Deciding on which are my top ten spices I had to leave out so many, so here are the ones that I couldn’t do without. Most of the food I cook is flavoured with spice although I do use herbs too. I just can’t do without these spices though, although I have mentioned substitutes for one or two of them and haven’t mentioned mace, which is one of the most expensive spices.
The one spice that I really couldn’t do without is black pepper. This is undoubtedly the one I use in everything savoury. I buy black peppercorns and grind them when I need them so that they retain their flavour. If you buy already ground black pepper it soon loses its pungency when you open the jar or packet.
Number two has to be cumin seeds. They go well with red meat and are indispensable in a garam masala. Perhaps I use a lot more of them than absolutely necessary as I love the taste and throw a tablespoon of them into most dishes. I prefer them after they have been dry -fried in a frying pan without oil. It only takes a couple of minutes to release the aroma, and they are ready to be added to almost any savoury dish.
Next up has to be cinnamon bark, which I grind if I need to, although I tend to use about and inch stick or two. It is especially good in winter dishes, with its warm, pungent taste. If I have inadvertently run out I substitute cassia bark, which is much cheaper, but not as potent.
Chilli powder is another firm favourite, as it adds hotness to a meat dish. It is indispensable in curries and chilli con carne I feel and of course is used in Tex-Mex cuisine liberally. If I don’t have enough I use a few drops of Tabasco to spice up a dish.
Ginger root is usually in my spice cupboard, although perhaps this is cheating as it doesn’t fit easily onto a wall rack. However, I wouldn’t be without it as this spice can be used in savoury and sweet dishes as well as with hot honey, lemon and blackcurrant drinks in winter for coughs and colds. You only need about an inch of the root, and grate it after peeling it.
Star anise is very useful if you like Chinese or Thai cuisine, and I find that it really perks up a dish of fried rice with vegetables. Heston Blumenthal adds star anise to onions (personally I prefer coriander seed).
Saffron is a wonderful spice and turmeric, which can be a cheaper substitute for it will give you the right colour, but not saffron’s flavour. I use it in biryanis and risottos a lot. Of course it goes well with chicken dishes too.
Next are green cardamoms which can be used in curries or apple pies to great effect. They are good if the dish needs a little sweetness, and you only need to use one or two pods. If you are using them in a rice pudding or other sweet dish, remove the outer casing and crush the seeds of one pod.
The final two spices are nutmeg and vanilla, both usually used in sweet dishes, although nutmeg is wonderful in a white or cheese sauce, but you only need a small amount- a teaspoon is usually enough, especially if you have not acquired a taste for it. Vanilla pods can be reused if you wipe them clean after using them in a milk sauce. Put them in sugar and you’ll have a supply of vanilla sugar for cakes and other desserts.
It was difficult to compile a list of ten spices only so I may have missed out your favourite ones. Let me know what they are!