The MUST-HAVES: Essential Spices and seasonings for Starters
When you are first beginning to cook food for yourself, things may seem a little bit… disastrous. The chicken is bland, your string beans are rubbery, and the rice that seemed FOOLPROOF is watery and undercooked. In a matter of about thirty minutes you have managed to turn a simple meal of chicken and rice into the equivalent of dining hall lunch leftovers. However, what most beginner cooks do not realize is that the solution to a disastrous meal is in the details. How are you seasoning your meat? For how long are you cooking those string beans to make them a limp, discolored mess?
As a young home cook, I have experienced every and all kitchen mishaps. From burnt toast to exploding glass pyrex baking dishes, my kitchen (and other people’s kitchens) have endured my trial- and- error style of cooking. My meals improved in taste and texture when I began to watch online cooking videos, skim my mother’s bountiful collection of cookbooks, and browse through simple Pinterest recipes. After cooking many of these recipes and their variations, I have been able to whittle down which spices and seasonings are essential in my kitchen. Here are just a few:
SALT. When I was a freshman in college eating at the dining hall, I would think to myself, “Why is this food so… boring?”. After I began cooking for myself I realized that all of the dishes made there were lacking salt. Salt is the one seasoning that EVERY cook should have. Salt is essential to every dish because it is the first step to developing what many trained chefs would call “depth of flavor”. When you season anything with salt, it draws the moisture out of the ingredient. Once the water is drawn from the ingredient, you are left with a concentrated version of that ingredient’s intrinsic flavor. Thus, salting chicken will enhance its natural “chicken” flavor.
ROSEMARY. After experimenting with different herbs, I found Rosemary to be one of the most useful, versatile and delicious. Firstly, Rosemary is a woody aromatic herb. Dried, ground or fresh when cooked, it fills your entire kitchen with a calming, warm, and mild aroma. Rosemary is amazing because you can use it to flavor beef, pork, chicken, salmon, and different root vegetables and starches. I use Rosemary to accent marinades chopped up with olive oil, garlic and lemon. Rosemary provides a woody subtly rubbed over pan seared steak, and flavors seasonal vegetables strewn about in my roasting pan. Lastly, Rosemary is an economical seasoning. Dried rosemary is a cheap and common in most North American super markets. Fresh Rosemary can also be found in the produce section. Once purchased, the herb lasts up to two weeks in the refrigerator before turning.
PEPPERONCINI or RED PEPPER FLAKES. Ever since I could remember, my palette has been averse to heat. I never enjoyed the over powering burst of flames that seemed to grow exponentially after eating jalapeño pepper. When I was younger, I was sure that I would never crave the pungent, fermented taste of Sriracha in my Vietnamese Pho. However, when I began to use red pepper flakes, my thoughts about cooking with heat and flare changed dramatically. Red pepper flakes - or in Italian, pepperoncini are one of the most important and ubiquitous assets to have in your kitchen arsenal. I love them because just a quarter of a teaspoon in your marinara sauce, your stir fry, or your linguine with clams can give an extra kick without being too overpowering. Used appropriately, these small seeds give many dishes that underlying “hum” of heat that is easily detectable, but does not send you running frantically to the fridge for milk. This ingredient is the essential base for most Italian sauces and Asian stir fries and marinades. In addition, red pepper flakes are the perfect condiment for plain pizza, and their sister products (Sriracha, Gochujang, etc.) are useful in Asian soups.
GARLIC. One cannot say enough about garlic. It’s pungent, it’s intoxicating, it’s fragrant, and it’s powerful raw. Once fried or roasted, fresh garlic cloves caramelize into mild spreadable sweets to flavor roasted chicken or your made-from-scratch pesto sauce. Garlic is an essential flavor element to most large roasts such as chicken and pork. I have used diced garlic, onions and carrots as a base to flavor various stocks and soups. Adding garlic to your pasta sauces, stir fries, roasts, soups etc. is important because it infuses that garlic-y flavor into meats vegetables and liquids that tend to be bland. I love this flavory bulb because with just a few small cloves, it adds such a warm, aromatic and permeating seasoning. The natural oils in the garlic clove itself are so strong that one can make garlic infused olive oil as well. Garlic can be found in most cuisine throughout the world.
Although this article has laid out some of the most basic spices and seasonings, do not limit yourself to these. Cooking is about creativity and experimentation. The more you learn through practice, the more knowledgable you will become about which spices, methods and products work for you. I chose these particular ingredients because I enjoy cooking mostly Italian and Asian inspired meals at home. If there are other kinds of food you enjoy, then your “essentials” might change based on that cuisine’s flavor profile.