Do I Really Need… All These Spices?

February 7, 2013

By Raleigh-Elizabeth. Image by Lindsey Johnson for Design Mom.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve got more spices than you know what to do with. At last count, we had 117 spices on hand in our kitchen. It was probably more like 130, if you count all the rubs we had hidden in the back corners of the spice cabinet and the eight different kinds of salts I maintain are necessary for our attempted cooking genius. On the day of the Great Spice Count, our kitchen was chock full of vanilla beans, saffron threads that were so expensive I’m actually afraid to use them, eight different kinds of curry powder, cardamom pods, ground cardamom seeds, you name it.

Spices are my culinary passport. They let me cross East and West in one sitting. With a few flicks of the wrist, I can travel from Thailand at lunch to the Greek Isles for dinner, all from the comforts of my own kitchen. They add depth, complexity, aroma, color, and flavor to everything I make. They make me feel adventurous, even when I’m only making a simple pasta sauce. And some of them are even rumored to increase brain health.

So clearly, keeping all these spices around was the smart thing to do, I told my husband when we packed up the house for our last big move. He laughed, and continued to help me pack the spices. But when they took up over two boxes and more cabinet space than we had to give them in our new kitchen, we realized we might have a problem. And maybe not enough shelving.

At some point, our spice collection went from “nice spice rack” straight into “four spice racks, three tupperware containers, one above-the-cabinet wicker basket, and a full shelf.” And yes, I still find myself buying more on a regular basis. (Who knew I needed lemon oil? And vanilla-lavendar sugar? But I do! I really do!)

And you would think, with this many spices, that we actually use all of them. Often. But I confess, most of them only see the light of day once in a blue moon when a particular recipe makes a unique ingredient request. Really, there are only ten we can’t live without. They’re the ones that get me through my day-to-day, dress up a chicken, make green beans exciting, and make the kitchen smell like magic.  They’re the ones I reach for at least a couple times a week. In other words, they’re the ones I really use. And yet, there are still 120 more.

One hundred twenty other spices for baking, for breaking down meats in slow-cooked tagines, for brightening tomatoes, enlivening kale and collards, tempering peppers, adding kick to a salad, and making soups so tasty friends request them when they’re coming for dinner. One hundred twenty other spices I still don’t have room for. One hundred twenty spices I can’t seem to live without, either.

But you won’t see me getting rid of them anytime soon. Piling them in tupperware and trying desperately to find room for them above the cabinets or in the pantry? Absolutely. And that’s good news for everyone who eats at our table. The next time a recipe calls for saffron threads, I’ve got it covered. Vanilla lavender sugar? Coming right up! Eight different salts of varying color and taste? You got it. I might also need to go to food shoppers anonymous, but at least there, they’d probably understand. And I bet the snacks are terrific.

So do you really need all those spices? Of course not. But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make room for them, all the same.

Do you keep your spices to a reasonable few, or do you find your spice cabinet taking on a life of its own? What are the seasonings you can’t live without?

P.S. — What else do you really need? Find all the posts in this series here. Plus, how to dry your own herbs.

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{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Andrea February 7, 2013 at 8:10 am

Ha, ha. I can completely relate to this post. I won’t be getting rid of my extra spices any time soon, either. I like having them on hand when the very occasional need arises:).

I love your writing style, by the way.


2 Raleigh-Elizabeth February 7, 2013 at 8:31 am

what a compliment – thank you, andrea!


3 Lauren February 7, 2013 at 8:14 am

I have a dedicated shelf in one of my upper cabinets for spices and try not to let them spill over into other shelves. Sometimes, I am successful, sometimes, not so much. I do try to grow and preserve as many herbs as I can in the summer to save money- here are my favorite methods of preserving fresh herbs:


4 Raleigh-Elizabeth February 7, 2013 at 8:32 am

thank you for sharing, lauren! i’ve never actually seen the dehydrator in real life, before. do you love it? i tend to freeze my herbs in olive oil in an ice tray if i’m not drying them – your system looks way more advanced. : )


5 Lauren February 7, 2013 at 2:39 pm

the food dehydrator is super handy for drying large amounts of herbs in a small space, however it takes several days to finish drying in the summer due to the humidity here (charlotte, nc). But it’s still way easier than hanging bunches of herbs upside down in my pantry, which was my old method :)


6 Raleigh-Elizabeth February 7, 2013 at 2:44 pm

I’m in coastal NC, so I totally feel you on the humidity front… totally fascinating. I may have to acquire yet another kitchen gadget!


7 Rebecca Alexis February 7, 2013 at 8:15 am

I have a smattering of spices, but the ones I love best are in my herb garden outside: rosemary, thyme, sage, bay, basil & parsely. I probably should grow cilantro. Next on my to do list. xxoo


8 Raleigh-Elizabeth February 7, 2013 at 8:31 am

i can’t wait for summer and the return of our herb garden! cilantro is always a great addition!


9 Jillian in Italy February 7, 2013 at 8:15 am

I am also a spice hoarder. Just last week I went through my spice cupboard and found a few bottles from my university days (which was about a decade ago). Do you have any idea how long spices keep for? I’d hate to get rid of those fantastic Moroccan spices I bought in Marrakesh in the 90′s! As always, great great post.


10 Raleigh-Elizabeth February 7, 2013 at 8:30 am

ah! we are birds of a feather once again! so, i have asked as many “experts” (chefs, spice sellers, home cooks, other spice hoarders) about the actual lifetime of a spice. theoretically, ground spices last once opened for three years and basically everything else for closer to 4. that being said, my mother has spices she bought before i was born (so we’re talking the 70′s here, folks) and she still cooks or bakes with them on occasion. they’ve lost a lot of their flavor, so she has to use more to achieve the same result, but it does kind of work. anybody else want to weigh in on this? how long do you keep your spices for?


