Don’t be intimidated by the large herb and spice section at your local supermarket. In our culturally rich societies, supermarkets need to stock a wide variety of ingredients to please the local communities. I would guess that most people will only be able to identify 10-20% of the herbs and spices on offer and probably purchase even less.
The general rule on herbs and spices is less is truly more. You don’t need to add 15 different things to one dish to make it interesting - unless it's a wonderfully true Indian curry!
Always remember to buy what you need, not in bulk; they are sold is small jars and packets for a reason! As a general rule, dried or ground herbs and spices last 12 months. The flavors really do start to disappear after around a year or even quicker if you don't store your herbs and spices in a cool dark place. So many people I know have jars of spices that are at least 3 years old... or even older! I go a little crazy when I recognize a brand label that disappeared when I was still in highschool! Ask yourself; isn’t it better to have a fresh and flavorful meal than a boring bland one? Go on, be brave and throw out that $2 bottle of Nutmeg you bought when you first moved out of home all those years ago. After all, it's only $2!
My top 10
- Salt - THE essential but use in moderation!
- Pepper - I use black and prefer to grind my own so the oils are broken into the dish, but feel free to buy pre-cracked or ground if you prefer.
- Paprika – sweet, smoky or spicy; the choice is yours. Still not sure? Opt for Hungarian it’s the most popular and is neutral on the spice scale.
- Cumin – ground is easiest for most things. You can also buy the seeds and grind them yourself, but I’m trying to save you time and effort.
- Coriander – ground and fresh. If you’re making salsa it must be the real herb, but dried or the fresh tubes (in the vegetable section at your supermarket) are fine for marinades or sauces.
- Oregano – in comes in flakes or powder form, use less of the powder as it's stronger in flavor.
- Basil – fresh is best, but dried is ok for slow cooked sauces and stews. (same rules as Coriander)
- Chilli flakes – optional of course, but in my opinion a pinch is good in almost everything!
- Cinnamon / Nutmeg – both are great for different things. Cinnamon is the milder of the two, but should still be used in sparingly, generally a dash is enough. Nutmeg is spicier and warmer, great in the winter months – try it sprinkled on a hot choc on a cold blustery night.
- Exotic spice mix of your choice – this is an individual choice but can make a boring old chicken breast an exotic wonder in seconds. Try Morrocan, Portugese, Cajun, Creole or whatever else sparks your interest. If you’re still a little unsure, check the ingredient list, looking for spices that you generally like. I love the "Herbies" range here in Australia, they can't be beat for flavour!