Every beginner cook should have these 7 spices in their cabinet

Just a little spice can make a big difference when you are learning to cook at home.

By Michael La Corte

Deputy Food Editor

Published July 26, 2023 12:15PM (EDT)

Spices herbs on wooden spoons (Getty Images/Uma Shankar sharma)
Spices herbs on wooden spoons (Getty Images/Uma Shankar sharma)

Most of us understand that throwing bulk ingredients into a pan — no salt, no pepper, no seasoning —and then eating them as-is in not a particularly transformative culinary experience. That said, it can sometimes be intimidating for beginner cooks to know where to start when the time comes to build out their spice cabinet. 

But here's a little secret: Most food, on its own accord, is innately good. Spices (and fresh herbs) just build upon that already intact flavor. That means that you don't a cabinet full of expensive cutesy-named spice blends in order to prepare some truly high-quality food.

 So, for those who are looking to bulk up the spices in their cupboard or diversify their at-home cookery, here's a simple run-down of the top spices all cooks should have at their disposal.

A few notes before getting into it

  • This is largely geared towards savory cooking. If we were talking other types of cooking (sweets, baking, beverages), I'd venture into more warming spices, such as cinnamon, cloves or cardamom, as well as staples like vanilla extract. I do, however, often use nutmeg in certain savory applications, such as when cooking greens or any sort of cream or Bechamel-based sauce (props to Rachael Ray for this). 
  • I am not including any dried herbs, as they are indeed herbs, not spices. I will note, though, that my number-one most used item in my spice cabinet this year is freeze-dried chives, which I have become obsessed with and use in practically everything I make.
  • I'm not going to include seeds, but I will say that sesame seeds (both white and black) and mustard seeds are some of the most commonly used "spices" in my cupboard. 
  • This list only includes singular, stand-alone spices — no blends or mixes (garam masala, curry powders, ras el hanout, Berbere, dukkah, Bell's) — but I love each and every one of those. 
  • There are many, many other spices that I love to use — sumac, coriander, bay leaves, allspice, fennel, turmeric — but those aren't necessary for a "beginner" pantry.

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Salt (obviously)
This should go without saying.
I'm a proponent of the flavor and texture of kosher salt; I use Morton's and Diamond Crystal interchangeably. Literally every single thing you cook will benefit from some grains of salt, whether you're making hot chocolate or Pastitsio.
I keep a small bowl or ramekin of large-grain kosher salt next to my stove, which I use in everything I cook and I use my fingers to season my food. This allows you to feel the grains, to intuit precisely how much you are adding: not too much, not too little.
Also, please remember to always season as you go — do not wait until you're about to serve to season. You should be seasoning during practically every step or component. If you're seasoning a piece of protein, no matter if it's a halibut filet, chicken thigh or filet mignon, be sure to sprinkle your salt from a bit higher than you would normally, which will help to properly disperse and more evenly season your food. I also enjoy using a finishing salt for certain dishes. 
And don't forget to toss some over your shoulder for luck.
Garlic powder
Some people get very, very offended by garlic powder, which is such a ludicrous thing to get riled up over. In many instances, I use both fresh garlic and garlic powder, because they add a completely different shade of garlic flavor. For example, I don't love raw garlic in guacamole; even one clove can be overwhelming or acrid, a sharp contrast from the smooth, mellow avocado and bright cilantro and lime. Garlic powder, however, adds a dried, toasted note of garlic without being overpowering or unpleasantly sharp. Be mindful of not over-using garlic powder, though.
Conversely, if I'm making some sort of pan sauce, I'll add three or four chopped cloves, which will mellow out as they cook. If I'm making chicken parm, I"m going to add garlic powder to every component of my breading process. Keep both on hand and determine what's the best use for each depending on the dish you're making — or, of course, just use both! 
I adore paprika. Growing up, we really only had it on grilled chicken, but I'd argue it's the best, well-rounded spice to add to . . . practically anything from vegetables to proteins to rice or buttered egg noodles.
I like a generic paprika for some added flavor and color, but others swear by Hungarian or smoked, which add a whole new dimension of flavor. Sometimes, if you're at a loss for what to cook or you're looking to make a gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free, nut-free, uber-healthy protein, sautéed chicken cooked in oil with nothing other than salt, pepper and paprika is always a safe bet.
I appreciate paprika's reliability. It's always there for you when you need some extra "oomph" but don't know which flavor dimension to pursue. 


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I'm obsessed with cumin, but it can be much more potent than most paprikas. If you add an extra shake or two of cumin to anything, that dish might then become cumin-focused, which rarely happens with paprika. And while I adore the smoky depth of cumin, it can be overpowering in certain capacities. Generally, though, I love it when making any taco, in guacamole, in grilled chicken or on roasted vegetables.
Many will swear by toasting whole cumin seeds and then grounding them, but honestly, I'm usually not taking that extra step. While that might amplify the adored flavor even further, let's be honest: Store-bought ground cumin never hurt anybody. 
Onion powder
While I'm not one for "salt and pepper," I am one for "garlic and onion powder." (Lately, I've been especially partial to Burlap & Barrel, which has some of the most potent garlic and onion powder I've ever tried.) I rarely ever use one instead of the other; they often go hand-in-hand, making their way into practically everything I cook, from turkey meatballs to chicken cutlets to chicken meatloaf to tacos. Onion powder is quite subtle — not intense like garlic powder — and just like with garlic, I tend to use onion powder and actual alliums together. Sometimes that's onion, sometimes scallion, sometimes shallot. Really, whatever I have on hand. 
I'm pretty much an allium stan all around, so I might use onion powder a bit more than other cooks, but I promise it's an important, reliable spice to have on hand that'll deepen the flavor of pretty much anything you make. 
Black pepper
Get ready: I don't love black pepper. Like, at all . . . I hardly use it. But this is a list for the general beginner cook and let's be frank, "salt and pepper" is a generally understood culinary pairing. Who am I to break them up? 
Anne Burrell once said that salt is something to be used 100% of the time, while pepper should be treated as a spice, which completely re-shaped my perception and also helped me feel better about not using pepper nearly as much as others do, fully embracing my "hater" status.
Now, don't get me wrong, I love some cranks of fresh-ground black pepper on salads (garden, Caesar, raw vegetables), on chicken breasts or on cacio e pepe, but I'm not automatically adding pepper to every single thing I make. But for a novice who doesn't have my proclivities, please do buy a great grinder of some black peppercorns and use them as you see fit. 
Cayenne powder or crushed red pepper (red pepper flakes)
Hater round 2: I literally never use these products. I have a strikingly low tolerance for spice so they have no place in my spice cabinet.
However, I know that most people adore spicy food, so this is a must-have for most. I once enjoyed crushed red pepper and would throw it into certain sauces or dishes, but cayenne has never been for me. Cayenne adds a sharper, more pointed spice, while crushed red pepper is a bit more utilitarian and has a more dynamic "spice" profile. 

By Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he worked in restaurants, catering and supper clubs before pivoting to food journalism and recipe development. He also holds a BA in psychology and literature from Pace University.

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