The only spices and herbs you need in your home kitchen

So many herbs and spices to choose from, so little kitchen space … what's a home cook to do? Short of building a spice-filled addition onto your home, knowing the spices and herbs that you really need for most recipes will be your most useful tool in building your spice and herb kitchen arsenal. What's better, dried or fresh? How long will spices last in the cupboard? What's the best way to store herbs? This handy guide to the spices and herbs you need in your home kitchen has all the answers you need.

Salt and pepper

When it comes to seasonings, salt and pepper reign supreme. In fact, whenever you watch one of those cooking competition shows and the judges declare that a dish could have used more "seasoning," they are referring to salt and pepper. Salt, in varying amounts, is downright required for cooking. It ignites the cooking process and is necessary for caramelization, browning, and mingling with yeast in baked goods. We humans even have taste receptors in our mouths that exist solely for the purpose of enjoying salt. It's science! Pepper, salt's prickly companion, lends a pungency to dishes that adds to the lushness of a food's texture, while also coaxing our taste buds to send a signal to the stomach to increase digestive acids. Bam! Science again!

If you want just the basics, it's hard to go wrong with a grinder filled with black peppercorns and a big box of kosher salt. (Kosher salt is a much better choice for cooking than plain table salt because it dissolves quickly and disperses flavor evenly.) If you are seeking to explore variations on the classics, you may want to experiment with green, white, or red peppercorns, which all impart subtle flavor differences that lend themselves to particular recipes (many chefs and classic recipes swear that white pepper is the only pepper that should be used to season mashed potatoes.) For a salty twist, try your hand with sea salt flakes (a finishing salt that imparts a bold flavor), or fleur de sel (a delicate salt for special occasions that melts dreamily in your mouth.)

Dried spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, garlic, paprika, cumin

Cinnamon is a must for toast and coffee, heavenly with chocolate, and a surprising "something-something" in stews. Nutmeg gives all your cream-based or milk-based dishes an undeniable wow factor. (You'll never make creamed spinach without it again!) Garlic is great for buttery garlic breads and a slew of recipes from almost every cuisine on the planet. (It also has the added bonus of keeping vampires at bay.) Paprika, whether you prefer it sweet, hot, or smoked, lends an unmistakable flavor and hue to stews, chilis, and rice dishes. Cumin, the dried seed of an herb similar to parsley, imparts a warm, earthy flavor and aroma to dishes and is popular in Latin American, South Asian, and North African recipes.

Accompanied with the right herbs, these spices will take you on a flavorful journey throughout the cuisines of the world. Look to buy the best quality spices that you can afford. It's okay if you buy a smaller quantity. The payoff in your finished dishes will be well worth it.

Dried herbs: oregano, thyme, rosemary, bay leaf

If you have watched a cooking show or two, chances are you have heard a chef extol the virtues of cooking with fresh herbs. For many herbs, it's the absolute truth. Delicate, leafy herbs that grow in temperate climates (like parsley, basil, mint, cilantro, dill, and chives) are all rich in water and therefore lose flavor in the drying process. Herbs that grow in hotter climates, however, contain flavors that can withstand higher temperatures, making them a perfectly suitable (and more economical) choice than fresh. Before using dried herbs, give them a pinch with your fingers to release the flavor and aroma of the herb.

Oregano is an absolute kitchen staple and can go in everything from pasta sauce to chili. Thyme, with its pungent, almost minty flavor, pairs well with potatoes, soups, and fish. Rosemary is a definite must with many grilled meat and Italian dishes. Bay leaf is great for all of your slow-cooked soups, sauces, and stews. If you have these four dried herb superstars in your kitchen, you will be able to tackle a myriad of recipes.

What's up with spice and herb blends?

A good quality spice blend can be your best bud. Spice blends are an economical (and space-saving!) way to ensure you always have the proper ingredients on hand for your favorite recipes. Be sure to read ingredient labels, as blends can differ by manufacturer, and make sure that your blend isn't loaded with nasty fillers or chemicals.

There are many spice and herb blends out there, but there are a few that will best serve you in a home kitchen. One of the most popular is Italian seasoning, typically a mix of oregano, basil, thyme, and rosemary, with other ingredients added to taste. Poultry seasoning (most blends contain sage and thyme and may also include marjoram, savory, and lemon peel) is generally on hand for any home cook who has prepared Thanksgiving dinner. It can also perk up grains and soups. Adobo, a Latin American seasoned salt blend, is excellent sprinkled on grilled meats or in guacamole. Pumpkin pie spice (no, silly, it doesn't contain pumpkin!) is a blend of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and allspice. It will transport you to autumn any time of the year. Curry powder, beloved the world over, is actually a blend of many spices, such as turmeric, fenugreek, coriander, and cumin. (Quality blends even contain real curry leaf.)

How long do spices and herbs last?

Dried spices and herbs last surprisingly long if kept in the correct conditions (up to two or three years!), with the best longevity awarded to whole beans or seeds that you can grate or grind when you are ready to use. To store herbs and spices, keep in an airtight container, preferably glass. A cool, dark environment is ideal, so try to make your spice storage cabinet one that is as far away as possible from your stovetop, oven, or dishwasher. Also, do your best to avoid sprinkling herbs and spices directly from their container into a steaming pot: the condensation can wreak havoc on the contents. When in doubt about the potency and flavor of an herb or spice, trust your nose. If you can barely smell the aroma you are looking for, there is a good chance you won't taste it in your dish. Fortunately, loss of flavor is your biggest concern with herbs and spices, so don't worry if you are using an item after its "best by" date.