Can you teach me how to use spices?

During my days as an in-home cooking instructor, I saw spice cabinets and drawers in every state: over-crowded, unorganized, filled with duplicates or unidentified containers, spices well past their shelf lives, or sometimes just non-existent. We all aspire to learn how to use spices and incorporate them into our cooking effectively and have them beautifully organized a la Container Store style but they can be intimidating – both in their functionality and their ability to multiply – for a lot of home cooks.

I’ve had many clients tell me they wish they had an organized spice drawer where all the spices were uniform – either from the same brand or in the same container. Years ago, I also shared the same wish and decided to organize my spice drawer. Below was the end result:

Organized spices in spice drawer by Cook Smarts

Not bad, eh? I purchased all matching tins from an eCommerce site that specialized in containers. You can find the containers here but I would not recommend them. They are a pain in the ass to open and did not help me use my spices any more frequently or effectively (but it was pretty darn fun to look at). My experience taught me that having an organized spice cabinet does not make you an expert on using spices and an organized spice drawer isn’t a prerequisite for cooking well with spices. Now should you do it? Sure, but don’t expect it to turn you into a spice master.

Instead, here are my tips on how to manage your spice situation so that it will actually improve your cooking:

  1. Isolate / control and experiment.
    Roast a pan of vegetables. Sprinkle spices on one half but not the other. See how it changes the taste of those vegetables
  2. Be fearless.
    One of my favorite ways to push my clients is to open their spice cabinet after making a pureed soup and letting them doctor the seasoning of the soup with their available spices. They can do it to individual servings or to the whole pot, but they always feel more confident afterwards, because they got to be creative vs. just follow a recipe
  3. Less is more.
    You don’t need 50 spices to be a great cook. You probably don’t even need 20. Start with 10. Food52 has a list of their 10 essential spices. This is a great start but might vary depending on your tastes. The top 10 list in my kitchen are: garlic powder, paprika, coriander, cumin, red pepper flakes, fennel seeds, Chinese five spice, garam masala, cayenne pepper, and turmeric
  4. Buy just a few mixes.
    Think about ethnic foods you enjoy, and purchase a few of their common spice blends. You get a mix of a lot of spices instead of having to buy all of them individually and mix on your own. Some common ones are ras el hanout (Middle Eastern blend of cardamom, clove, cinnamon, coriander, nutmeg, turmeric, and more), garam masala (Indian spice blend of cloves, cinnamon, cumin, cardamom), Chinese five spice (Chinese spice blend of star anise, cinnamon, cloves, sichuan peppers), Italian seasoning (Mediterranean spice blend of oregano, basil, sage, thyme, and more), and herbs de Provence (French spice blend of savory, fennel, basil, thyme, lavender, and more)
  5. Purchase loose spices.
    Supermarkets charge a lot for jars of spices so buy them loose. It’ll save you money in the long run. Don’t want to invest in containers? Writing on a Ziploc bag with a Sharpie is just fine
  6. Cleanse.
    While an organized spice drawer won’t be the answer to your spice problems, de-cluttering allows you to figure out your starting point. Throw away very old and unidentified spices. Set aside spices that haven’t been used in awhile that you think you might use in the future. If you go another 6 months without touching them, toss them too

And if you need some inspiration, here are a collection of organized spice collections to get you motivated:

Collection of organized spice drawers

From top left across

{1. Door 16‘s collection} {2. New Nostalgia‘s collection} {3. Kavita’s collection on TheKitchn}
{4. Evil Mad Scientist‘s collection} {5. A Cozy Kitchen‘s collection} {6. Unsophisticook‘s collection}

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