The Ultimate Guide to Pantry Organization

A guide on which herbs and spices to buy and how to organize them

Food for Thought, Recipes  /   /  By Annie

Like many of you, I have been struggling between being productive and calming myself down during this unprecedented time of mass social isolation. I have discovered that pantry organization is actually the perfect activity that meets both criteria. Having a well-organized pantry means that you will probably enjoy cooking at home more too. Did you happen to read my post back in the day called “A Cultural Explanation for Why You Can’t Cook”? If that was the “why” post, this would be the “how” post. I promise that if you stock and understand your herb and spices properly, you can even make plain rice and white flour dough compliment any dish from any cuisine. This guide will also help you decide which herbs and spices to buy, and how to keep them organized.

The Eight Basic Spices to Start With

  1. Salt. Salt is the most important universal seasoning (sea salt is my go-to).
  2. Black Peppercorns. That first fresh crack of pepper onto any food is a wonderful smell and experience, every time. There are actually so many recipes that only need salt and pepper too to be delicious. Think cacio e pepe, salt and pepper chicken wings, or Korean oxtail soup.
  3. Cinnamon. Not only is cinnamon (there are many kinds to explore) important for baking, but you also need it for cooking so many savoury dishes, especially stews, braised meats, and any fall squash dishes. I’m also going to drop my Mexican hot chocolate recipe right here.
  4. Cayenne Pepper. Chilies and peppers are very important for heat building, even if you don’t like things too hot, and cayenne is a great universal pick.
  5. Ground Ginger. Ginger is not only great for adding a punch to most foods, but it also has so many health benefits including combatting nausea, colds, and general inflammation. It’s great to always have fresh ginger but ground ginger is key to many marinades and sauces.
  6. Garlic Powder. Just like ginger, garlic has a lot of broad healing powers, and it is good to always have some fresh ones cloves kicking around. However, it is also important in ground form for the aforementioned marinades and sauces.
  7. Cumin. This is the spice I usually reach for to bring something from bland to interesting. Some cuisines use it much more than others (Chinese, Middle Eastern, for example), but I am telling you, cumin has a place in everyone’s kitchen.
  8. Bay Leaf. This is the ingredient that you don’t really think makes a difference until you try the same recipe without it. It should go without saying, but just in case, please don’t eat the leaf!

Customize According to Your Favourite Cuisines

There are thousands of spices in the world. You don’t need them all. I did a mental assessment, and have concluded that 80% of what I make would fall into North American, East Asian and European buckets of origin. As you discover new recipes, you learn to work with and appreciate new ingredients (I now love Aleppo pepper as a result of these Turkish eggs). Once you’ve done your own assessment, go through this list and supplement your collection! Remember, some of these spices are blends as well, and may be actually made up of the spices you already have.

African: basil, African cayenne, fenugreek, marjoram, Indian red chili flakes, dukka (blend), Ras-el-hanout (blend), Harissa (blend, usually a paste), Berbere (blend).

East Asian (Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Korean): five spice powder (blend), cloves, white pepper, Szechuan peppercorns, star anise, fennel seed, dried Chinese chilis, black sesame, white sesame, katsuobushi (bonito flakes), gochugaru (Korean red chili powder), wasabi powder, shichimi togarashi (blend), furikake (blend).

European: thyme, Italian oregano, Azafrán (saffron), basil, chives, fleur de sel (or Maldon Salt), dill, nutmeg, paprika (go for Pimentón de la Vera a.k.a. Spanish smoked paprika), caraway seeds, parsley, rosemary, sage, savory, tarragon, vanilla bean, cardamom, Herbes de Provence (blend).

Latin American: Mexican oregano, coriander/cilantro, ancho chili powder, chipotle chilis (or powder), cloves, paprika, saffron, cocoa powder, Mexican chili powder (blend).

Middle Eastern: sumac, za’atar, Aleppo pepper, barberries, nutmeg, star anise, caraway seeds, coriander seed, fenugreek, roses/rosewater, turmeric, saffron, sesame seeds (white and black).

North American: nutmeg, cocoa powder, mustard powder, rosemary, sage, parsley, steak seasoning (blend), basil, vanilla extract, pumpkin spice (blend).

BONUS North American Cult Fave Blends: Trader Joe’s Mushroom & Company Multipurpose Umami, Trader Joe’s Everything But the Bagel Seasoning, Cajun/Creole Seasoning (especially Slap Ya Mamma! or Tony Chachere’s Original Creole Seasoning), Old Bay Seasoning, Pumpkin Pie Spice seasoning. These are great ones to add to any North American “foodie” pantry and ones I keep in their specific original packaging! See below.

South Asian (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan): garam masala (blend), green cardamom, black cardamom, coriander seed, cumin seeds, fennel seed, fenugreek, mustard seeds, turmeric, black salt, chaat masala (blend), cloves, dry mango powder, onion seeds, star anise.

Southeast Asian (Thai, Laotian, Malaysian, Indonesian, Filippino, Vietnamese): bird’s eye chili, green and red curry (paste), sambal (paste), tamarind (usually paste), dried lemongrass, adobo seasoning, basil, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, pandan leaves.

How to Organize Your Herbs and Spices

First, take inventory. It’s really important to take a step back and be honest with yourself. If there is a gritty bag of something that has been sitting on the back shelf that you literally never use, it’s probably expired and should be thrown out. And yes, spices do expire! While it usually isn’t dangerous to consume them, they can lose flavour and go from making your food taste good to tasting terrible. Take everything out so you can see it together and make note of what you use, what you need to buy, and what you do not need.

You should also make note of how you are currently using your pantry space so that you can make it work better for you. Do your spices have enough room? Do you have containers you can actually use, are there some spices hanging out in holey bags held together with a rubber band? Can you reach everything you need on a daily or weekly basis comfortably? Can you see everything you own?

Second, measure your shelf space. The shelves that I have in my apartment kitchen are somehow way smaller than my previous one, which was kind of a bummer. New condos, am I right? I measured a few times before proceeding to buy the new clear baskets that fit perfectly three per row. I then calculated how many mason jars and what size I needed to get as many to reasonably fit as possible.

Third, decant your spices into cleary-labelled jars. I am a huge fan of the straight side mason jar with the retro label maker look right now. I mean, I truly get so much pleasure now from staring at my spices (and a lot of other things I have labelled around the apartment), it’s a bit of an obsession. I am currently using Bernardin 125 mL mason jars for my small items, and the Bernardin 250 mL mason jars for my larger items. I love that you can mix and match the little jars so that you can see all but 3 of the little ones at once. There is also enough room for 3 extra medium jars back behind the little ones to fit a few more jars I use infrequently. In order to see the medium ones better, I also bought a little tiered shelf that makes it look like my spices are singing together in a choir. It’s all about being able to see as much of the labels as possible! I may end up buying another one of these for the second level as well. I am also using one of the plastic containers to house the spices that do not make sense to take out of their own containers (see cult spice blends above). Basically, the theory is that the easier the spices are to see, and the nice they are to look at, the more you will want to cook with them.

Finally, make a new inventory list. I also keep a list of the things I have on the back of the door of the pantry to help keep me organized. I used to constantly be stressing in the grocery store not remembering how much thyme I still had left. Now I have a much better idea because I see that list every time I open it.

I hope those of you who read until the end of this are finding this guide somewhat entertaining/useful, regardless of whether not you are in self-isolation. More than ever, if you do end up using this guide, please drop me a line and a photo to let me know how it goes! I’d love to hear from you!

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