Even if you're not big on cooking from scratch, a kitchen should always include a basic set of spices and herbs. Salt and pepper are great for bringing flavour into food, but the spice rack also has the potential to cover all kinds of spices and herbs. There are few recipes that do not call for any extra seasoning, and even a microwaved dish can be improved from its original with a teaspoon of flavor. For example, many people who say they don’t like vegetables have only tried them in a raw or boiled/steamed form – adding some seasoning for more flavor could change their opinion. In addition, many herbs and spices have natural health benefits.
From Italian seasoning to cajun mixes, there are plenty of mixes out there, too (my favorite is garam masala). However, this article is about the basics – assuming you already have black pepper, a spice that can be added to pretty much any dish, this list is what other flavours to invest in even if you don't cook a lot or don't have the money to splurge (sorry, saffron and truffle).
If you are not cooking according to a set recipe, spices and herbs are best added a bit at a time, tasting the food between additions. Adding a lot of different flavors in one dish can also result in a combo where no flavor is able to stand out in its own right.
While made from varieties of pepper, paprika powder is generally quite mild, although it packs a punch and gives a red hue for many foods. It is commonly used in Hungarian and Spanish cuisine, but it can also be used in so many dishes, such as marinara sauces for pasta. Heat in oil before adding any other ingredients to the pan to get a deep flavor.
Cinnamon has that warm, comforting taste, perfect for adding into your porridge, smoothie, cookies, cakes, chai lattes - not to mention cinnamon buns! While cinnamon is in Finland usually associated with sweet foods, it is also a common component of many Indian and Mexican savory dishes with meat or veggies.
Typical for Levant and Indian cuisine, cumin has a rich and slightly hot flavor. It is commonly used with grill dishes and for flavoring rice as a side dish or fried rice as seeds or powder. It is a staple in Indian curry blends. In India, cumin is known as jeera, and jeera water is a well-known healthy metabolism booster and toxin remover that clears your skin.
This is a spicy kind of punch that is difficult to substitute. It goes well with pork, chicken, fish and vegetables – perfect for woks and noodles. In baking, it is used in cookies, apple pies, and Bundt cakes. My own pack of ginger is labeled by the producer as "wok ginger", but I have added it to my cookie dough with good results. Ginger is easy to find in regular food stores also in its root form, if you find yourself using it regularly. Recipes for baked goods, however, usually call for the dried and powdered kind. 5. Thyme
Thyme is an all round herb for French cuisine and western food in general. It can be used in more strongly flavoured dishes like meaty or vegetable-based stews or marinades. It also goes well with fish. Although not often talked about, thyme has antimicrobial properties, which makes thyme tea a good home remedy for throat inflammation, congestion or sore throat before and during a cold.
Another herb, basil is a must for tomato-based dishes such as marinara sauces or for giving your pizza an extra touch. Basil has a somewhat strong but not bitter taste, best added towards the end of cooking. Especially in the summer, fresh basil is easy to maintain in a pot on your windowsill for adding to salads or sandwiches. During cold seasons, dried basil can be used, but the taste is a bit stronger than that of fresh leaves.7. Turmeric
Like ginger, turmeric can be used as a root (although this is hard to find in Finland) or as a powder. Turmeric has a quite mild flavor that goes well in fish and chicken dishes. It can be used to give sauces, curries and rice dishes a yellow shade, and is often used just for that purpose. However, turmeric isn't just for show. If you've heard of "golden milk", you probably already know of the health benefits of turmeric.
This flavor that adds a nice touch to baked goods, from cookies to French toast (add some to your milk and egg mixture). It's also a must for creamy foods like casseroles, creamy soups, the cheese or béchamel sauce for lasagna or other pasta. Although containing the word "nut", nutmeg is made from the seed of a nutmeg tree and is suitable also for those with nut allergy. You may have heard that too much nutmeg can have hallucinogenic and nauseating reactions, but any amount added to your usual recipes is safe, and the dose would have to be 25 g or more for it to have any effect, way more than anyone would want to sprinkle over their stew or carrot cake.
10. Chili powder
If you're a fan, you probably already have this or some other equivalent (chili sauce, Tabasco, fresh chili peppers) to really make the buds in your mouth tingle. Sauces, salsas, barbeque... Even if you're not a fan of hot chili, using just a bit of the powder can add a bit of heat that is not too overpowering. Any food that accidentally becomes too spicy can be tried to fix with dairy or fatty products – Thai-style food often combines chili with coconut milk.
This is another seasoning that not everybody can get behind, but those to whom the aroma is not too pungent (and who can deal with the post-garlic breath) this is a must-add in any food – meat, pasta, salads, and sauces like aioli or other dips. Garlic comes in fresh garlic bulbs but can also be found in dried and ground state, which will keep fresh longer. Garlic is widely considered to have health benefits, from fighting bacteria to boosting digestion.
Sources and more information on different kinds of spices and herbs:
The Epicentre (in English, on cooking and history of spices)
Meira.fi (in Finnish, how to cook with spices)