Have you ever wondered what spices you should have in your pantry? Whether you’re just starting to fill up your spice cabinet, or trying to pare things down, this list of the 10 Essential Spices and Dried Herbs for Every Home Cook is the ultimate guide to completing your pantry.

Multi-colored peppercorns spilling off of a spoon on black slate platter

Okay, kosher salt and whole peppercorns (get yourself a pepper grinder, I promise) are both absolutely essential spices, but they are so common, they don’t get to take up space on this list of essential spices and dried herbs. Because, well, it’s pretty much a given. Kosher salt is the way to go over table salt because it goes much farther when seasoning, most (reputable) recipes are developed with kosher salt, and well, it just has more oomph.  Table salt is also an essential spice, but reserve that for the table and when baking, unless specified otherwise.

As a rule of thumb, all spices and dried herbs should be stored in a cool, dark place. Many people tend to store spices near or above their stove out of ease during cooking. However, the heat that’s given off by the stovetop and oven can damage the spices, decreasing their potency. Additionally, most dried herbs and spices start to lose potency after 6 months, although they’re still fine to use, just keep that in mind and adjust seasoning (add more) when cooking, if needed.

Now let’s get to the good stuff! Here are the top 10 most essential spices for your spice cabinet.

Essential Spices:

  • Red Pepper Flakes

    Whether you’re making homemade marinara sauce or topping a take-out pizza, red pepper flakes are essential for adding a kick of heat to your meals. Use red pepper flakes in pasta and pizza sauces, soups, anything with sausage, brines, and marinades. Use red pepper flakes in this Romesco Sauce.

  • Garlic Powder

    When you’re short on time and need to add a kick of garlic to whatever you’re cooking, garlic powder is a great shortcut. While fresh is always best, it’s great to have garlic powder on hand for busy nights. Skip any with added herbs and flavorings. And, if you’re wondering, garlic salt is simply garlic powder with salt added (so skip garlic salt and get more bang for your buck with garlic powder). Use garlic powder in rubs, spice blends, dressings, and vinaigrettes.

  • Ground Cinnamon

    An absolute essential in baking and cooking. Cinnamon is most familiar to people in sweet applications, but it’s also common in savory dishes to add depth of flavor and dimension. Use it in desserts, breads, drinks, stews, curries, sauces, and chilis. Put cinnamon to work in these Maple & Molasses Roasted Sweet Potatoes.

  • Whole Nutmeg

    Yes, you need whole nutmeg, which means you’ll need a microplane. But trust me, grated fresh nutmeg offers so much more flavor than the pre ground stuff. Plus, you’ll use a microplane for tons of things, I use mine daily for zesting citrus and grating Parmesan. Use nutmeg in desserts, baked goods, drinks, and anything creamy like alfredo, basic white sauces, potato soup, and more. It’s also often added to veggies and ground meat dishes. Use nutmeg in this savory Shiitake & Thyme Crostini with Apricot Goat Cheese.

  • Cayenne Pepper

    In similar vein to red pepper flakes, cayenne pepper adds heat to a myriad of dishes. This versatile spice, made from ground chiles, is often used in hot sauces, and is prevalent in Mexican, Cajun, Southern, and Indian cuisines. Add a little kick to chocolate waffles with a hearty dose of cayenne pepper.

  • Ground Cumin

    Actually the dried fruit of a plant in the parsley family, cumin comes in both seed and ground form, but ground appears on this list due in part to its convenience. This aromatic spice is used a lot in Middle Eastern cuisine as well as Asian and North African.

    Cumin is at home in these Healthy Chiles Rellenos.

  • Onion Powder

    Onion powder makes the list for the same reason that garlic powder does. It’s great for busy nights or when you’re in a pinch. Use onion powder in rubs, spice blends, dressings, and vinaigrettes.

vibrant piles of colorful spices arranges on a black slate plate.

Essential Dried Herbs:

  • Dried Bay Leaves

    An aromatic herb with woodsy aroma, dried bay leaves are often used in stews, soups, long simmered dishes, meat dishes, and vegetable dishes. Most recipes call for 1–2 dried bay leaves since using too many can cause the dish to become bitter. They should be removed from the food before eating.

