes with which dishes, it's a lot to remember. To start off, I found it was helpful to make a few spices blends and go from there. Learn to use these blends with your everyday cooking then over time you can expand into each spice individually and learn how to intermingle them into new creations.
Of course when you look at the store or online, there's so many spice blends that already exist. And yes there is nothing wrong in buying a premade blend. But to really better your cooking at home, make your own blends to see the spices that go into them and once you are adventurous enough to use one on its own you'll already have it to use!
Where To Get Spices and Herbs
Now first we need to know where to get the spices and herbs to use for making these blends and in our cooking. Yes there is a spice isle at the store with a large selection to choose from but honestly, those spices kind of suck. You don't know their source, you don't know how long they have sat there, many come in clear containers and sit under bright store lights. And just like many other ingredients, lights are bad for longer self life. To get the best spices, you need to find a trusted spice shop.
When I first started expanding my spice collection, I knew of one place, the Spice and Tea Exchange at Pier 39 in San Francisco. I have learned that this brand is a franchise so each store is independently owned and others exist. Discovered this when I found one in Newport Rhode Island when I was living in Providence. But it's still a decent place to get fresher and better quality spices. In the past few years though, I knew I needed to start supporting small businesses more. And once you look, you'll find there's a lot more spice shops than you think.
Through my partnership with Araceli Farms I discovered the Allspicery in Sacramento. Small, woman owned spice shop that has such a large selection in spices, salts, sugars, and even teas. This became my go to spot while living in California and I still like to support them every so often especially if I can't find something specific. Since moving to St. Louis, I have fallen in love with the Soulard Spice Shop. This shop has been here for over 100 years and is still owned by the same family. How can you not love that? It's really easy with a quick Google search to find many spice shops that exist around and you can easily find one close to you. If you happen not have access to a spice shop close by, many also ship and it's easy to get high quality spices for you kitchen without going down that spice isle.
Homemade Spice Blends
Now let's get into some blends to make for your kitchen. These are just some samples but feel free to take out or add other spices based on what you already like or have available. I'll also give you some ideas to use with the blends to get you started but don't limit yourself to what I say. There are no rules in a kitchen when it comes to flavor so have fun and always try new things. If you make an interesting discovery leave a comment and let me know!
Herbs de Provence
This is one of my favorites to use. It's common in the southern region of France so think poultry, potatoes, and vegetables. I love to do roasting with this blend. Just a little oil and some of this blend, bake as needed for what you're making and it makes an easy dinner with little to do besides wait for it to bake. You can even easily do one pan dinners with this blend!
Grind together: a heavy pinch of Lavender (Melissa from Araceli has a great herbiness that isn't as floral and goes great in this blend), 1 tablespoon each Oregano, Basil, Parsley, Thyme, Rosemary, and Marjoram
Perfect Steak Seasoning
This blend is great for any beef dish. It has a great flavor that goes well with red meat and adds a little kick to it to round out the overall flavor. Use it with any beef based dish or even on potatoes or mushrooms served with a nice steak. Personally I see it as the seasoning for earthiness so besides beef any root vegetable that sometimes reminds you of dirt works so well with this blend.
Grind together: 1 tablespoon Oregano, 2 teaspoons Thyme, 2 teaspoons Black Pepper, 1 teaspoon ground Mustard, 1/2 teaspoon Cumin, 1/2-1 teaspoon Cayenne (based on spice preference), 1/2 teaspoon Smoked Paprika
Chinese Five Spice
This blend is used in a lot of Chinese cuisine. Similar Asian flavors also work well with this blend. Goes great with tofu, stir fry, beef, chicken, salmon, soy sauce based sauces, and eggplant. It also is really great with desserts and citrus, so it's a lot of fun to play with. If you make this try to invest in Sichuan (Szechuan) peppercorns. This is what truly makes it unique. Sichuan isn't actually a peppercorn but the husk of a seed. It isn't so much spicy but gives a tingling and numbing feeling to the lips and tongue that alter the flavors paired with it.
Toast then grind together: 1-2 teaspoons Peppercorns (ideally Sichuan), 4-5 whole Star Anise, 15-20 whole Cloves (1/2-3/4 tsp ground), 1 tablespoon whole Fennel Seeds, 2 teaspoons ground Cinnamon (use 3-4 inches if whole)
It's best to toast the spices in a dry pan slightly until aromatic then blend everything into a powder. Some people will sift to make sure to only use the fine powder but that's up to you.
Old Bay Seasoning
Now this is a classic. Mostly used for good southern cooking and things like gumbo but it's really been transformed to be used in almost any cooking. It's one of the most versatile blends I have ever seen in food so it's great to have around. Making it yourself though brings a whole new level to the flavor with how fresh the ingredients can be.
Grind together: 2 tablespoons Celery Flakes, 1 tablespoon Salt, 1 teaspoon Paprika (hot if you like it spicy, smoked if you like the smoky flavor), 1/2 teaspoon Black Pepper, 1/2 teaspoon Cayenne, 1/4 teaspoon ground Mustard, pinch of Nutmeg, 1/4 teaspoon each Cinnamon, Cardamom, Allspice, Clove, and Ginger
This is great for Taco Tuesday. Use it on chicken, beef, fish, I even add it to black beans and cook them in some olive oil for a veggie taco. You can also add it to a pickled veggie or a slaw to add some good flavors and freshness to a dish. I use this one a lot so you'll definitely want to check it out. You may think the cocoa powder is weird but trust it. Think about Indigenous Cultures to Central and South America. Cacao can be savory or sweet. Once you open your mind to that, flavors can get really delicious.
Blend: 2 teaspoons Salt, 1 teaspoon Oregano, 1 teaspoon ground Chili (not chili powder, that is already a spice blend), 2 teaspoons Paprika (use sweet since there's already some spice), 2 teaspoon each Onion Powder, Garlic Powder, and Cumin, 1 teaspoon Sugar, 1 teaspoon Cocoa Powder, 1/2 teaspoon Cayenne
This is such a great spice blend. I use it to make butter chicken after discovering how delicious it is a couple years ago. It's a common blend in Indian cuisine so it works well with a lot of vegetables, chicken, and lamb. I find a lot of people are afraid of these spices but they have so many benefits to the body so it's great to start cooking with them. One different ingredient though is mace. It isn't the same as what's in pepper spray. Mace is the outer casing of the nutmeg seed. It has a lighter, more floral flavor compared to nutmeg. If you don't want to buy mace you can use a small amount of nutmeg to replace it.
Grind together: 1 tablespoon Peppercorns, 1 tablespoon Green Cardamom Seeds (not the outer casing), 1 1/2 tablespoons Coriander Seeds, 1 tablespoon Cumin Seeds, 1/2 teaspoon Mace, 1 Bay Leaf, 2 inches Cinnamon Stick
Similar to the Chinese five spice, toast the spices in a dry pan until fragrant. This will enhance their flavors and bring a lot more to a dish than the spices themselves. Don't toast the bay leaf or mace though!
There are so many more blends that exist out there plus anything you make up yourself so please don't limit yourself! Using spices have so many amazing qualities to them from flavor and those medicinal benefits. Get yourself a few to start with and commit to slowly adding a new one once a month or so and soon you'll have a spice shop in your kitchen! Have fun building these flavors and making your dishes at home the best on the block.