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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