Megara at Fresh Brownies asked for a list of my "essential spices". She mentioned that she's a newlywed and the idea of filling a pantry with spices is a bit complicated. I agree!
Eight years ago I moved into my first apartment. I knew how to bake, but I didn't know a thing about cooking. Dinners were limited to grilled cheese, spaghetti, or cold cereal. On top of my limited culinary skills, I also had a limited budget. I was living on my own in a high rent area on a graduate student stipend. I was pretty broke.
I remember my first trip to the grocery store. I was new to town, so I headed to Giant (which I later found out is a pretty overpriced store) to get the "basics". I got home and realized that I couldn't cook a thing because I didn't have seasonings. I slowly built up a pantry of basic spices, but I dreaded buying random seasonings (tumeric, thyme, cumin, etc.) because they were so expensive and had a relatively short shelf life.
I now realize that having the proper seasonings, fresh herbs, and measuring tools makes a tremendous difference in the quality of my meals. The first time I used fresh basil was a revelation. "Oh, THIS is that fresh taste that makes restaurant marinara so good!" I remember the first time I used fresh rosemary on pork loin. "Did I even roast this in my own oven? It tastes like it's straight off a restaurant menu." Bottom line, don't skimp on your herbs and spices. Quality and freshness matter.
1. Fresh is best. Most ground spices should only be kept in your pantry for a year. Keep them in a cool, dark spot. Shop at stores that sell lots of spices. You don't want to purchase seasonings that have been sitting under flourescent lighting for 6 months.
2. Take your time. Start off with a few essentials, then build up your spice rack each time you cook. Otherwise, you'll be making a $75 trip to the grocery store and end up tossing half the spices next year when they go bad.
3. Write the date on your spices when you open them. I use small white labels.
4. Consider purchasing whole spices. Whole peppercorns, cinnamon sticks, whole nutmeg, and other spices stay fresh longer than the ground versions. Just grind or grate the desired amount onto your food.
5. Make your own spice mixes. I purchase some pre-mixed seasonings (taco seasoning, Italian seasoning, Lowry's seasoned salt), but overall I prefer to make my own rubs and spice mixes. I can control the salt and the heat and I generally save money.
The Spice Rack:
I purchase some spices in bulk and store small quantities in my kitchen in small glass jars (from IKEA). The rest are stored on a shelf in my basement. I have many more spices than your average person would need, but here are some (relatively inexpensive) essentials if you're just starting to cook:
Salt - There are so many varieties. I don't use the plain old table salt, I prefer coarse Kosher salt because it's irregular shape allows it to penetrate meats prior to cooking and it's not as salty as table salt, so if you make a mistake, it's not as obvious. Kosher salt is inexpensive (you can purchase a 1 pound box for under $2). I keep mine in a salt pig next to the stove for easy access. I use freshly ground sea salt as a finishing salt (on cooked foods like veggies and potatoes) before serving. You can purchase coarse sea salt in a grinder at any grocery store or warehouse club.
Pepper - I buy whole peppercorns for my pepper grinder (for use in small quantities). I also purchase coarse ground pepper (at Costco) in bulk, because it's easier to measure for recipes that require huge amounts of pepper. Fresh cracked pepper is fantastic in flavor. Invest in a pepper grinder.
Garlic Powder/Granulated Garlic - I buy it in bulk at Costco because it seems to turn up in many recipes. It's great in mashed potatoes, spaghetti sauce, mixed with butter and garlic and spread on bread, in cheese grits... the list goes on. It's inexpensive and when you don't need (or feel like chopping) fresh garlic, it provides a strong flavor.
Cinnamon - I have whole sticks and pre-ground. French toast, banana bread, cinnamon honey butter... pretty much every sweet treat benefits from a hit of cinnamon.
Red Pepper Flakes - Make sure they are brightly colored and really fresh. I use this in anything from spaghetti sauce to Asian stir fries to chopped barbecue.
I'd start with these basic spices, then expand as recipes call for additional ingredients. There's no point in breaking the bank on spices that you won't use for six months, especially since most ground spices only have a one year shelf life.