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10 Must-Have Spices for Every Kitchen


Black Pepper

Where it Comes From

Black peppercorns grow in clusters on a vine found in tropical and subtropical areas and is believed to have originated in India and Indonesia. The majority of pepper sold in the United States comes from Viet Nam.

The small berries are picked just before they are ripe and, for black pepper, dried until the outer hull turns black and shrivels. White pepper is allowed to ripen, then picked, soaked in brine and dried, after which the black outer shell is removed revealing a pale white inner seed.


Black pepper is slightly hot and pungent, but much less spicy on the tongue than chili peppers. White pepper is much less pungent than black and was developed by the French for use in light colored sauces. Green pepper is spicy, but not as hot and somewhat earthy. Pink pepper is actually not pepper at all, but the berry from a Peruvian or Brazilian pepper tree. They are members of the cashew family, so people with nut allergies should beware.

How to Use

Black pepper is best kept as whole peppercorns until it’s time to use them. Grinding into soups, onto steak or other meats, and on fresh vegetables is its most common use. Pre-ground pepper can lose its flavor quickly and even more so if exposed to sun, heat and air. However, if stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark place, whole peppercorns can retain their flavor for a year or more.

Where to Buy

Black pepper and white pepper, as well as multi-colored mixes, are commonly found in supermarkets.


Black peppercorns have, until about 300 years ago, been considered highly valuable and were worth their weight in gold at one time. In fact, a sizeable container of whole peppercorns from the grocery store could, in 5th century Rome, have purchased a sizeable estate and Lamborghini to go with it. The Italians had a stranglehold on the spice trade during the Middle Ages, which was one of the primary factors in Portugal, Spain and England, among others, funding explorers to find a western route to India, China and the Far East. They didn’t find a direct route, but they did run into the Americas.

Whether you’re strictly a meat and potatoes person who shuns veggies — except for tomatoes masquerading as salsa; yes, they exist — or have no fear of diving into recipes from the French Laundry cookbook, every cook needs a foundation and knowledge of basic spices.I

Sure, some recipes are going to call for something not on this list, but for 90 percent of what will pass over and through most cooks’ home stoves, grills and crock pots, these will likely get the job done.

Our goal here isn’t to get overly geeky about this, but to lay out some interesting and basic knowledge about each of these 10 spices; where and how they’re used, varieties of interest, restaurants that make exceptional use of them and a recipe or two (found on our website) that will introduce you to each of them.

And just to be clear, these spices are what you’d use for most cooking; baking, not so much. That list will come later. For now, we’ll focus on the grill, stockpot and stovetop. So load up your eyes, nose and mouth and see what we can learn following these basic spices.

Make a list, any list (10 best rock bands, best ski areas, best looking men/women) and someone is going to be upset about leaving something out or be shocked that you included something else. I’m not trying to end a debate here, so feel free to write letting me know what’s wrong with this list and what should’ve been included (or left out) and why. There are certainly borderline spices needed to complete a given dish. But various chefs, purveyors, cookbooks, articles and my own experience led to these 10. And yes, salt is a spice. But it’s not included here because it’s largely ubiquitous — and often overused in processed food. This month starts with an obvious basic.

1. Black Pepper 2. Onion Powder 3. Paprika 4. Bay Leaves 5. Thyme 6. Basil 7. Oregano 8. Rosemary 9. Garlic Powder 10. Marjoram

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