How To Pick the Right Spices for Your Food

We all know someone out there who’s a natural cook. Everything they make comes out tasting like heaven, and they never, EVER, burn a single baked veggie. Look into their freezer and instead of frozen pizza and instant meals you’ll find pre-prepared homemade dinners and oodles of ingredients.

So how do they do it? Believe it or not, some of those amazing cooks started out just like you, confused and scared of the kitchen. The key to getting comfortable with cooking is knowing what goes with what, and learning that is as easy as pie.

Buy Spices!

A little salt and pepper can go a long way, but don’t be afraid to buy something more exciting. Things like garlic and onion powder, thyme, basil, bay leaves, and oregano are absolute essentials when it comes to spicing food. Don’t worry about getting fresh stuff if you’re just starting out, powdered spices contain more concentration and last an almost infinite amount of time. Beware premade “spice combinations” as they often end up too salty or bland. Give it a try yourself and don’t be afraid to pick up some neat combinations to try out!

Can’t find a spice you’re looking for? Don’t worry about it! Never be afraid of going “off-plan” and trying something new. If you can’t find chili powder, try some pepper flakes. Onion powder is out of stock? Try onion flakes, which are the exact same! No lemon juice in the house? Try an tiny splash of vinegar to liven things up.

Use your Nose

When you’re getting ready to spice something, always smell your spices first. Does it smell like it goes with chicken (think Thanksgiving turkey, or stuffing)? Then dash a little on there with some olive oil (another essential). Is your spaghetti sauce weak? Smell your spice packets until you find something that smells Italian. It may sound vague, but once you start doing it you’ll see that your nose really does know.

Still having trouble? The try following these rules:

  1. Thanksgiving spices (like rosemary and thyme) don’t usually go with spicy things, but do go nicely with zesty additives.
  2. The main spices in tomato sauces are usually basil and oregano, which also go well on chicken fingers or other breaded chicken products.
  3. Red meet rarely needs more than salt, pepper, and a little onion powder, unless you want to get fancy.
  4. Pork is super versatile, and can be spiced in almost any way you want to try!

Don’t Sweat it

Did you go a little overboard with the garlic? Maybe your soup is salty enough to pickle a cucumber. Don’t worry about it! The good thing about spice is that you can almost always fix a mistake. Adding carrots can counteract salty or bitter tastes, and a small amount of lemon juice (or any acidic taste) can fix an overly sweet sauce. If worst comes to worst adding a potato to soak up salt, or watering the sauce down then simmering can fix just about anything. If your sauce turns out runny and just wont simmer down, try adding a small amount of cornstarch mixed with warm water and stirring over a low heat. Your sauce will thicken up in no time flat.

But what if you over spice something that isn’t a soup or sauce? The good thing about spices is that they can usually be picked or scraped off or, in an emergency, washed right off the food. Don’t be discouraged if your first try isn’t perfect, because learning to cook should be fun, not stressful!

Photography by Lukas Budimaier on

Danielle Staring is a 22 year-old editor and writer from the small town of Beeton, ON. She loves reading other people’s writing and through her business, Starling Editorial, aims to bring publishing to small Canadian towns. You can check out her website,

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