Forget what you heard—having only a couple spices to your name does not mean your cooking is going to be bland or boring. In fact, you might be better off without the extra clutter.
Row of jars with spices
| Credit: Getty Images; Credit: Emrah Turudu

There is a general assumption in the world of home cooking that a well-equipped kitchen only exists when there is an adequately (read: excessively) stocked cabinet of spices. This, my friends, is simply untrue. Flavorful, exciting cooking does not require a wealth of dry spices, and anybody that tells you it does is wrong. A jam-packed closet of spices is not inherently bad, and if they’re ingredients that you enjoy using, then you should continue to do so. That being said, use spices intentionally. If you’re blindly adding them just to feel like it’s contributing some added level of culinary expertise to your dish, it might be time to step back and truly understand each spice for what it really is.

I think it’s safe to say that literally everyone is guilty of having jars and jars of spices that they have not touched in years, but feel obligated to hold on to never know, right? I can readily admit to owning spices that if you put them under my nose or sprinkled them on my dish, I would not be able to tell you which spice it is. I keep the ones that I know I like and will actually incorporate into my meals at the front, and the rest… well, I guess they’re just decoration for the back of the shelf. Whether you’re looking to take some weight off that crowded lazy susan of yours, or you’re starting from a blank slate and need to know which spices are actually worth having, I’ve got a few tips to help you maintain a spice cabinet that plays an active rather than decorative role in your kitchen.

This journey to spice nirvana is very much one of trial and error. Like anything involving cooking, it all comes down to personal preference. Because I am an unapologetic, vocal proponent of cooking in my social circles (it’s yet to be determined if I actually know what I’m doing, though), my friends often send me their culinary dilemmas, which are usually anxieties over what spices to add to meats, proteins, and veggies. I ask them what spices they like, and they have no idea. To me, this is the problem. How can you possibly expect yourself to be a seasoning genius when you can’t differentiate coriander from caraway (hint: I can’t…)?

Start with salt and pepper. This is obvious, but at the bare minimum, you can more or less get away with seasoning your food with these two staples. If you’re down for a little spicy action, keep cayenne or red chili flakes on board to dash onto anything that needs an added kick. Paprika is a great, delicately flavored spice to keep on hand for sprinkling on roasted veggies, meats, and hearty soups or stews. A jar of curry powder can also go a long way, and if you’re into this distinct and powerful spice blend’s flavor profile, it justifies its place in the cabinet. I’d recommend keeping a jar of cumin, as well, but this is me projecting my biased inclination towards this smoky-good ingredient. If you’re wondering what makes fajitas so flavorful, you can thank cumin—and for that reason, it’s a great addition to any Mexican-inspired meal.

If you’re into baking... sweet, earthy spices like ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon are always advantageous to keep stocked. As far as dried herbs, well, that is your call. If you’re fond of thyme, oregano, basil, or what have you, then by all means, go for it. There’s no denying that they’re much cheaper and more convenient than their fresh counterparts. There is not a hard-and-fast equation or rule book when it comes to the spices you use. Ultimately, the breadth of your spice cabinet should be determined by your personal taste and what you actually use. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.

By Sara Tane and Sara Tane