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Ask the Readers: Favorite frugal (or splurge) spices

Kristen, an idea for an “Ask the Readers” post might be, “What are your top ten frugal spices and your favorite splurge spice(s)?” I would particularly love to know which are the best spices to use if I wanted to make Indian food at home, or really any type of food that isn’t the standard American fare. I’ve found that the cuisine in other countries is generally very frugal but tastes so much better because of all the spices! I feel like spices are the secret frugal weapon.


This is a fun question! I’m going to riff on it a little and include some of my favorite flavor-enhancers that are not necessarily spices.

Also, I’m sure other readers are better with Indian food than I am, but I commonly use two blends: garam masala, and yellow curry powder.

Cook's Illustrated butter chicken

On to my favorite flavor enhancers:

1. Red Thai Curry Paste

jar of red thai curry paste.

This stuff is so tasty! It’s basically a spice blend (ingredients listed are “spices (including red chili pepper), garlic, lemongrass, salt, shallot, coriander root & kaffir lime peel“) and it adds such a nice depth of flavor to dishes.

I use it in this Thai chicken soup and also this sweet potato and chicken curry dish.

2. Chipotle chilies in adobo sauce

how to store chipotle chilies in the refrigerator

These provide an awesome dose of smoky heat…and I really think it’s the smoky part that makes them so tasty.

I blend them up and store them in a glass jar in my fridge for whenever something needs a dose of heat!

In a similar vein, chipotle chili powder is very tasty too.

3. Fresh cilantro


This is an herb, not a spice, but my goodness, I cannot imagine cooking without it. I am not part of the population for whom cilantro tastes like soap, so I love adding it to all sorts of Tex-Mex and Thai recipes.

And a fresh bunch of it usually only costs around a dollar, which makes it a great bargain.

Dried cilantro doesn’t taste faintly like fresh, so I never, ever buy the dried variety.

4. Dark cocoa powder

If you can get this dark cocoa powder, DO! It makes things like brownies (or chocolate oatmeal) so much more decadent.

homemade brownie bites

5. Browning All of the Things

This is a technique, not a spice, but it makes such a difference that I’m including it anyway.

browned chicken parts in pot.

the browned beginnings of some tasty chicken broth

Cook’s Illustrated/Cook’s Country has really taught me the importance of browning foods. So, now I’m much more prone to heating my skillets until they’re super hot and then adding food.

I’m much less afraid of high oven temperatures now as well.

Browning adds lots of flavor and costs almost no money*. Do it!

*A medium-hot stove or oven doesn’t use a lot less electricity than a very-hot stove or oven. For example, getting your oven from room temp to 350 is what uses most of the electricity…getting it up another 50 degrees, to 400°, is not going to add a lot electric usage.

6. Citrus zest

lonely lemons



Lime zest is really lovely in Tex-Mex dishes; I make quesadillas with a corn, cheese, cilantro, green onion, and lime zest filling, and the lime zest gives the filling such a fresh flavor.

I love orange zest in my one-serving microwave oatmeal. And lemon zest is good in many dishes both savory and sweet (blueberry baked goods really benefit from lemon zest!)

White bowl of carrot cake oatmeal.

Carrot cake oatmeal

I use a microplane grater to get my citrus zests, but for years before that, I just used the tiny-holed side of my box grater.

So, this doesn’t need to be an expensive operation.

7. Salt + time

This is another concept that Cook’s Illustrated introduced me to: salting meat ahead of time to ensure juicy, flavorful results.

An example is the overnight salted spatchcocked chicken I make, and another is the chicken brinerade I love to use.

Brineraded, sliced chicken breast on a wooden cutting board.

Salt is practically free, and the other ingredients in the brinerade recipe are also super cheap (sugar, garlic, oil, water).

8. Fresh basil

fresh basil

Basil is another herb that tastes entirely different fresh than it does dried. So, in the summertime, when basil thrives, I love to use it!

slow cooker sausage ragu from Cook's Country

Basil is great for pesto, this red-pepper/basil mayo (SO GOOD), on pizza, in a Caprese salad, in Thai dishes…there are so many possibilities.

basil plant in a landscaping bed.

Basil is not at all hard to grow from seed, and I’ve also had very good luck keeping grocery store basil plants alive in a sunny spot outside. So in the summer at least, basil can be a super cheap flavor enhancer.

9. Dried oregano

I do use some dried herbs and spices! 😉

In my opinion, oregano is one of those herbs that maintains decent flavor when dried, and I like to add it to tomato sauce, sprinkle it on top of pizza before I bake it, and sprinkle it on sauteed veggies.

How to make French Bread Pizza Cover Image

Your turn! What are your favorite flavor enhancers?

You can stick with spices, or you can branch out like I did. 😉

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Danielle Zecher

Friday 1st of July 2022

It has been so fun reading the comments on this post! There are so many things I want to try now. :-) And it's fascinating to me how someone may say something they usually make is kind of boring or bland, but then there are so many questions/comments about what it is and how to make it.


Thursday 30th of June 2022

I use a ton of spices and love them, other than Chinese 5 spice - that always tastes musty to me.

It's the "where" that I buy a lot of spices that makes a difference. The "International" aisle in most groceries stores here in Canada have spices in bigger quantities - and WAY cheaper. I buy dried garlic slices, powdered ginger, cinnamon and more here.

If I get invited to one of those kitchenware house parties, where I sort of feel obligated to support the hostess or cause - I got for spices. They'll get used up and I won't have another kitchen "thing" to deal with.

Linda in Canada

Thursday 30th of June 2022

Hello all, first time commenting, fairly long time reader. Hello Kristen!! and everyone else.

Montreal chicken seasoning. Best stuff ever. Not only for chicken, I use it when making hamburgers, roasted potatoes, caramelized onions, grilled vegetables, eggs and so on, on almost everything.


Thursday 30th of June 2022

I love fresh herbs from my garden or a pot. Celery and lovage make salt nearly needless. I prefer herbs from the freezer to dried herbs. I always cut off mine in autumn and freeze what is left.

Tamara R

Thursday 30th of June 2022

My most used fresh herb is thyme. I love it’s soft yet distinctive flavor, and it elevates whatever you add it to, even if the recipe doesn’t call for it. Super easy to grow. It’s quite the durable little plant!

Otherwise my most used spices are kosher salt, freshly ground pepper, and cumin, in that order. I use the first two daily. Other than in the many recipes I make that call for it, I use cumin most frequently when roasting or baking white sweet potatoes. I love the blend of savory from the cumin with the slight sweetness of the sweet potatoes.

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