This is not just a list of herbs and spices; these are extremely specific seasonings that I’ve identified over time that open doors to previously unavailable flavors and have helped me elevate my cooking at home to new heights. It’s like the difference between a bland packet of pre-ground pepper you’d get with your takeout meal and the bright, aromatic burst of flavor from freshly cracked mixed peppercorns straight out of a peppermill – a change that makes a world of difference.
Craig’s Picks – TL;DR
Heavenly Aroma and Flavor
Complex, Smoked Heat
Rich, Smokey Flavor
Sulfury, Mineraly, Umami
Meaty & Savory
Craig’s Essential Flavor Makers
Most of my herbs and spices come from the humble bulk bins at the grocery store, or sometimes I use the most unassuming, most inexpensive brands. I love exploring the subtle variations between brands. Many common spices, like granulated onion or ground coriander, for example, tend to be relatively consistent, at least in a typical U.S.-based grocery store. In my experience, the vast majority of spices and herbs found in a store’s bulk section are more than adequate for delightful cooking. However, there are a few notable exceptions—exceptions so crucial, exceptions that have such monumental impact on the food you cook, that I’ve compiled this list and dubbed them the Essential Flavor Makers.
While it’s ideal to find these gems locally, I’ve often had to resort to ordering them online. Some may come in larger quantities than you’d typically desire, but the unparalleled quality warrants at least considering the investment. Ingredients like these enable culinary experts to use less salt while achieving incredible flavor, all thanks to the inclusion of certain high-quality ingredients that bring essential flavors to the dish. Rest assured, if it’s on this page, it’s also in my pantry. To prove it, I’ll showcase my hand-modeling skills with a photo of each herb and spice, held lovingly by yours truly.
Herbs & Spices
The Real Deal Hungarian Sweet Paprika
Great for: seasonings, rubs, sauces
What makes it special? I must say, if you’ve been cooking with the typical store-bought paprika, even the most premium varieties on the shelf, you’re likely missing out on one of the most exhilarating aromatic spices in existence. Sound hyperbolic? Perhaps. But once you try this Hungarian Sweet Paprika, you may find yourself seeking out recipes that feature paprika just to enjoy its incredible flavor. No exaggeration, it’s that good. If there’s only one thing you try on this list, I wholeheartedly recommend this one, as the difference between the aroma and taste of this paprika and the standard store variety is genuinely eye-opening.
Authentic Hungarian Sweet Paprika (I don’t even know what the actual brand of this is, half of it is in Hungarian and Google Translate just keeps telling me that it’s 1st Class).
Smoked Hot Paprika
Great for: spicy seasonings and next-level split pea soup
What makes it special? Smoked hot paprika was my first revelation in the world of spices to be considered essential flavor makers. Similar to the Hungarian sweet paprika mentioned above, no locally-sourced smoked hot paprika can hold a candle to the two brands I’ve listed here. My preference is El Avion, but La Chinata is a close second. Both outshine the grocery store’s alternatives by leaps and bounds, and both make next-level split pea soup.
Smoked Mild Paprika
Great for: smokey seasoning and underlying depth of smoke
What makes it special? El Avion’s smoked mild paprika offers a similar experience to the hot version, although the difference between it and store-bought varieties is less pronounced. Still, it brings so much more life to a recipe than its typical store-bought counterpart, I must recommend bypassing the typical smoked mild paprika in lieu of a genuinely sensory-enhancing product by El Avion.
Kala Namak (Himalayan Black Salt)
Great for: sauces, pasta salads, potato salads
What makes it special? This naturally sulfur-rich mineral salt will make your entire kitchen smell of eggs as soon as you sprinkle it on anything. Don’t worry, that will dissipate. The deep flavor it can impart into foods, especially plant-based sauces, is unmatched. It’s one of the most umami-filled ingredients in my entire kitchen. Years ago I thought “salt is salt” and tried a cheaper, alternate brand, and it was so disgusting I couldn’t believe it. I feel bad for anyone that started on a gross brand of this and never gave it a chance. It’s a key ingredient in any traditionally mayonnaise-based sauce, such as plant-based mayonnaise, Alabama White Sauce, dressing for macaroni or potato salads, and so on. I cannot stress this enough: this is a very, very important ingredient for depth of flavor!
Great for: soy curl “meats” and sausages
What makes it special? For me, quatre epices is an indispensable spice blend when preparing certain meat alternatives. They don’t call me The Man From Maine With The French Last Name for nothing! Whenever I want a dish to embody the rich, warming flavors of Acadian and French-Canadian ground pork, this is my go-to ingredient. One bottle will likely last ages. A close replica is my Liverwurst seasoning, but it’s not exactly the same.
Quatre Epices by Zamouri Spices
Honorable Mentions, But Not Essentials
Basic Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
Great for: adding heat to Italian-style foods such as soups, pastas, pizzas
What makes it special? An honorable mention goes to the basic crushed red pepper flakes. After a visual and taste comparison, I’ve concluded that the plain old McCormick Crushed Red Pepper Flakes are the most vibrant among the store’s options, including the bulk section varieties (likely Frontier brand).
Crushed Red Pepper Flakes by McCormick – linking to this even though it’s not available so you can see what it looks like. If you live in the U.S. there’s a good chance you can find this locally. Also, you’ll have to trust me that these are what I say they are since I didn’t keep the bottle.
Flavored Crushed Pepper Flakes
Great for: adding flavor and heat to Italian-style foods such as soups, pastas, pizzas
What makes it special? I did try the acclaimed Flatiron Pepper Co. pepper flakes, and they certainly are a gourmet treat. They pack enough heat that I could never go through an entire bottle alone, but they pair beautifully with tomato dishes (soups, pastas, pizzas). If you’re looking for a spicy variety, I do recommend them. However, my heart will always belong to a fantastic batch of traditional crushed red pepper flakes, no matter what the advertising says.
Great for: beans
What makes it special? Discovering outstanding chili powder is far more challenging than it ought to be. With a seemingly endless array of varieties (New Mexico, ancho, light, dark, mild, hot, fancy, and so on), finding the perfect “classic” chili powder can be a daunting task. I prefer milder chili powder because it allows me to control the heat levels for my heat-sensitive family members and explore other, more flavorful sources of spiciness (see Smoked Hot Paprika above). However, I don’t currently have a preferred brand, so if you know of a “classic” chili powder that stands above the rest, please share your thoughts in the comments! I currently use a bottle from Rancho Gordo, but it’s not generally available for purchase.
Do You Have Other Essential Flavor Makers?
I am always open to learning, growing, and improving. Please share any essential flavor makers of your own!