10 Essential Spices Every Cook Should Have on Hand

Whether you're setting up your first kitchen or you've been cooking for years, these essential spices will be your go-tos.

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Variety of colorful, different, opened spice jars, from above.
Paolo Costa/Shutterstock

A well-stocked spice rack doesn’t need dozens of jars—for freshness’ sake it’s best to buy spices as you need them. (Especially the world’s most expensive spice.) But there are some staples that you’ll grab for again and again! Here are 10 essential spices that should be in a well-stocked pantry.

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Cinnamon is made from the peeled, dried and rolled bark several kinds of trees, usually from Southeast Asia. Look for Saigon cinnamon, also known as Vietnamese cinnamon, which has around 1-5% essential oil content. (It’s the highest of all the cinnamon species.)

The warm and spicy flavor is essential when baking, but cinnamon is also at home with a range of savory recipes.

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crushed red chillies in white dish
Shutterstock / neil langan

Crushed Red Pepper Flakes

Crushed red pepper flakes are red chili peppers that have been dried and crushed (as opposed to ground). They tend to be primarily cayenne peppers, which are about 12 times hotter than a jalapeño. It’s a must-have to pep up a frozen pizza or to add heat to your Homemade Canned Spaghetti Sauce.

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Grounded ginger and ginger root on white wooden surface.
Shutterstock / Sharaf Maksumov

Ground Ginger

Ground ginger is the dried, powdered form of the peeled root of the ginger plant. It adds sweetness, warmth and a gentle bite to all sorts of teas, beverages and both savory and sweet recipes. Learn how you can save money while buying spices.

Test Kitchen tip: It’s not interchangeable with fresh ginger in recipes!

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Small bowl with Garlic Spice

Garlic Powder

Garlic powder is made from finely ground dehydrated garlic. You can use 1/8 teaspoon garlic powder for every clove of garlic called for in a recipe. (Garlic salt is garlic powder mixed with salt. It’s also handy—but definitely not the same thing.)

Here’s a collection of recipe ideas for garlic lovers.

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Different kinds of peppercorns.


Peppercorns come in several colors, but black is the most common. You might also find that white peppercorns are handy to have on hand for mac n’ cheese, mashed potatoes and other light-colored dishes. Using a pepper grinder means the flavor will have extra spark every time you crank it.

Fun fact: While they’re often grouped together, pink peppercorns are unrelated to the others.

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Whole nutmeg

Whole Nutmeg

You could buy nutmeg already ground, but grinding it as needed with a microplane keeps the warming flavor fresh. It’s perfect for making a double batch of spice cookies.

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Shutterstock / Billion Photos


Paprika is made from dried peppers—usually tomato peppers. You’ll want to sprinkle paprika on your potato salad or deviled eggs for a burst of bold red color.

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whole Cloves or laung or lavang with powder in a bowl isolated on white.
Shutterstock / espies

Ground Cloves

Cloves can be found with their BFFs cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg in baking recipes. But they’re also popular in beef and pork dishes, like this Spice-Braised Pork Roast. (You can also buy whole cloves and grind them in a food processor.)

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bay leaves in bottle on wood

Bay Leaves

Bay leaves are technically herbs as opposed to spices. (Herbs come from leaves; spices from seeds, roots or bark.) But they still deserve a place as spice rack all-stars. Whole bay leaves are usually added to hearty soups, stews and braises while they’re cooking, and removed before serving.

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Shutterstock / Dionisvera

Dried Oregano

While oregano is technically part of the mint family, it has a warmer, more savory flavor than its sweet relatives, and is particularly popular in Italian and Mexican dishes. It will add depth to recipes without completely overwhelming the other ingredients.

Cathryn Jakicic
Cathy Jakicic has written about everything from business and bacteria to beads and baking in her career —but she greatly prefers the last two. She is a baker and a crafter and loves to try new recipes for both.