Get to Know Your Spice Rack
By Sharon Salomon, MS, RD
There are many delicious, fresh foods that require little tinkering with flavor, but when it comes to lightening up recipes, it is important to understand how to keep flavor when reducing fat, sugar or sodium. One way is through the addition of spices, herbs or other flavorings like citrus juice, alcohols, dried fruits or cheeses. Some dishes use chopped or diced aromatic vegetables—onions, garlic, shallots, scallions, leeks, peppers or celery—for a base flavor in soups, stews, sauces and stir fry recipes. Then you can add depth to a dish by adding seasonings like herbs and spices to layer flavors.
Typical herbs and spices depend on the cuisine, and every culture has its favorites. But for a very basic assortment, a standard spice rack should include:
- Salt (many people use kosher or sea salt for optimal flavor)
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Cayenne pepper
- Garlic powder (not to be confused with garlic salt)
- Onion powder (not onion salt)
- Bay leaf
- Curry powder
- Paprika (smoked paprika is a trendy one)
- Chili powder
- Italian herb seasoning blend
Dried herbs do not always taste like their fresh counterparts, so they are not necessarily interchangeable in a recipe. But in a pinch, try substituting one part dry herb for three parts fresh. Be sure to taste and season throughout the cooking process and to add salt at the very end. You can add more flavor as you go along, but masking flavors once you’ve been too heavy handed with a certain spice is much more difficult. While "just right" is a subjective description, it’s better to under season than to overdo it.
Remember that dry herbs and spices have a shelf life. Most should not be kept for more than a few years, especially after they’ve been opened. Store dried herbs and spices in airtight containers and in a cool, dark cupboard or pantry.
Learn more about storing spices »
Reviewed April 2013