essentials spices for a frugal kitchen

The Essentials of a Frugal Spice Cabinet

Spices are an essential part of any pantry, but they can be expensive!

As I’ve mentioned before I grow my own herbs year-round. I’ve always got basil, rosemary, parsley, thyme, sage, lavender, mint, and cilantro growing. I have multiple types of basil because they each have their own qualities. I suggest everyone have sweet basil and Thai basil. I also grow multiple types of parsley.

Purchasing spices doesn’t have to be a major investment. I’ll go over the ones I think you can get at a cheaper store and the ones you should splurge on.

A Note About Shelf Life

Spices are not good forever. I remember my mom having some of her spices for eons and I know now that spices lose their flavor after some amount of time.

In general, most spices have a maximum shelf life of 2 years. I recommend rebottling most spices in your own airtight containers. Not only is storage so much easier when the bottles are the same size, but you can label them yourself!

What does it mean when a spice has expired?

It means that it no longer provides the most aromatic and delicious enhancement to your food.

Indefinite Life: Vanilla extract, salt

3-4 Years:

Whole unground spices like peppercorns, allspice, caraway seeds, etc.

2-4 Years

Ground spices such as cumin, ginger, paprika, chili powder

1-3 Years

Ground and whole leafy herbs like rosemary, oregano, basil, thyme, parsley, and all seasoning blends

It is ok to toss old spices. It isn’t frugal to have bad spices!

Bringing Back the Dead

Some spices can be revived if they aren’t super-duper old. Here are a few ways to bring them back from the brink.

  1. Toss them into hot oil right before you cook with them. This works great for single spices and blends. You only want to use a small amount of oil and stir as they begin to warm and become fragrant again. Then continue cooking with the spices still in the oil.
  2. Dry finely ground spice blends can be toasted in a hot skillet over medium-low heat, but you must stir them constantly. Ground spices burn quickly so pay attention.
  3. Bottle them in olive oil. You can mix old spices with olive oil and let them sit for a few months to draw out the remaining oils.
  4. Use them to add some fragrance around the home. Put them in a sachet and stick them in a place that could use some freshness. It will be subtle but noticeable.

Stocking Your Spice Cabinet

ModTip: Label spices on the date you open them with a permanent marker!

ModTip: Do not store spices on the ledge of your stove or over your stove. The heat and moisture will ruin them.

Must Have Spices for Any Kitchen

Black Peppercorns

Pepper is one of the most essential spices to American cooking. If you have time I strongly suggest you learn about the history of pepper.

A great pepper mill is essential. Pepper is most flavorful and aromatic right after it is ground. I no longer buy pre-ground pepper.

This OXO Peppermill is a Modfamily favorite. The ability to adjust the grind is perfect. 

Ground Cumin

This is an essential spice in any frugal kitchen. Cumin is used widely in Latin cooking. It lends a earthy and nutty note to food. Try it in a pot of chili. You’ll find it in curry powder and chili powder. I also love it on roasted cauliflower.

Crushed Red Pepper Flakes

From pizza to tacos this is a kitchen essential. Toss some in Guacamole or try it on a baked potato. I add it to chili and pasta sauce. It gives just the right amount of heat.


This yellow spice is what gives Indian food its color. It is also very popular in Thai food. A relative of ginger, it is a mild spice that gives a brightness to food. Try it in rice!

Bay Leaves

Bay should always be purchased whole. Bay leaves are often the missing ingredient when I try to recreate a recipe. I toss it into soup, chili, pasta sauce, rice, and more. It takes a while to get the flavor out of bay leaves so put it in your dish early. ModTip: Snap your bay leaf in half. If you don’t get an immediate spicy pleasant scent, then your bay leaf is too old and you should toss the bottle.


I’m in love with garlic. I can’t get enough. I use both ground garlic and minced garlic in jars that are stored in the fridge. This powerhouse is not only good for you but it gives that wow factor to so many foods. Garlic powder is stronger than minced garlic so adjust accordingly. The flaked garlic is also an excellent choice. ModTip: You can buy dried garlic flakes at any discount store and it will be just as good.


Its not just for baking! Use cinnamon in soups and stews all the time. There are two major kinds of cinnamon. Vietnamese cinnamon is far spicier hot than Indonesian cinnamon which is commonly used in Western cooking.

Smoke Paprika

It’s not just the stuff your aunt puts on top of her deviled eggs. This rich smokey spice is related to cayenne but it is a mild workhorse in the kitchen. ModTip: if you want a smokey flavor in a plant-based meal this is what you’re looking for! Smoked paprika is great on roasted chicken, beef roasts, and steaks.


This essential ingredient for Italian, Mediterranean and Latin cooking is wonderful. Try it on grilled shrimp and roast chicken.


This zesty citrusy spice is an essential in my kitchen. I strongly prefer it whole in the pod and then use a microplane to grate it as needed. Try it in rice pilaf or in a greek yogurt dip!

Whole Nutmeg

Like cardamon, nutmeg should be purchased whole and grated on a microplane. It will change your world. It is great in coffee, hot chocolate, and all creamy cheese-based sauces like alfredo. I love it on portobello and goat cheese toast.

Onion Powder

This is only here because we’re busy people. It is great when your onions have turned, or you don’t have time to get them going. It is also essential in many of my sauce and dressing recipes.

Dried Basil

As I mentioned before I grow basil myself year round but not everyone does. I also store my own basil and grind it. This pumps up the flavor in any tomato based sauce or dish.

Dried Rosemary

A kitchen essential! I use this on meat dishes and in soups and pasta sauces all the time.

Dried Ground Ginger

Giner is essential in Indian cooking and many sauces and soups.


The world of spices is pretty exciting. You’ll notice in my recipes I rarely give you exact measurements. I “feel” it and I suggest you try to do this as well! Expand your horizons and see what you can create! Remember you can buy a lot of spices at big discount stores but I love to look for aggressive sales. I don’t recommend buying at warehouse stores because the commercial size packages will go bad before you have consumed them.

Grow your spice inventory one purchase at a time.

Stay tuned for my more advanced spice advice where I’ll be going over spices that are uncommon and rare.






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