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We’re probably all guilty of having a few spice jars festering at the back of our cabinets, but you should really have a clear-out of your spice rack at least every 12 months. Spices deteriorate very quickly, and after six months they’ll have lost most of their flavor, especially if they are already ground.

So: the first rule? Don’t buy in bulk. Only purchase what you think you will need within the next six months or so. Keep them in an airtight container, away from direct sunlight and heat (a tin is better than a jar for this reason). Whole spices will stay fresh longer than ground ones, so, where possible, buy whole and grind as and when you need them.



Gordon Ramsay’s List of Spice Cabinet Essentials

Spices are a key component in cooking for everything from an all-purpose seasoning to dynamic, flavorful marinades. Like all things culinary, getting to know your spices is a matter of experimentation. Whether it’s learning the distinctions between fresh garlic and garlic powder, knowing when to add aromatic dried herbs like oregano and bay leaves, or tapping into your inner grill master, spices can get you there.

Consider this list a starter kit for revamping the spice cabinet.

Don’t expect to find flavorless, refined table salt in Chef Ramsay’s kitchen, not even for salting vegetable water. Instead, he recommends sea salt, specifically French fleur de sel from Brittany or Maldon salt. The minerals in sea salt have a much more complex flavor, so you’ll need less of it. If you watch Italians cooking pasta, you’ll see them actually taste the boiling water to make sure it is seasoned properly. They use 2 teaspoons salt for every quart of water; use a similar ratio for boiling vegetables.

All pepper is not the same either, although the three types—black, green, and white—all come from the same bush. Black peppercorns are fully mature and have the strongest flavor. Green peppercorns are immature berries that are either dried or brined. They are milder and much used in Asian cooking. White peppercorns are black ones with the husk removed. They tend to have a more nose-prickling quality but lack the brute strength of black ones. They are generally used for aesthetic purposes in a white sauce, for example, where you might not want to have black specks. You certainly don’t need to worry about stocking both, but, as with all spices, it is better to keep them whole and grind them as and when you need them.

Szechuan pepper, which is not actually pepper at all, but the pod of an Asian berry, has a mild lemony flavor and causes a slight tingling around the mouth when you eat it.

A versatile spice with a warm, sweet flavor often spotted in Indian chai or the spice blend garam masala. You can either add the pod whole, or crush it to extract the seeds, which can then be ground if you like.

Learn more about cardamom here.

Made of ground dried red chilies, the powder can vary in potency, so treat with caution. Cayenne pepper is specifically from the cayenne chili, a cornerstone of Cajun cuisine in the Southern United States. Dried chilies also mean red pepper flakes, which, when sauteed with fresh garlic, create a stunning backbone for everything from tomato sauce to seared veggies.

Learn more about cayenne and chili powder here.

This rolled bark of a Sri Lankan tree goes particularly well with sugar. It’s also used in meaty savory dishes such as Moroccan tagines. Find it in whole sticks or as ground cinnamon.

Learn more about cinnamon here.

These dried flower buds, with their medicinal flavor, are essential in dishes as diverse as roasted ham, apple crumble, and mulled wine. Go easy with them, as they can easily overpower.

Learn more about cloves here.

Coriander seeds have a sweet aromatic flavor that bears little similarity to the cilantro that produces them. Great with cumin in homemade burgers or poaching liquor for fish.

Learn more about coriander here.

Ground cumin, and its whole small seeds, have a strong, pungent aroma that lends a familiar backnote to many Indian and Mexican dishes. A little goes a long way. Add it to simple salad dressings with lemon juice and olive oil for a floral, mild heat.

Learn more about cumin here.

The seeds of the fennel plant have a more pronounced licorice flavor than the bulbs and go particularly well with pork.

A bitter Mediterranean seed used in curry powders, with an aroma similar to celery. An essential part of homemade ras el hanout, a Moroccan spice mix also containing cinnamon, cloves, coriander, and cumin.

Use fresh ginger where possible for a much more lively, zingy flavor. But ground ginger is also useful, particularly in baking.

Learn more about ginger here.

We are used to seeing these in grainy mustard. Their natural fire is tempered when they are roasted and they become nuttier in flavor. Mustard seeds are essential in Indian cooking.

Both these spices come from the nutmeg tree, mace being the outer lattice covering of the nutmeg seed. Both have a warm, earthy, aromatic flavor, but mace is slightly stronger and sweeter; it works particularly well in custard-based desserts. Nutmeg is essential in a traditional white sauce or rice pudding.

Learn more about nutmeg here.

A bright red powder made from dried peppers. It can be sweet or hot, smoked or unsmoked, and is a characteristic feature of Spanish and Hungarian cooking. Different varieties of paprika make stellar additions to BBQ rub, delivering an even heat and vibrant color.

Learn more about paprika here.

Star anise has a fragrant, slightly sweet anise flavor and is a key ingredient in Chinese five-spice powder. It lends itself to everything from lamb casserole to tarte tatin.

Learn more about star anise here.

A dark reddish spice, sumac is widely used in Middle Eastern cooking, imparting a tangy, lemony flavor.

Learn more about sumac here.

A bright yellow spice that comes from a dried root. It gives curry powder its hallmark color and has an earthy, mustardy flavor.

Learn more about turmeric here.

Want to Become a Better Chef?

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Want to learn more about the culinary arts? The MasterClass Annual Membership provides exclusive video lessons from master chefs, including Gordon Ramsay, Dominique Ansel, Massimo Bottura, Chef Thomas Keller, Alice Waters, and more.