  • Dried Basil

    Although dried basil bears little resemblance to fresh basil in flavor, it’s an important dried herb to have in your spice cabinet. It’s great added to Italian dishes and bumps up the flavor in soups and tomato sauces. When in season, I recommend keeping fresh basil on hand as much as possible.

  • Dried Oregano

    Related to marjoram, oregano is more pungent in flavor and is featured a lot in Mediterranean cooking. Use dried oregano in Greek dishes, pizza, meat dishes, and vegetable dishes.
    Dried Oregano offers a classic, comforting flavor to this hearty Vegetarian Eggplant Bolognese.


vibrant piles of colorful spices arranges on a black slate plate.

Got More Space? Fill Up Your Spice Cabinet With These Spices Too:

  • Ground Cardamom

    You know I’m obsessed with cardamom. This aromatic spice is great in cocktails and baking as well as curries and stews. Taste as you go, because a little goes a long way.
    I’ll just direct you to the cardamom archive on ZK.

  • Dried Rosemary

    Use this aromatic spice in stews, soups, meat dishes, and vegetable dishes.

  • Dried Dill Weed

    Use dried dill in salad dressings and vinaigrettes, yogurt sauces, and dips.

  • Curry Powder

    A mix of more than 20 herbs, spices, and seeds, curry powder can be used in a lot more than just curry dishes. Use it in these cakesstuffed mushrooms, or sprinkle it over popcorn.

  • Ground Coriander

    The ground seeds of the coriander plant, whose leaves are called cilantro, is used in a variety of dishes. I like to use it in tacos, guacamole, and curry dishes. Coriander is a must in these Breakfast Burritos.

  • Dried Ground Ginger

    Great in spice-heavy baking, curries, meat dishes, and soups.

  • Smoked Paprika

    This mild spice adds a smoky note to seafood, vegetable, and egg dishes.

  • Chili Powder

    A great shortcut in the kitchen, chili powder is a spice blend made with chiles, garlic, cumin, coriander, oregano, and cloves. Use in Mexican and Southwest cuisine.

Fill out your kitchen! Check out the 15 Essential Kitchen Gadgets and Equipment.

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About The Author

Lauren Grant is a professional culinary food scientist, food writer, recipe developer, and food photographer. Lauren is a previous magazine editor and test kitchen developer and has had work published in major national publications including Diabetic Living Magazine, Midwest Living Magazine, Cuisine at Home Magazine, EatingWell.com, AmericasTestKitchen.com, and more.

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Comments

  1. In your experience do you recommend any particular spice mills? Or do you typically use graters or mortar and pestle? For example, I’m considering getting a mill to do spices like cumin, pepper, mustard, allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, etc. Also controlling the coarseness is important too. In your experience, would a mill or mortar and pestle be easier?

    1. Hi Manny!
      I usually use a spice mill or grinder simply for the ease of it. I really like my Krups spice grinder but Cuisineart makes a great one too. These are both easy to control the grind because you pulse the spices to desired consistency. For spices that I just want a rough crush on I use my mortar and pestle. So, unfortunately I recommend having both. But if I had to choose just one to have, it would be a spice grinder because it’s so versatile and I can still achieve a rough crush on spices with that too. I hope that helps!

    1. Hi Debi!

      Yes I have! I think they are great for quick weeknight meals or prepping ingredients (beans, meat, etc) at the beginning of the week for meals throughout the week. They are pricey, so it’s definitely an investment. I would say the biggest benefits are that it saves time in the kitchen, is versatile and creates really tender meat. I have one and so far have only used it a couple of times, though I do think I may use it more in the winter.
      All in all, it’s a great addition to your kitchen, but definitely not necessary in my opinion. If I didn’t have one, I wouldn’t miss it. BUT that’s just me, I know many people who use it weekly.
      Hope that helps!

  2. I want to buy all of these to have in my pantry just as staples. I would have to think some of these go bad or lose their flavor after some time.

    Which ones last forever?
    Which ones can ‘go bad’?
    Which ones go bad he quickest and how long does it take?

    Which brand of spices would you recommend? I want everything in my pantry to look the same 😉