If it weren’t for the spices I have in my pantry, the food I cook would taste half as good. That’s because spices are the secret to bringing other ingredients to life. With pepper, a bowl of spaghetti and cheese that you threw together in two seconds is suddenly a restaurant-worthy cacio e pepe; a pinch of ginger will make your scrambled eggs much more delicious; and even a few sprinkles of salt and chili powder can turn a simple platter of chopped fruit into something that impresses party guests.
Stocking your pantry with versatile spices will give you the ability to cook whatever flavors you’re craving. Of course, there are a ton of spices out there, and it’s not always clear which ones you absolutely need and which you could go without. So instead of buying all of them at once, stock up on the basics first. This list is generally a good place to start if you’re someone who’s just starting to cook and fill out a spice rack. (If you know you’ll be cooking one specific type of cuisine much more often than others, the spices you need to have on hand may differ a bit.) As you cook more, you can slowly build up your arsenal and get more specialized from here.
The 11 spices below are featured in tons of cuisines from around the world, so there’s no doubt they’ll come in handy no matter what you’re cooking. Here, registered dietitians and cooking experts explain why they’re must-haves for any home cook.
When you want to add a bit of sweetness to something (without using sugar), cinnamon is the spice for the job, Nita Sharda, R.D., founder of Carrots and Cake Balanced Nutrition Consulting, tells SELF. She likes to sprinkle some on top of her yogurt and overnight oats, or even on root veggies like sweet potatoes and butternut squash. “Cinnamon has a great way of imparting sweetness to anything it’s added to,” she explains.
“Paprika is another spice that works well with most foods,” Maxine Yeung, R.D., trained pastry chef and owner of the Wellness Whisk, tells SELF. She likes to use it on roasted meats and vegetables, but you can use it in so many other dishes, too. I often add paprika to shakshuka (an egg and pepper dish popular in the Middle East and North Africa), or chili, and it’s great in an assortment of Eastern European dishes like chicken paprikash and goulash. Also, if you ever make tacos or fajitas, paprika is key for throwing together some homemade taco seasoning.
3. Black Pepper
“Every home cook should have black pepper on hand,” Amy Gorin, M.S., R.D.N., owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in the New York City area, tells SELF. She says it can spice up literally anything, whether that’s something expected like a pasta or a salad, or a more surprising dish like a savory yogurt parfait.
4. Onion Powder
When you don’t have fresh onions on hand, the dehydrated version can be a great alternative, says Gorin. She uses onion powder in everything from tomato sauces and pasta dishes to stir-fries.
5. Garlic Powder
Gorin uses garlic powder the same way she uses onion powder (and often in tandem)—basically in any dish that could use a little garlicky kick.
6. Dried Herbs
Unless you have a garden, fresh herbs aren’t always the easiest ingredients to have on hand. Dried herbs will last way longer, and they’ll help you make something flavorful even when you’re running low on ingredients. Gorin keeps dried dill, basil, rosemary, cilantro, oregano, and parsley around for things like pasta, frittatas, salads, sandwiches, and more.
“If I don’t use fresh ginger, you bet I have powdered ginger on hand,” says Sharda. She likes the way it can add a kick to almost any recipe. You could even put a spoonful or two of the stuff in hot water and call it tea!
Turmeric is well-known for its bold color, but it’s also worth having around for its flavor, which is slightly bitter and spicy. Sharda uses it to add a vibrant touch to steamed milk and rice, and Yeung loves including it in just about everything, whether that’s her morning smoothie or roasted veggies for dinner.
9. Red Pepper Flakes
Red pepper flakes are the best for adding a spicy kick to your food without changing the overall flavor of the dish. Incorporate them early in the cooking process—stew them in a marinara sauce or chili, or sauté them with veggies or meat—or use them as a garnish, and sprinkle directly on top of your plate for a final touch. Gorin likes to do this with things like pizza and salads for a bit of heat.
10. Curry Powder
This spice packs a lot of flavor because it’s not just one spice. It’s actually a blend of spices and herbs that originated in India, and you can buy it at most supermarkets or even make it yourself. It can sometimes be made of up to 20 ingredients, but most versions contain at least coriander, turmeric, cumin, and fenugreek. Gorin likes to add it to things like pumpkin soup and stir-fry, but it also tastes great in stews, salad dressings, scrambled eggs, and on roasted vegetables.
As another spice that can add a bit of sweetness to your food, nutmeg is great on top of fruit and in yogurt and oatmeal. Fair warning: A little goes a long way with nutmeg. Use a pinch and you’ll add warmth and spiciness to your food, but just a bit too much and you’ll overpower all the other flavors. In general, try to stick with a teaspoon (or less) at a time.