In cooking, there are few things more useful than a well-stocked spice rack. A pinch of something spicy or earthy can help transform a so-so dish into something pretty darn spectacular. Even if you’re mostly using salt, pepper, and the occasional dash of garlic powder, anyone who cooks regularly understands the importance of adding a little (or a lot) of flavor to dishes with spices.
Because there is such an incredible variety of spices from all over the globe, it can be intimidating to invest your hard earned-cash in something that just may not be your thing. If you’re looking to build a cabinet of basic spices — with the occasional exotic indulgence — these six guidelines will help you get a little more adventurous with flavors in your own cooking while keeping your budget in mind.
Ignore those pre-bottled spices included with your spice rack.
You shouldn’t be wasteful, but the spices that came in the box with your brand-new countertop spice rack probably aren’t going to be very good. These spices can be of dubious provenance, and their flavor has likely been deteriorating on the shelves for months. If you can find a spice rack that doesn’t include these spices, you’re going to be much better off. Alternatively, consider not even purchasing a spice rack at all — they can be easily stored in baby food jars and other repurposed containers.
Buy in bulk.
Those tiny bottles of spices that you find at the grocery store are some of the biggest ripoffs in cooking. Spices sold in bulk are much less expensive than their pre-bottled counterparts, and are often fresher thanks to frequent turnover in the store. Farmers’ markets, the bulk bins at Whole Foods, and ethnic grocery stores can be treasure troves of bulk spices, many of which are higher quality and far less expensive than those tiny bottles sold at the grocery store.
Make your own blends
Spice blends are a great way to add a variety of flavor to a dish, but they often contain high amounts of sodium, preservatives, and other icky chemicals. Skip the premixed taco seasoning and mix together cumin, chili powder, oregano, garlic powder, and cayenne pepper. Aside from being cleaner and less expensive, you can also customize these spice blends to suit your own tastes. To save time, mix your frequently used spice blends in bulk, and store in glass jars in the pantry.
Build up a solid selection of the basics
There are a few spices, like bay leaves, ginger, cayenne pepper, and curry powder, that you should always keep on hand for those days that you’re not quite sure what to make for dinner. A shot of spicy curry powder or a smoky paprika-garlic rub can help you transform boneless, skinless chicken breasts into a flavorful, healthy dinner when you’re running low on ingredients and ideas. Real Simple curated an excellent checklist of spice cupboard basics, most of which are inexpensive and easy to find.
Get a little adventurous
Even if you’re not sure how to use fenugreek or garam masala in your own cooking, you should occasionally pick up an unfamilar spice and do a little experimenting with other cuisines. A mild curry blend can help you master Indian cooking at home, or pick up some za’atar if Mediterranean food is more your speed. You won’t always love your latest find, so make sure to pick up a small quantity (one ounce or less) so you won’t feel guilty about tossing it when it’s languished on the rack unused for a few months.
Indulge from time to time
Most kitchen staple spices are inexpensive, but there are others that can quickly deplete your grocery budget. Even if you can’t afford to buy Maldon sea salt, saffron, and imported Spanish pimenton on the regular, the occasional splurge when you’ve got a little extra cash is the best kind of culinary indulgence. The tiniest sprinkle of these intensely flavored spices will add an impressive burst of flavor to your food.
Amy McCarthy is Paste’s Assistant Food Editor. She owns an inordinate amount of spices. Tweet her your favorite flavors @aemccarthy.