Cooks Exchange

How to stock your cabinet with the spices of life

Basic dried spices and herbs can expand your culinary horizons.
Basic dried spices and herbs can expand your culinary horizons. MCT File

The world of spices offers more than just salt and pepper and maybe a dash of garlic salt.

Readers and cooking class participants often ask “Which spices should I keep on hand?”

My spice cabinet overruns with dried herbs and spices, although I really prefer using fresh herbs; the flavor is much better, however, less intense. Remember, use less dried herbs than fresh. The ratio is three times more fresh than dried or 1 tablespoon of fresh to 1 teaspoon dried.

Basic spices and dried herbs include garlic powder, cayenne pepper, chili powder, basil, cumin, oregano, thyme, sage, parsley, nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, cloves, rosemary, dill, salt, black pepper, ginger, paprika, dried mustard, coriander, paprika, curry powder, tarragon and onion flakes. Notice, I didn’t include garlic salt. I don’t like to add extra salt to food, so I prefer to use either fresh garlic or garlic powder.

Yes, spices and herbs, both dried and fresh, put a dent in the wallet, but not all have to be bought at one time. Build the spice cabinet in increments.

For example, if making spaghetti sauce, purchase basil, oregano, chili powder and garlic powder. Canned tomato sauces normally have plenty of salt, so no extra is needed. When using fresh tomatoes, additional salt and pepper is needed because the tomatoes contain no extra salt.

Those four dried herbs and spices can be used in vegetables, stews, meats, chicken and fish. A simple sprinkling of oregano and garlic powder with a squeeze of lemon juice makes for a great-tasting grilled chicken breast, like ones served at a Greek restaurant.

For baking or desserts, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and allspice are musts. On the next shopping trip, pick up cream of tartar and cardamom. The same spices with the addition of peppers make a good Jamaican jerk seasoning.

Nutmeg and white pepper also are a must for white sauces. The nutmeg adds that extra taste that is pleasing to the palate.

When the spice cabinet is well stocked, no additional costly rubs or mixes are needed. Home cooks can even make their own chili powder from dried chiles.

Now, spicy need not mean hot. If a recipe looks too hot, cut down the amount of peppers in the recipe and use dry mustard instead of a dry English mustard. Spicy means flavorful, and that’s what food should be.

Rule of thumb: Most dried herbs and spices last four to six months. If there is a spice jar lurking the back of the cabinet that hasn’t been used in a long time, toss it.

For fresh herbs, freeze leftovers. Old-time ice cube trays work well for this. Place herbs, sans the stems, in the trays, cover with water and freeze. The herb ice cubes will melt when using them for cooking. I recently bought a new gadget, an herb stripper that strips the leaves off the herbs, so much easier.

My bookcases overflow with cookbooks, but one basic spice guide should be in every cook’s kitchen: “Cooking with Spices for Dummies.” Don’t be offended at the title; it’s on my bookshelf, too.

This book not only explains the herbs and spices, but offers recipes for dry rubs and mixes plus recipes that use them. A new copy at is $13.61 and used ones for as little as $3.49. Barnes & Noble’s online price is $13.87 with used starting at $3.

With the high temperatures lately, it is too hot to heat up an oven, so outdoor grills offer an alternative. Whether barbecuing or grilling, meats, poultry and seafood all need seasoning. Skip the pricey mixtures and make your own. All it requires is a bowl, herbs, spices and measuring spoons.

Readers, if you make your own rubs or spices, please share the recipes with fellow readers.

Andrea Yeager can be reached at and Cooks Exchange, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi, MS 39535-4567.


From “Cooking with Spices for Dummies”

Combine 4 tablespoons of ground Anaheim or ancho peppers or good ground paprika, 1-1/2 to 2 tablespoons cumin, 2 teaspoons of oregano that you have crumbled between your fingers, 2 teaspoons garlic powder, 1 to 3 teaspoons cayenne pepper (depending on desired heat) and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Grind in a spice mill or small electric coffee grinder. Store in a covered container for up to six months.


From “Cooking with Spices for Dummies”

2 teaspoons paprika

2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

2 teaspoons white pepper

2 teaspoons salt

1-1/2 teaspoons dry English mustard

1-1/2 teaspoons garlic powder

1 teaspoon onion powder

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon cayenne or to taste

1/4 teaspoon ground sage, optional

Mix thoroughly in bowl. Store in covered container up to 6 months.

Note: This is a spicy rub. English mustard is a hot and spicy powder. If less heat is wanted, substitute plain dry mustard. If the rub turns out too spicy, add a little sugar. The sweet cuts the heat.


From “Cooking with Spices for Dummies”

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons sugar

1 teaspoon allspice

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated or ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 to 1-1/2 teaspoons cayenne

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon white pepper

2 teaspoons dried thyme leaves

2 teaspoons ground cumin

2 teaspoons ground coriander

1-1/2 teaspoons ground ginger

1-1/2 teaspoons garlic powder

1/4 teaspoon mace, optional

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl. Stir to mix evenly. Store in a covered container for up to 6 months.

Again, if you don’t want it hot and spicy, back off the cayenne and black and white peppers, using about 1/2 the amount in recipe.


From “Cooking with Spices for Dummies”

1/3 cup paprika

3 tablespoons brown sugar

3 tablespoons chili powder

2 tablespoons cracked black pepper

1 tablespoon cayenne

2 teaspoons dry English mustard or regular dry mustard

1 1/2 teaspoons salt, optional

Combine all the ingredients. Stir to mix evenly. Store in covered container up to 3 months.

Works well on pork, ribs, brisket, steak or chicken.

Note: Again, cut the amount of pepper if you want it sweeter than hot.