Putting together a spice rack is one of those important steps towards having a functional First Kitchen–even if that kitchen is technically shared by the 75-or-so other people in your building. Having a couple spices on hand means that you don’t have to run off to the grocery store every time you want to cook something. However, spices can be expensive, and for those of us who don’t have the pocketbooks to instantly recreate the extensive spice cupboards of our family homes, it makes sense to start with a few basics and fill in the blanks as needed.
But which spices to start with? You could just buy as you go, but depending on what recipes you’re making, this could leave you with naught but bottles of celery salt, cream of tartar, and ground cloves. Not that there’s anything wrong with these, but picking more commonly used spices will give you more options for your future cooking. So we present you with the five spices to always have on hand:
1. Cumin: An integral part of Mexican and Mediterranean cooking, cumin gives savory dishes a warm, homey taste. Whether you’re throwing together a pot of chili to get you through the week, making your first gazpacho for a dinner party, or just sauteéing some onions with whatever is left in the cupboard, throw in a dash of cumin and you’ll be ready to go.
2. Basil: If you’re planning on making college staples like pasta sauce or soups, or even bigger entrees like stuffed eggplant, you’ll definitely want to have a container of dried basil on your shelves. Just remember, if you want to make a good homemade pesto, you’ll have to spring for some fresh leaves.
3. Thyme: A great way to add flavor to meat dishes. Vegetarian? Thyme is also a staple of soups, stews, and egg dishes.
4. Oregano: Though it often goes hand-in-hand with basil, oregano is more than just a sidekick. Oregano goes into marinades for both meat and vegetables, and you can’t make a hearty tomato sauce without it. Use it to spice up soups and salads as well!
5. Pepper: I know, I know, you’re thinking, “But I could just steal a pepper shaker from the dining halls.” First of all, I would never want to advocate blatant theft from the institution that has fed you up until this point. But more importantly, a good, freshly ground sprinkling of pepper can make a huge different in your cooking. You’ll put a dash of pepper in nearly every dish you make, and a basic ingredient should be a quality one. Plus, most grocery stores carry small, plastic containers of peppercorns with built-in grinders, making them affordable for everybody. If you do decide you’d like to invest in a nicer pepper mill, Williams-Sonoma has a number of options, ranging from reasonable to quite expensive. I’m a fan of their OXO Pepper Grinder, because it looks more grown-up than most of the things I own, and because it you can adjust the size of the grounds, and who doesn’t like to have options?