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What herbs and spices should a new cook purchase?

These should be versatile herbs and spices that are used in many dishes.

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closed as too broad by rumtscho Dec 29 '14 at 12:13

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6 Answers 6

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Well, it depends on what you're cooking... Here's what I'd suggest as the basics

All around / Fresh:

  • Garlic
  • Onion (white)
  • Thyme
  • Basil (in season)
  • Flat Parsley

All around / Dried and other:

  • Rosemary
  • Greek Oregano
  • Kosher Salt
  • Whole Black Pepper
  • Flaked Red Pepper

This is a pretty versatile list for American and European cooking and I wouldn't be dismayed to walk into a rental house's kitchen if I saw the above. From there, you might add regional spices:


  • Ginger Root
  • Oyster Sauce
  • Dark and Light Soy
  • Rice Wine


  • Cinnamon
  • White Sugar
  • Brown Sugar
  • Vanilla
  • Baking Powder
  • Baking Soda
  • Baking Chocolate, bar form

If you've got all that, you've got a start at a pretty flexible pantry.

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I'd also recommend dried chili flakes (or whole) to spice up sauces etc. They're usually really easy to get in any supermarket. I often use it for tomato pasta sauces. –  tobiw Jul 22 '10 at 0:15
Parsley and thyme can be pretty decent dried. –  ceejayoz Jul 22 '10 at 0:45
@tobiw I think of flaked red pepper as chili flakes. Are they the same thing to you? @ceejayoz I prefer fresh thyme, but agree that dried isn't bad. Dried parsley tastes nothing like fresh to me though, and I don't think is nearly as versatile in salads, sauces and soups. –  Peter V Jul 22 '10 at 0:54
Baking powder & soda aren't really spices and herbs, but I'd add yeast as a baking essential. –  derobert Mar 10 '11 at 22:40
No love for the smoked paprika? –  Crisfole Sep 25 '14 at 15:49

You would be surprised at what you can do with salt, pepper, garlic powder and onion powder. Other than salt the others are fairly forgiving. I would start with them and then move to the more savory bases like chili powder and curry. Then go wild you can do a lot with ginger and some of the more subtly used spices.

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Whatever you like the taste of, or you won't use them and they'll just go unused in the back of your cabinet. (like the tarragon that I got years ago ... ick ... or cilantro / fresh coriander ... or coriander seed ... or rosemary)

As you're starting out, I wouldn't worry about trying to get lots of spices / herbs ... I'd either add to my spice rack as I need them, or even use blends (e.g., curry powder, Italian seasoning, adobo)

I'm also going to assume that anyone's answer is going to be based in what sort of cuisine they mostly cook -- if I was mostly doing Indian food, I'd need a completely different collection than for Italian, etc.

(note : assuming dried herbs, and stuff that has a decent shelf life)

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Got suggestions for a core list of Indian spices? I'd be interested. –  Peter V Jul 22 '10 at 3:31
As a core list of Indian spices, I'd say you need garlic, cumin, turmeric, ginger and cloves. There's an outer circle of spices that add a lot of depth to the flavour, like cardamom, asafoetida, fenugreek, coriander seed and cinnamon. –  Carmi Jul 22 '10 at 4:11

Cumin, Coriander, (Garlic and onions), salt, pepper, chili powder, hing (asaefotida), Oregano, Basil, and Thyme.

You can make just about any simple (and tasty curry) as well as pasta, and nice steaks.

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You might also want to add some soy sauce and oyster sauce for making quick stir fries –  mechko Jul 22 '10 at 0:04

Pretty much everything I was going to say has been said already, but I'd like to chime in with what my wife (a fast-learning but inexperienced cook) uses the most: adobo, and paprika are her top two. And of course kosher salt. Adobo, especially, can be used in a lot of dishes to "wake them up" when she feels she's made something that's too bland, without having to mess with a lot of spices and try to find good combinations.

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Here's an article on what to put in a spice starter kit: http://www.spicesherpa.com/2010/12/09/gift-idea-what-to-put-in-a-spice-starter-kit/

It's divided into three sections: 1) BAKING BASICS for sweet and savory combinations. 2) PEPPER -includes a few suggestions beyond black. 3) HERBS. The list has 4 herbs which can be mixed and matched for Greek, Italian and French. Well, the Mediterranean dishes!

Hope it helps--I had a lot of fun putting the list together.

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