A Beginner’s Guide to the Ultimate Spice Rack

Words: Katrina Rose Wind

It really is quite unbelievable how spices can breathe new life to any dish. Yes, salt and pepper are the go-to basics and yes, they are critical for seasoning but there are a few essential spices that you should have in your pantry. If you’re new to cooking or experimenting with spices, you’ve come to the right place.

Just because you don’t know your way around spices (yet) doesn’t mean you can’t learn. They add much-needed flavour/aroma to any sort of dish and can improve your cooking. You only need 10 different spices to get that spice collection started. Once you’ve figured out what spices you like, and what type of food you like to cook, then you can start building your spice rack to make room for more.

Spices You Need To… Spice Up Your Life


Cumin, Ground or Whole

Cumin is an essential spice in Mexican and Indian cuisine. It adds an earthy and aromatic flavour to lentils, black beans, grilled vegetables, grilled meat, and sauces. It’s often used in pre-packaged spice blends like chilli and curry powders.

Onion and Garlic Powder

Underrated spices! Onion and garlic powder add a rich, extra depth of flavour to any dish. Onion powder is amazing in yoghurt sauces, salad dressings, vegetables, soups and basically everything in between. Garlic powder works for all the dishes mentioned above but also for seasoning meat and is a great addition to snacks like roasted nuts, popcorn and chickpeas.

Garam Masala

This spice mix is mainly used in Indian cuisine and consists of spices like peppercorns, coriander seeds, cinnamon and cardamom. If you’re new to Indian spices this is a great base spice to get you started. It’s the perfect addition to dhals, curries and stews. Be mindful that unlike other spices that are added at the beginning of the cooking process, this spice is actually added at the end of the cooking process.

Crushed Red Pepper Flakes or Chillies

A little spice never hurt nobody! Again, this is more of a blend of spices. A mixture of cayenne and peppers. Perfect for adding heat to any dish. Sprinkle on your pasta, pizza, roasted veggies, guacamole, the options are endless.

Bay Leaves

An essential spice in Cape Malay and French cooking, this dried leaf adds a distinct flavour to any dish it’s used in. The one downside if you want to call it that you need to fish it out once you’re done cooking. It’s not harmful to eat but biting directly into it is not pleasant. These leaves are a great addition to stocks, beans, soups, potatoes, stuffed chicken and any braised meat really.


This spice is not only a great addition to Indian and Thai dishes, but it’s also packed with health benefits. Something you may not have known is that turmeric is part of the ginger family and has strong anti-inflammatory properties. Its taste is mild but also a bit floral, it’s a perfect addition to chicken tikka, chickpea soup, curries, and stews.

Smoked Paprika

When in doubt add smoked paprika. Although paprika is in the same family as cayenne, it’s very mild in comparison. Smoked paprika adds smokiness to a dish without actually having to add it to the grill, its flavour is unmatched and really does replicate the smokiness you get from meat off a braai. Perfect for roasted chickpeas, chicken, eggs, chorizo, potatoes and is a great addition to yoghurt sauces and hummus. Pay a bit more for a good quality smoked paprika – it makes all the difference.

Coriander seeds

Used in Indian cooking especially in curries like palak paneer. This spice is also great for chutneys, pickle brines, homemade burgers, pan-roasted fish and can even be used for baking! If you’re making a spice paste, it’s a great addition to that as well.


An essential spice in Italian, Latin American and Mediterranean cuisines. Oregano adds a depth of bitterness and warmth to dishes. It’s perfect in tomato-based dishes as well as chicken, lamb, shrimp and beef dishes. Mixed with olive oil, it becomes an integral part of marinades and Italian vinaigrettes.


Not just for baking! Cinnamon sticks are a great addition to the braising liquid of beef, lamb and pork. The powder is great for curries, pumpkin soup, sweet potatoes and casseroles. You probably already know that cinnamon is great for baking treats like cinnamon rolls, pancakes, banana bread, stewed fruit, such as apples and rhubarb, and also delicious sprinkled on your coffee.

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