In the kitchen: spices
Whatever recipes you’re cooking, you’ll always need to reach for herbs and spices – even if it’s something a simple as salt and pepper. So who better to ask what we should be filling our cupboards with than Executive Chef Steve Wilson, who’s given us his top herbs and spices to have at home. Don’t forget: herbs and spices are best when they’re fresh, so buy in small quantities and throw out anything that’s been lurking around for a while!
Let’s start with the most critical and basic of all seasonings, salt. Salt is used to season food and intensify the flavours. However, there’s a fine line between adding too much salt (and making it taste salty!) and adding just enough to really pull out the dish’s flavour. The good news is adding salt during the cooking process acts as the best flavour enhancer, so make sure you season the water when you’re cooking potatoes and vegetables. You’ll want to have a fine salt for seasoning during cooking, as well a flaky salt to add at the end – just be really careful not to overdo it!
Pepper and peppercorns
Next to salt, pepper is the most commonly used spice in the world. While they’re two totally different components, they function much the same. Pepper adds both heat and depth of flavour to almost any dish, accentuating the other flavours present. Pepper can be finely ground or come as whole peppercorns that can be crushed, and even used to create a thick, crispy coating on meat. The flavour is the same, but the texture may vary. Pepper works well with citrus, garlic, spices and even seeds like coriander. The most common types are black, white, green, pink, Szechuan and long peppercorns – all of which have widely different tastes. Make it your mission for 2021 to go beyond just grinding a little black pepper over your food!
Garlic and onion powders
Different and yet the same, garlic and onion powders are critical elements for flavouring. Next to salt, these are used to provide nuttiness, zestiness and sweetness to any seasoning blend. From vegetables to seafood and any type of red meat or poultry, garlic and onion powder are great for marinades and dry rubs, and provide a flavour you don’t want to skimp on. On the flip side, it’s easy to overuse them – particularly if you’re using smoked garlic powder. They’re also handy to have in the cupboard for times when you run out of fresh garlic and onion!
Thyme is known as a hard, woody herb along with rosemary. It’s most often used in meaty stews, but it can add some zing to vegetables as well. If you want to go off-piste, how about flavouring your cream and milk with thyme when making ice cream?
While cinnamon is probably best known as a spice for sweet dishes, this spice can be an excellent addition to certain savoury dishes as well. It’s also good to have cinnamon sticks as well as ground cinnamon, as both will be called for, depending on the recipe. Use it in very small doses in chilli, curries, tagines and even add a dash to tomato sauces.
The staple go-to Italian herb, a little dried oregano will give your tomato sauce a real Italian vibe. It can also be a punchy add-in for Greek and Mexican dishes (there’s a separate Mexican oregano that’s well-worth hunting out if you’re really into South American cooking).
Dried rosemary is a must for French and Mediterranean cooking. It’s earthy, woody and piney notes can be an acquired taste for some, but it does give your dishes a one-of-a-kind flavour – the aroma of hot rosemary in the kitchen is one of those simple pleasures.
Cumin has a smoky, earthy taste. You’ll find this flavour is great for many cuisines from around the world dishes including Indian, African and South American. A gentle touch of cumin can add spice and flavour to unexpected dishes like eggs (shakshuka) or grilled meats too. It comes as seeds or ground, so I’d recommend having both in your cupboard.
Chilli powder and flakes
Not all chili powders and flakes are equal. In fact, there’s an array of different varieties coming from different types of dried peppers, each bringing its own level of heat and flavour. From cayenne to chipotle, usually a little goes a long way. Think beyond the bog standard ‘mild chilli powder’ you see in supermarkets and start to delve into specific varieties. And don’t forget it’s not all about powders – try Aleppo or Urfa chilli flakes sprinkled over Middle Eastern salads, or add whole chillies to olive oil to create your own chilli oil.
While tame compared to other pepper-based spices, smoked paprika (usually from Spain) adds another level of flavour altogether. Its warmth and earthiness and smoky aroma stands out from other spices. Add a little to transform a tomato soup or mix with some garlic and sprinkle over prawns before grilling – but remember, a little goes a very long way.