Let me just state: it’s not like I am obsessed with rankings. But here’s the thing: rankings are fun! And moreover, it allows me to put logic and analysis behind something that is totally, wildly subjective (not to mention totally, wildly pointless). I’ve already done it to holidays, and now I’m back with a new list that came up over breakfast this morning while our tired, hungover and slightly cranky group of wine tasters ate: herbs and spices! Hit that jump and let’s explore some culinary craziness.
A quick word before we begin: My pool of ingredients contains both herbs and spices. They’re fundamentally different from each other in some ways, but there’s so much overlap in terms of what comes from seeds and from the plant version of said seeds that it seemed needlessly pedantic to keep them separate (and trust me, I LOVE being needlessly pedantic). Also, I’m excluding salt and pepper from the list. Know why? It’s because salt and pepper are so, so far and away #1 and #2 on this list that it wouldn’t even be fair to consider them. You add salt and pepper to everything, so it doesn’t really count. And if you don’t add them to everything? You’re doing it wrong. So, so wrong.
So here we go: let’s rank some flavorful elements!
1) Paprika — This is an extremely controversial choice, but it’s the right choice. Paprika hits everything you look for in a spice: it imparts a ton of flavor without being overbearing, adds vibrant color, pairs well with a ton of other ingredients and is used in a wide array of different cuisines around the world. It’s also very difficult to overdo it with paprika, unlike other spices, which is a nice bit of culinary leeway to have in your corner.
It even comes in a handful of varieties, most often sweet and smoked, which makes it even more valuable. Need one more reason? It’s one of the easiest ways to simply and quickly improve any dish, making you look way more impressive to the people you’re cooking for — win-win!
2) Basil — This was VERY nearly my top choice, because damn if basil isn’t the best fresh herb there is. Seriously, if you aren’t already adding fresh basil to your cooking yet, get the hell on that — a little chiffonade in your marinara sauce or in a salad the simplest way to take a dish from good to totally dope (technical culinary term).
It’s the foundation for arguably the best sauce (pesto); like paprika, part of the beauty is its versatility, with its numerous varieties working well in everything from Italian to Thai, and I can’t stress enough how great the fresh product is compared to the dried version. Added bonus: it’s one of the cheapest and easiest herbs to grow yourself, not needing much more than a windowsill’s worth of space!
3) Vanilla — You know what my favorite part about vanilla is? That the term “vanilla” is used as a synonym for something bland and boring — nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to that good fresh shit. Though vanilla pods are the second-most expensive spice in the world and seeding the damn things can be a bit of a challenge, the product you get as a result is an invaluable means of flavoring and augmenting the flavor of batters, doughs, ice creams and the like.
It’s also fairly easy to transform into fresh vanilla extract — all you need are some pods and some booze, usually vodka. And trust me, anything that can turn the blandest spirit into something this flavorful is pretty incredible.
4) Thyme — Here’s another little bit of a controversy: this is the only one of the Simon and Garfunkel spices that made the cut for me today. I know, right? I’m almost as surprised as you. Maybe a little bit of bias here (as though the rest of this actually IS analytical, right?) but I’d argue thyme has one thing going for it in particular that not many other herbs/spices do: DAT LEMON.
Lemon is one of the most pleasant, relaxing scents there is — that’s probably why thyme has been so widely used for its fragrance and medicinal purposes over the years. As a cooking herb, it’s perfect for roasting fish and chickens, developing flavor in broths, adding character to fresh-baked breads and creating savory desserts. It’s also the most pun-friendly herb, so…I mean, there’s that?
5) Nutmeg — Picture yourself in front of a fireplace during the middle of winter. It’s snowing outside, but you’re keeping warm with a cup of hot cocoa or a hot spiced apple cider. You take a sip and, just like that, you feel a comforting warmth come over you. You feel relaxed, as though you’ve just slipped on a second velvet robe (Did I mention you’re wearing a velvet robe? You totally are). You sink into your chair and let out a satisfied sigh, while…I don’t know, while some other idyllic stereotypes happen around you.
The reason you feel that warm, toasty feeling throughout your body? Nutmeg.
As far as spices go, very, very few are so singularly effective at one thing as nutmeg is at providing you with that satisfying warming feeling. It’s aromatic and spicy, making it a perfect addition to baked goods and hot beverages. It’s yet another spice that is infinitely better when fresh-ground instead of pre-ground, too, so you can easily add a previously unknown layer of delicious complexity to your homemade efforts.