11 Angela February 7, 2013 at 8:37 am

Personally, I use the sniff test. If I open the container and can’t tell what spice it is based on the smell, then it is time to throw it out. You’ll also get longer shelf life if you grind your own. A whole nutmeg keeps its flavor longer than a jar of preground nutmeg.


12 Raleigh-Elizabeth February 7, 2013 at 8:37 am

Isn’t that the truth.


13 Shannon { A Mom's Year } February 7, 2013 at 8:33 am

That’s a lot of spices! But I agree, they’re nice to have around ’cause you never know. I keep the popular ones lined up in small glass bottles on a shelf my grandpa made (it has pots hanging below) and I love how they’re *right there* but still look tidy. The rest are on a sliding shelf in the pantry.

I bought some Maldon sea salt after reading several magazine articles singing its praises, and I feel very sophisticated whenever I use it. :)


14 Raleigh-Elizabeth February 7, 2013 at 8:36 am

Shannon – put it on a little ricotta and spread it on some bread or eat it with fruit like peaches, figs, or mango… if you’re feeling really adventurous, drizzle it with a little honey! DELISH!


15 Shannon { A Mom's Year } February 7, 2013 at 8:46 am

That sounds wonderful…thank you!


16 Sara February 7, 2013 at 8:41 am

We have a lot. But they are not just spices, they are mementos as they have been collected and brought along from the different forigen countries we have lived in.
The only problem is trying to remember which country you bought which one in and therefore which language you should be looking for the label in. I am afraid one day I will put in the wrong one because I’ve forgotten the word in French or German


17 Raleigh-Elizabeth February 7, 2013 at 8:42 am

I love that you collect spices. My husband is bringing home some from Afghanistan, too – it makes me so happy to see our lives lined up on a spice shelf.


18 Lori H February 7, 2013 at 9:37 am

I love Penzey’s spices and we have a location here in town. That means I don’t have to overbuy spices and can replenish as I need to. My favorites are: smoked paprika, onion and garlic powders, cumin and salt-free taco seasoning.


19 Erin February 7, 2013 at 9:48 am

we’re running out of storage space for ours, as well! but my husband aside, they are my one true love. the ones I absolutely cannot live without are curry & garam masala , rosemary, basil & oregano, and the few bulbs of garlic that I always keep on hand. without them, I’m not sure I would do any cooking! or any eating, for that matter!


20 Raleigh-Elizabeth February 7, 2013 at 10:45 am

we all know the eating may be the best sole reason for living, so whatever spices required to make that delectable and delicious seem absolutely necessary in my book!


21 Katie February 7, 2013 at 10:43 am

My other half and I have an entire cupboard dedicated to herbs and spices. Which seemed like a lot, compared to most of our peers, but it’s still getting bigger. I love discovering new flavours and they can make a tin of tomatoes taste like it’s from basically any country in the world! Genius :)


22 Raleigh-Elizabeth February 7, 2013 at 10:44 am

hooray! we love ras al hanout with our tomatoes — have you tried that? delicious cooked up with chicken!


23 Grace@ Sense and Simplicity February 7, 2013 at 10:44 am

I have lots as well, but love the feeling of being so prepared that when you need an unusual spice for a recipe you just happen to have it on hand (happened recently for Fenugreek). Last summer I put all my spices in small and medium sized mason jars. I love how pretty they look stacked in the cupboard – not necessarily the easiest way to find them as the labels are on the lids and I can’t see them when I open the cupboard, but beauty rules here.


24 Raleigh-Elizabeth February 7, 2013 at 10:46 am

that sounds TRULY beautiful. and far beats my orange-topped fresh direct spices! they might be tasty, but there’s nothing pretty about them.


25 Kristen E February 7, 2013 at 11:13 am

I love having tons of spices on hand, but I really do use them. I love to cook, and I cook many different kinds of food – last night was Italian, two nights ago was Indian, before that was Chinese, we’re having Thai later this week, etc. The spices really make a difference. I think having cuisine-specific spices is what makes my dishes taste authentic, instead of Americanized versions of them, you know? I buy all my spices from Penzey’s, usually online since we don’t have a retail store where I live. When I visit other cities, though, I always make a Penzey’s stop!


26 Dianne February 7, 2013 at 11:58 am

I was so afraid you were going to suggest getting rid of all those extra spices! I have a whole double door cabinet just for spices/rubs and the like. Looks like they’ll be staying! (An aside-I love your writing style and articles.)


27 Raleigh-Elizabeth February 7, 2013 at 12:02 pm

well I’m blushing! and no, we can’t get rid of our spices, can we? i may be able to ax my crock pot (who am i kidding, it’s still sitting under my sink waiting for a new home) but my spices? NEVER.


28 Meagan February 7, 2013 at 2:02 pm

We have just one spice rack, but It’s floor to ceiling. I’m not sure how practical it really is, but it looks pretty cool… Guests always comment on it!


29 Raleigh-Elizabeth February 7, 2013 at 2:07 pm

that sounds gorgeous, meagan! do you have any photos of it you can show us?


30 Maria C. February 7, 2013 at 2:15 pm

Ladies, I envy you! Where I live, you have to dig long and hard in order to find more then salt, black pepper and hot paprika!!! And even then in the entire city you would end up with 15-20 spices total!!! So, when ever you want to empty you pantry and clean up you kitchen send all those nice spices over here to me!!!!


31 Raleigh-Elizabeth February 7, 2013 at 2:16 pm

Maria — my favorite spice place, The Spice House (based in Chicago), ships EVERYWHERE… I’m very sorry to your wallet in advance. : )


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