Top 10 Must Have Spices and Herbs for Every Pantry

Let’s admit it: one of the hardest things for people switching from fast food to home cooking is the bland flavor of home made dishes. After years of sugar, salt, and fat, loaded with a dollop of “natural and artificial flavors”, adding salt and pepper simply doesn’t cut it.

Herbs and spices bring food to life. With a bit of experimentation, you can reach a bliss point of taste and aroma, that will take ordinary dishes to a whole new level.

We compiled a top 10 must have list, with some helpful advice for each herb or spice. By the way, if you don’t know the difference between an herb and a spice – read this. Here is the list, in no particular order:

1. Black Pepper – this is salt’s twin brother and always adds a kick to a dish. It is probably the most popular spice in the world. Best to buy the whole peppercorns and a grinder, but buying ground is fine too. For a sharper bite, try white pepper.


2. Garlic - There’s no mistaking garlic when added to a dish. While we prefer freshly peeled cloves, you can buy prepacked frozen minced garlic, or even garlic powder. Although technically garlic is neither an herb nor a spice, show us anyone who eats it like a vegetable…


3. Ginger – the ginger root is a cornerstone of Asian cooking, imparting a slightly sweet, slightly hot flavor. Goes well will garlic in many Thai, Indian, and Chinese dishes. You can keep a fresh ginger root in the fridge for several weeks, or in the freezer. Ground ginger powder is also an option. Ginger may help stop nausea and may also relieve heartburn and bloating. Try a ginger and honey tea when you’re under the weather.


4. Cinnamon - a versatile spice that can be used in both sweet and savory dishes. Some initial studies claim it helps to reduce blood glucose and bad cholesterol, but more research is needed. What isn’t needed is an excuse to add cinnamon to your breakfast oats, hot milk, cakes and pies, or meat marinades.


5. Paprika – this bright red powder is made from ground peppers and is most associated with Hungary. Use it in stews, soups, pasta sauces, and meat dishes.

allspice and bay leaf

6. Allspice and Bay Leaves – although these are 2 separate spices, they are often used together. Throw one bay leaf and 3-5 allspice berries into any soup, stock, or stew to increase flavor.


7. Oregano - has a bold overpowering flavor, so it’s best paired with strong flavored dishes.

chili flakes

8. Chili powder / flakes – spicy hot food helps the body sweat and potentially remove toxins. And there’s nothing like chili pepper to make one’s mouth set fire. Add to any dish to increase flavor and decrease the need for salt.


9. Turmeric – a bright orange powder that is known to stain kitchenware, turmeric is used in Indian and other dishes for both flavor and intense color. Curcumin, the active element in turmeric, is known for healing properties such as inflammation reduction. Add turmeric to rice or use it to temper oil before sautéing onions and garlic.


10. Basil – There’s nothing like a few fresh basil leaves in a tomato sauce or tomato salad. It’s easy to grow basil as a potted plant on a windowsill. But even if you don’t you can always find some fresh sprigs at the supermarket produce aisle. Or, have a jar of dried leaves ready anytime.

Two bonus spices we just couldn’t leave out of the list:

cumin seeds

Cumin – Either the seed or ground into a powder. Cumin is believed to help with digestion and work as an antiseptic; it is a pungent and powerful spice. It is commonly used in Indian, North African and Mexican dishes. Try it sprinkled on hummus, popcorn, or pita bread with a dash of olive oil.


Nutmeg – either the ground powder or whole nut (which needs to be grated). Nutmeg is a delicate spice to add to vegetarian dishes and creamy pasta sauces. It imparts a sweet nutty aroma.

What’s your must have spice or herb?

Image credits:

black pepper –
garlic – best garlic traders
ginger –
cinnamon –
paprika –
allspice and bay leaves =
oregano –
chili flakes –
turmeric –
basil – Piccia Neri
cumin seeds –
nutmeg –

  • Brooke

    Your opening statement is funny, because I’ve always thought just the opposite: one of the best reasons to eat homemade is the depth of flavor that you just can’t find in most processed foods.

    Other than for adding color, I’ve never understood the need for paprika or turmeric. I would add coriander, parsley (fresh, not dried), cilantro (again fresh, a must-have for Mexican cooking), and maybe dill (freeze dried for longer storage, better flavor). And so many others …

    • Rhonda @wine-y-wife

      Brooke, I used to feel the same way about paprika, until I started buying the smoked Hungarian paprika. It usually comes in little tin containers and comes in “hot” (which can be quite spicy) and “sweet” (good flavor, but not actually sweet). Most grocery stores I’ve been to seem to have it.

      I totally agree about dill. I use it often in soups and summer salads.

    • Fooducate

      Hi Brooke, when you know to cook with spices then of course home made rocks! However, cooking is a lost art these days. Many people simply have no idea how to prepare the most basic dishes, let alone accentuate them with the appropriate spices.
      All your suggested spices are spot on. Maybe we should have made a top 20 list ;-)

  • Les Petits Cuistots

    Spot on! Herbs and spice are a must! That’s what enhance any flavors and make dishes taste good… here we use Thyme in almost every dishes…2nd is basil! Salt and pepper are a must…Curry also gives a nice taste to many veggies!

  • GiGi Eats Celebrities

    Uh, is SALT considered an herb or spice? LOL! That’s ALWAYS a must in my house!!

  • Rajneesh

    Few more spices/herbs we use in Indian food:

    - Coriander seeds or powder
    - Asafoetida
    - Fenugreek seeds
    - Mustard seed

  • Tyler

    My spices:
    (1) Tea: cloves, black pepper, cardamom, fresh ginger – all crushed
    (2) Vegetables/soups/stews: turmeric, cilantro powder, cumin powder, fennel seeds, cumin seeds, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, asafoetida, dried red pepper, cinnamon sticks
    (3) Flatbreads: usually unleavened savory flatbreads with a variety of spices and zaatar + olive oil paste on top. Love manakeesh bread made with zaatar – a Middle Eastern spice with a nice tangy kick to it.
    (4) Rice: whole cloves, black pepper and a little saffron.

  • andrew

    i never knew about these spices

  • Steven Dotsch

    My must have spice is the spice mix based on my Dutch grandmother’s sweet tasting spice mix: vandotsch speculaas spice mix.

    Steven Dotsch

    The Speculaas Spice Master Chef
    The Speculaas Spice Company Ltd