Lastly: it’s the term for one of the more entertaining moves on a soccer field. Yes, I’m giving it credit for that.
6) Coriander/Cliantro — Starting off the bottom half of the rankings is yet another controversial choice: cilantro. Cilantro/coriander has the unique ability to either be an awesome and integral flavor component for guacamoles, salsas, stews or pho…or taste like a totally unpalatable soapy, metallic nightmare, depending on your genetic predisposition. Even though I’m mercifully unafflicted, I recognize that this a pretty big factor here.
Still, when it comes to imparting a bright citrus-y flavor to a massive variety of culinary items, it’s hard to do much better than cilantro. Just make sure you actually take the time to stem it properly — the stems are SUPER bitter, and I’m pretty sick of people just blindly massacring a whole bundle of the stuff with no regard for stem or leaf. I’m the one who has to eat this later — just let me do this part for you next time, please.
7) Mint — Perhaps the greatest thing about mint is that you can add a number of suffixes to it and it conjures up some wildly different but comparably awesome thoughts. Play along at home!
- Chip: Classic, delicious ice cream flavor, made even better with the addition of mint candies
- Julep: Classic, delicious bourbon-based cocktail most known for its place at the Kentucky Derby (and my apartment for that matter)
- Jelly: Classic, delicious pairing with roasted lamb, flavors that perfectly complement each other
- Tea: Classic, delicious tea variety that’s sweet, refreshing and relaxing
Even without shoehorning it into that ridiculous construct I did above, mint is pretty unquestionably a top ten flavor: the subtle sweetness of it was recognized ages ago, which is probably why its the foundation for almost all of our gums and Starlight mints. Single-handedly keeping reception desks and restaurant front counters stocked — way to go, mint!
8) Fennel — One of the greatest discoveries I’ve made in recent years is fennel. Listening to someone describe fennel doesn’t make it sound overly appealing, to be honest — it’s always like “there’s a great licorice flavor to it!” Which: does not sound appealing at all to someone who hates licorice. Take it from me, though, it’s better than it sounds.
I’m mostly referring to the fennel seeds for this pick, since it’s what I use most often — they make a terrific addition to Italian and Mediterranean dishes, especially lamb and sausage. The bulbs and fronds are pretty great in their own right, though, especially when used to add lightness and sweetness to salads or slaws. And hey, there’s a decent chance it can be used to help treat glaucoma — looks like you’re not the only game in town anymore, weed!
9) Saffron — Remember how I mentioned that vanilla was the second-most expensive spice there is? Well meet your #9 pick, saffron — the world’s most expensive spice. Why so expensive? Because “it takes about two football pitches of crocuses to glean a kilo, with each stigma collected by hand” — so yeah, that’ll do it, because that is insane.
As a consumer, though, I’m happy to pay for it and the wonderful things that even a few tiny threads can do to food. Specifically: rice dishes. Paella is an absolutely classic dish that owes its beautiful yellow hue to saffron; saffron is also widely recognized for its contributions to soup/stew broths, marinades and even baked goods/desserts. The high price point, long prep time to extract its flavor and total ease of overdoing it pushed this one pretty far down the list, but it’s one of the truly unique ingredients available.
10) Cinnamon — Rounding out the list is cinnamon, a spice I considered dropping altogether when I decided to include nutmeg but quickly realized had a lot of things going for it. Like what, you ask? The Cinnamon Challenge, mothafucka! What better way to celebrate the use of a spice than to try swallowing a whole spoonful of it and risking some surprisingly serious health complications for it??
That last part was kind of sarcastic (kind of), but it’s not like cinnamon’s place in the food industry needs much defending. It’s a classic flavor, spawning one of the most iconic pastries of all time and giving a nutmeg-y warmth and depth to countless other breads, cakes and hot beverages. Moreover, there are quite a few surprising ancillary benefits to it, including its use in potpourri, as a provider of several minor health aids and even as a fiery moth repellant.
A lot of fine prospects didn’t make the cut today — parsley, sage, chili powder, cumin, rosemary, tarragon…the list goes on (well, it actually only goes on about that long, but still). No doubt a truly versatile kitchen will have all of the above and many, many more on hand at any given time…but when it comes down to it, there just aren’t many more viable candidates for the totally objective, incredibly rational list I’ve produced here. Feel free to tell me exactly why I’m wrong in the comments!