My Spice & Seasoning Pantry
Part of my ability to throw together delicious and comforting food is having a pantry filled with spices, herbs and seasonings that I use regularly. Adding spices or seasonings to every day ingredients can customize your food to your own tastes, and can make a thrown together meal really special.
When I was learning about Indian food and curries, I learned that "curry" isn't an actual spice, but a dish, and Indian cooks generally have something called a Masala Dabba- or a spice box. They keep their favourite spices well stocked and fresh all in one easy access place. A lot of Indian cooks keep multiple boxes with various spices that accompany each other well that may lend themselves to separate dishes. I don't have a masala dabba....yet. I am on the hunt for a few perfect ones that will let me pinch and scoop all of my favourite spices and seasonings.
My spice cupboard isn't nearly as pretty or organized as the pictured masala dabba, but I do have the spices and seasonings I always have on hand.
Freeze Dried Garlic- This never, ever replaces fresh garlic for me. They have two totally different flavours-however in sauces (especially Italian red sauces) or soups this stuff packs a powerful punch without the addition of liquid or natural sugars in cloves of garlic. If you have ever chopped really good fresh garlic, you noticed it's sweet smell and sticky feel- those natural sugars lead to the ability to quickly and easily burn. Freeze dried removes that risk.
Cayenne-Powdered cayenne packs a powerful punch of heat with a background of citrus. My favourite use for cayenne is sprinkled on diced melon with salt and lemon, but it lends itself well to any of the dishes I make that are south west American, or Mexican influenced.
Peppercorns- Always used fresh black pepper done in a grinder. The already ground pepper you get in shakers is usually stale and lacking of any volatile oils that make the pepper have major flavour. Cracked peppercorns on a red meat dish is one of the truly best things you can have.
Salt-I plan to write an entire article on what I have learned about all of the different types of salt out there. However, I always have table salt (the regular fine grain stuff) and a chunky crunchy salt that has no additives (Kosher, pickling etc.) Fine grain is good for table salt, but for adding to cooking I prefer the flaky kind just for precision. I also have a very salty palate so it helps me keep the salt in check when I am cooking for more than just myself.
Soy Sauce (fermented)- I use only fermented soy sauce (usually Kikkoman low sodium to control the salt level if it reduces). I never use the other types only out of personal taste. Soy Sauce can add a whole lot of background "umami" flavour to a lot of different dishes. Think that flavour of French onion soup, or roasted mushrooms that is so craveable. You can add a teaspoon of soy sauce to tomato dishes to really help the tomato flavour shine through. It's an extremely versatile ingredient, and you'll probably see it pop up in a lot of my dishes in unexpected places.
Chili Flakes- I always have chili flakes on hand. These are different than the cayenne as they add a more peppery blatant heat than the slow burn of a cayenne powder. These are great sprinkled in salads, or on mushrooms or grilled meats. These are what I used in Italian or Indian inspired dishes. We like heat in my house so we use these a lot.
Dried Thyme- I use dried thyme in pretty much every savoury meal I make. It's right up there with onions and garlic for me in seasonings that just work in the background to make everything amazing. The trick to thyme is making sure you use stuff that is dried at the peak of freshness. I prefer free-dried herbs like lighthouse brand, but if it smells really earthy when you open the package it's probably good stuff.
Garam Masala- This is a spice blend with indian influences. I currently have a package that I picked up at an Indian grocery store, but you can find it pretty much anywhere. It's got warm spices like cinnamon, coriander, star anise, cumin etc in it (they are all different blends), and they go really well with different vegetables. Curried lentils and Shakshuka are a few of my favourite places that this shows up.
Fish Sauce- I use fish sauce in a lot of places. I learned this from Kenji Lopez Alt in his book The Food Lab and also his website Serious Eats. You can use fish sauce almost like soy sauce, but I tend to use it most in Chinese and Thai inspired cooking. It adds a great background richness. Beware: this stuff STINKS. It does NOT taste as strong as it smells but it is definitely pungent. It's fermented fish-so what can you expect? However, if you have ever eaten Thai food and found yourself just wanting more because of....something you couldn't quite put your finger on...THIS is it.
Lemon Juice-This stuff is in a lot of things I cook. It lends a bit of acid to a dish without overpowering. A sprinkle of lemon juice over a finished dish can really pick up a lot of natural flavours that might have been otherwise muddled by the cooking process. It's a chef trick that I have picked up watching too much food TV. But I do know that lemon juice helps open your palate much like salt-so if you are in need of a low sodium diet: try lemon juice instead of salting your final dish-not too much just a few drops. You may find a new dinner table staple.
There are many other spices and seasonings that have space in my pantry-and I use a lot of them. However these are things that I never run out of. I will always have these on hand and they can shape any dish to take it in a new direction. What do you always have in your pantry?