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Food & Wine What spices should I have in my pantry and how do I store them?

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Why not be adventurous in the kitchen, open to trying new cuisines and ideas? The backbone of many of these modern recipes – and the key to culinary success – is the use of spicing, some of which might be new to you. But how do we change our spice cupboards to keep up with our evolving tastes?

First, throw out all ground spices that are more than nine months old. They lose their pungency. Instead, buy spices in small amounts and repurchase as needed. Whole spices last about a year.

Light and heat can destroy spices. Rather than glass jars, I buy and label little tin containers and store them in a cupboard, out of the light and away from the stove. If you buy glass jars decant them into containers.

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Look for quality products – there are differences in taste. To buy spices in small quantities, go to the spice shops such as the Spice Trader in Toronto, or Indian or Middle Eastern stores in your city.

Whole spices are always better quality, so invest in a spice grinder, or pull out the coffee mill you haven't used since you switched to pods. In desperation, grate whole spices on a microplane.

The following 25 spices, with a few herbs thrown in, will see you through most recipes and enable you to cook up a variety of cuisines.

  • Allspice, buy whole.
  • Bay leaves.
  • Black peppercorns, preferably Tellicherry or Sarawak. Never buy ground pepper; it loses its pungency as soon as it is ground. If you are a purist, use white pepper on white dishes.
  • Cardamom, ground is fine unless you are doing a lot of Indian cooking, then buy whole.
  • Cayenne, for that blast of heat.
  • Chili powder, I like ancho, which is pure. Many include cumin and other spices for chili making.
  • Cinnamon, both sticks and ground.
  • Cloves, whole.
  • Cumin, I usually buy both whole and ground.
  • Coriander, both ground and whole. It is good when pickling.
  • Dried chilies, there is a vast selection so think about your cooking. If you are into Mexican, buy some anchos and chipotles; for Indian, buy the more subtle Kashmiris or the very hot dried bird’s eye.
  • Garam masala, better than curry powder, which varies considerably by brand. It is usually not as hot and has several levels of flavour.
  • Ginger, ground ginger is a staple in Middle Eastern cooking.
  • Mustard seeds, whole for pickling and for curries.
  • Nutmeg, whole.
  • Paprika, Spanish smoked, both hot and sweet, and Hungarian as the regular choice.
  • Saffron, buy only the threads and look for country of origin. Spanish is best, but there are all kinds of others.
  • Star anise, buy whole.
  • Sumac, for Middle Eastern cooking.
  • Turmeric, the anti-inflammatory spice. It also colours everything yellow, including your hands and clothes.
  • Zatar, for Middle Eastern cooking. It is a spice blend that includes thyme, sumac, sesame seeds and salt. A sprinkle improves flavour in many dishes.

There are dried herbs to include but only use in the winter when fresh are not available and buy only whole leaves, not ground.

  • Tarragon, it loses it flavour very quickly.
  • Thyme.
  • Rosemary.
  • Oregano.

A properly equipped spice cupboard is an investment, but it will pay off with flavours that rise above the norm.

Need some advice about kitchen life and entertaining? Send your questions tolwaverman@globeandmail.com.

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