Back to Basics: Clean Up Your Spices

New month, new season, and it’s time to get back to basics! One of the places where we all need a good look-see on the basics is your spices.

I am going to bet you that some of those spices in your cabinet have lasted longer than some of your marriages! Those old icky spices are about as useful for flavor as grass clippings. Toss ’em!

Fresh dried herbs and spices have become surprisingly inexpensive. Good sources for $1 per jar of spices or even 2 for $1 are dollar-type stores (not always, but sometimes), Wal-Mart, and drugstores.

Health food stores are also great resources. They sell the spices and herbs in bulk jars. They are a quality product, very fresh and quite inexpensive, and mostly organic, too. To spice up your cooking (and your life, too), you need good ingredients. Inferior ingredients will give you a lackluster product every time.

If you’ve never learned how to use the mountain of spices available, copy this list and stick it to your fridge. This spice primer is guaranteed to get you cooking in a more flavorful way in no time!

Bay Leaf

Used in stews, soups, and great with pot roast. Go easy. Bay leaves are strong, especially California bay leaves, which are the kind most grocery stores stock. I use half a leaf in my stews.


Ah, the taste of summer. Who can resist fresh basil and tomatoes from the garden tossed with olive oil and garlic on a plate full of pasta? Dried, it’s wonderful in soups, pasta dishes, and chicken.


It’s not just for pickles. Try some dill sprinkled on fish, chicken, or even in a light cream soup.


Nectar of the gods, well, bulb of the gods, anyway. Garlic has a way of making the most ordinary food gourmet. Try sprinkling garlic powder (not garlic salt) into a prepared box of white cheddar macaroni and cheese. Surprise! It’s pretty good. Fresh, though, is best. Squeeze it from a press into almost anything.


Sprinkle it in your stir-fry, try it on baked chicken breasts with a little soy sauce or coconut aminos and garlic. For fun, get it fresh (it’s that alien-looking root mass in the produce department) and freeze it. It will keep almost indefinitely when frozen. To use, hack off a piece, no need to peel it and grate it into your recipe.


I love nutmeg. If you can find nutmeg nuts and the itty, bitty grater that comes with it, buy it. Once you’ve had freshly grated nutmeg, the powdered stuff in the jar is beneath you. Obviously an ingredient in baking, it’s also good grated on sauteed squash, green beans, and carrots.


A staple in Italian cooking, it’s also good in stews and salad dressings.


This beautiful evergreen plant grows wild in my garden and provides an intoxicating aroma to meats, stews, and root veggies. Try some crumbled in your carrots.


An almost licorice flavor, this delicate herb takes front and center in vinaigrettes, as a delicious sprinkle on the top of baked or poached poultry and fish.


Make time for thyme! It’s strong and adds a hint of character to an otherwise pretty standard dish. Use it with chicken, soups, and beef.

This is a shortlist of spices, but good basics stand the test of thyme (time). 😉 By understanding how to cook with spices, you will keep your palate interested and your family begging for your cooking–and that’s the way it should be!

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