Pantry Essentials: Five Spices We Always Have in Our Kitchen.

Story by Miranda
cumin, chili powder, garlic powder, cinnamon and smoked paprika on spoons
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In this pantry essential post, we explore five essential spices that we never want to run out of!

Pantry Essentials: Five Spices We Always Have in Our Kitchen.

A well-stocked pantry is a beautiful thing. When you reach the end of an especially long day, and you just can’t think about dinner, a full pantry means that you don’t really have to. Your past self—the one who bought a few extra cans of beans and tomatoes, and stocked that spice rack—has your back. Present you—the one who is just trying to get through ‘til bedtime—can whip up an easy dinner on autopilot. Thanks, self! You’re a champ.

So many of the recipes we share are meant to be dinner time saviors—things you can throw together without a lot of hassle, and without a trip to the store. We’ve been working under the assumption that you, hungry reader, have a decently stocked pantry. But, we realized recently that stocking a pantry is a skill that a lot of people have yet to master, and so we thought it was time to share a few of our pantry-building tips with you. So, welcome to Pantry Essentials! We hope this series of articles about creating a functional, inspiring arsenal of ingredients will be useful for home cooks of all experience levels—a handy reference for seasoned cooks, and a 101 for those just starting their journey in the kitchen. 

Without further ado, let’s kick things off on a spicy note with, well, spices! 

cumin, chili powder, garlic powder, cinnamon, smoked paprika on spoons

What Spices Should You Have in Your Pantry?

At the heart of any great pantry is a core selection of spices—ones you’ll reach for again and again. Things to think about: 

  • What spices are used the most? Think about what you cook all the time, what you love to bake—what are your staples? 
  • Shelf-life. This is probably the number one reason we think you should stock only the spices that you know you’re going to use often—spices go bad! It’s a good idea to narrow down the list of spices that you want to stock in your pantry to just the ones you know you can go through quickly. A good rule of thumb is that ground spices have a shelf life of about six months, although there is some spice to spice variance. 
  • What spices are multi-purpose? Most of us are working with limited pantry space, so you want to fill it with workhorses only—things that do double or even triple duty. 
small bowl of cumin

Five Basic Pantry Spices:

In the interest of simplicity, we challenged ourselves to think hard about which five spices—not including salt and pepper, which we assume are a given—we consider to be the most essential spices to have on hand at all times. Versatile, transformative and bold, these five spices are fixtures in our cupboards, on our shopping lists and are sprinkled throughout this website, too, of course. 

The five spices we never want to be without are: 

1. Cumin

Earthy and slightly bitter, ground cumin is an essential spice in most Indian and Latin American dishes. From chili to guacamole, to curries and lentil stews, cumin lends depth and a uniquely enticing fragrance to many of our favorite meals. The dried fruit of a plant in the parsley family (who knew?!) cumin can be purchased as whole seeds or already-ground. Indian dishes often call for whole cumin seeds, whereas ground cumin is perfect for Mexican-inspired meals like tacos or chili. For convenience sake, and because of how we typically use it, we prefer to keep our shelves stocked with ground cumin. 

Our Favorite Cumin Recipes:

  • If you want to give a dish an Indian flair, cumin is the spice you want. It plays a huge role in giving warmth and a hint of the exotic in our Tikka Masala Soup and Cauliflower Curry, both Indian-inspired. 
  • Ditto for Mexican-inspired dishes! Cumin makes so many of our Mexican-inspired favorites come to life, like these party-ready Beef Empanadas
  • Cumin is the secret extra something in our favorite Smoky Chipotle Dressing.  
  • Tortilla Soup is all about the spices, and cumin is key. 
small bowl of smoked paprika

2. Smoked Paprika 

Though it is all made from the same essential ingredients (ground, dried peppers) all paprika is not created equal. Though we’ve been known to occasionally reach for sweet Hungarian paprika, for the most part we feel that Spanish-style smoked paprika—usually labeled pimenton—reigns supreme. Most smoked paprika comes from the La Vera region of Spain and so you’ll find it in very adorable little tins labeled “Pimenton de la Vera”. Whether you prefer the sweet (dulce) or spicy (picante) version, both deliver an incredible dose of bold, rich, smoky flavor to any dish, particularly (not surprisingly) to Spanish-inspired meals like paella and patatas braves. 

Our Favorite Smoked Paprika Recipes: 

small bowl of cinnamon

3. Cinnamon

OK, so prepare to have your mind blown: the cinnamon in your cupboard is not cinnamon. It’s probably actually the ground bark of the cassia tree. But that is not a bad thing, necessarily. As long as you’re buying good-quality, fresh spices—fragrant spices that make you smile when you smell them—you’re all good. “Cinnamon” is a term has evolved to encompass a LOT of variety, but there’s no need to feel confused. Instead, embrace the chance to taste different cinnamon varieties, and see what you prefer. From delicate, almost floral Ceylon cinnamon to the familiar assertive warmth of Saigon cinnamon, there’s a whole delicious world to explore. For everyday use, we love to keep our pantry stocked with this cinnamon. 

Our Favorite Cinnamon Recipes:

small bowl of garlic powder

4. Garlic Powder: 

Admittedly a divisive spice! But, we’re firmly in ‘team garlic powder’ and here’s why: you don’t have to choose between fresh and powdered garlic! If you’re a garlic lover like we are, you can (and should) use both! Garlic powder is exactly what it sounds like—cloves of garlic that have been dried and then pulverized into powder—and can be used in a variety of ways to subtly enhance the flavors of a dish.  It’s especially ideal for adding a burst of garlicky goodness to things like homemade spice blends and dry rubs. It’s undoubtedly a workhorse in our kitchen, and if you cook as often as we do, it’s probably earned a place in your pantry, too.  

Our Favorite Garlic Powder Recipes:

  • What even is Homemade Taco Seasoning without garlic powder? We don’t ever want to find out. 
  • Coffee, cumin, garlic powder—oh my! This Dry Rub makes everything it touches taste SO good, and it makes a great gift, too. 
  • Think you’re a French fry purist? Then you probably haven’t make these Jamaican Jerk Fries yet. 

small bowl of chili powder

5. Chili Powder 

If you’ve ever made a TMP recipe before, you probably knew that chili powder would wind up on this list. Maybe it seems like cheating to include a spice blend in our list of five must-have spices, and maybe it kind of is. But! We get really nervous when our little container of chili powder looks like it has less than a few tablespoons left in it and so—for honesty’s sake—we just had to include it. Because it is a spice blend—some combination of ground, dried peppers and typical Latin American spices—chili powder really does vary quite a bit brand-to-brand both in terms of heat and flavor. We always seem to come back to this one, but—just as you should with cinnamon—taste a few (or a lot) and find the one that hits the spot for you and your family. 

Our Favorite Chili Powder Recipes:

  • We’re not saying that this Chili is an award winner because of chili powder, but we also can’t be sure that it’s not. 
  • Grilled. Corn. End of story. Is it summer yet?
  • Sandwiches for dinner, forever. Especially if we’re talking about this Spicy Grilled Chicken version. 

What's Your Must Have Favorite Spice?

So, are you convinced? What spices do you always have in your kitchen? Let us know in the comments below, or on Instagram—tag us @themodernproper and #themodernproper if you want to weigh in! We’d love to hear what you think, and what other pantry essentials you’d like us to cover next. 

Pantry Essentials: Five Spices We Always Have in Our Kitchen.