Gift Idea: What To Put in A Spice Starter Kit

The art of gift-giving. It’s got to be creative, unexpected, appreciated, and useful. Consider a homemade spice kit. A box full of spices is a package full of flavor and possibilities and an expression food, culture and friendship.

There are hundreds of spices, countless blends and different price points. This doesn’t even take into account the choice between whole, ground, powdered, crushed or crystallized. We’re talking complete, personal customization.

Now all this choice is awesome for those of us who feel comfortable in the kitchen. But for someone who doesn’t share your culinary comfort zone it can be totally overwhelming. I bet you know a lot of people who would appreciate a little help in getting their spice started.

Oh, you say, like who?

  • A college student who’s hobbled with nothing but a hot plate as their cooking tool and longing for something (anything) homemade.
  • Newlyweds.
  • The sister hosting the family holiday dinner.
  • Holiday party hosts.
  • New homeowners.
  • Anyone who expresses a growing interest in food.

By assembling and giving a spice kit to someone you make their lives easier and cooking more fun for them by removing some of the guesswork.

Here’s a list of 16 essential herbs and spices for a sparse cupboard. I selected these because of their ability to season popular dishes. They can also be combined to create a variety of ethnic flavors with very little effort. The list is divided into 3 sections. You can give all 16 spices or just focus on a portion of it for a thematic sub-set.  

Let’s start with some baking basics. These are great flavors for sweet and savory and can be combined for completely new flavors.

  1. Allspice – tastes like a combination of cinnamon and nutmeg with a hint of pepper. Be sure you purchase true allspice and not a blend. Allspice is often used in baking.
  2. Vanilla – a couple of vanilla beans will lend a flair of gourmet for even the most entry-level cooks. Plus, with beans on hand they may even discover the ease and joy of creating their own extract (bonus…making your own saves money).
  3. Cinnamon – another baking staple. Cinnamon is also a key flavor in Mexican and some Moroccan dishes.
  4. Ginger – an essential for holiday cooking. Ginger can also be combined with nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves to make a pumpkin pie spice blend which has at least 10 other uses outside of pumpkin pies. Ginger is good for Indian foods as well.
  5. Nutmeg – good for baking. Consider purchasing whole nutmegs and including an inexpensive nutmeg grinder . The aroma and flavor of fresh, ground nutmeg is incredible.
  6. Cloves – yet another baking staple. Cloves are also used in soups and add flavor to some Mexican dishes.
  7. Cumin – The quintessential unique flavor. It’s great on potatoes, red meats, vegetables, squash, as well as Spanish and Mexican food. It’s also tasty baked into savory breads.

 Now let’s add some pepper. I could go crazy here but remember, this is supposed to be a starter kit!

  1. Black Pepper – Tellicherry pepper is a popular staple. Purchase whole peppercorns and add a grinder so the flavor will last longer.
  2. Paprika – is an essential for classic deviled eggs. I probably don’t need to say more but paprika is also fantastic on bitter greens, potatoes, meats and tomato sauces.
  3. Ancho Chili Pepper Ancho chili offers an alternative to paprika and adds more heat and depth of flavor.
  4. Crushed Red Pepper – for perfect heat! Crushed red pepper is also an essential addition for Italian dishes such as pizza and some pasta sauces.
  5. Mustard. Yeah, I know. It’s not a pepper. So what. Mustard adds a unique heat and zing and it’s key for French cooking, sauces and dips. Not to mention there really isn’t a substitute.

Time to put the spotlight on a few herbs. These are all classic Mediterranean herbs and can be mixed and matched for Greek, Italian and French foods (Mediterranean herbs = Mediterranean countries).

  1. Oregano – Can’t cook Italian without oregano! Tomatoes and oregano are meant to be together. Many people don’t realize that oregano is also an important ingredient to Mexican foods. If you have oregano, ancho chili and cumin in the kit the receiver is all set to make 5 Minute Spanish Everything Sauce. It really doesn’t get any easier than this.
  2. Tarragon – for salads, seafood, and light vegetables. Tarragon has such a delicate, distinct flavor and is a key herb in French cuisine.
  3. Rosemary – In my opinion this is the defining Mediterranean herb. Deeply fragrant, and used in just about everything. Cooking something (anything) and not sure what to add? Try crushed rosemary!
  4. Parsley – Not the most exciting herb but rather essential for the kitchen. I like to grow parsley and make walnut, parsley pesto which I freeze and use throughout the year. Fresh parsley also freshens breath!

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1 Island Vittles December 9, 2010 at 8:18 pm

Great post! High quality spices make an awesome gift for a food lover — I’m interested in your list because I’m building a spice kit for a big trip we’re taking in April — I never travel without a few key herbs (and yeast) nothing like fresh flatbread on the road…Theresa

2 Spice Sherpa December 9, 2010 at 8:28 pm

Theresa, I’m so impressed. I usually eat my way through travels and return with pounds of food related impulse purchases (and pounds on me.) The fact that you have the ability to whip up your own food on the road is amazing. Glad I could help!

3 Ilke December 9, 2010 at 9:47 pm

Thanks for a good basics class! :) Happy Holidays :)

4 pamela December 9, 2010 at 11:35 pm

hmmmm ‘a box full of spices’… conjures up all sorts of ideas, none of which relate to food…. great ideas for the season – or any time…. Thanks!

5 Jason Phelps December 10, 2010 at 8:33 am

What a great gift idea!

My understanding is that Indian women in families pass spice blend recipes, mixes and traditional storage vessels down as the years pass.


6 Spice Sherpa December 10, 2010 at 9:14 am

@Ilke You’re welcome…but I know you are well beyond basics! Sometimes a return to the 101 level is nice reminder to share the simplicity of cooking with others.
@Pamela Hmmm, what exactly are you envisioning in your box of spices? I think you’d enjoy the blog Quickies on the Dinner Table! :-)
@Jason What a great tradition. So authentic and wonderful.
Happy Holidays everyone!

7 Carol Peterman/TableFare December 10, 2010 at 10:53 pm

That’s a nice collection of spices for a starter set. Isn’t it hard to choose just a few? In addition to giving basic spices to new cooks, giving exotic spices to people who love to cook is a fun gift.

8 Spice Sherpa December 10, 2010 at 10:59 pm

I agree! I put together a short list of some strange and unusual spices. With the exception of wattleseed I’m not sure I’d recommend them as gifts though!

9 Slow Food Dude December 13, 2010 at 9:55 pm

What a quick way to put together a cool gift! Thanks!

10 denise @ quickies on the dinner table December 14, 2010 at 4:33 pm

A great list, but wouldn’t you know it, the very first one you mention, allspice, almost made me bite my tongue!! It’s been a bugbear for years!! I have been looking for allspice berries in every country I’ve been to the last 12 years or so – I’ve just returned from New York, again defeated, in my quest to find the elusive allspice berry *argghh* I found ras-el-hanout, gorgeous French lavender, annatto seeds, beautiful deep purple juniper berries, but still, no allspice *sigh*

11 Spice Sherpa December 14, 2010 at 11:25 pm

Denise, I JUST saw allspice berries in whole form for sale but I can’t remember the source! It was during a frenzy of online shopping/surfing. I think it was a higher end retailer like Dean & Deluca. I just checked The Spice House. They have whole Jamaican allspice berries.

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