All photos by Cara Eisenpress

Spices make the humblest meals taste a million times better. They’re the secret weapon of any chef, and even if you’re cooking hasn’t evolved very far beyond homemade tomato sauce and a few other basic dishes, stocking a utilitarian cast of spices (and herbs) will always pay dividends. The amped-up flavor of a bowl of rice and beans with cumin, coriander, and chili powder acts as a good reminder that rice and beans without cumin, coriander, or chili powder tastes kind of bland. In other words, you’ll cook better meals at home more often if you own the right spices. Really.

Of course, different cuisines make use of different spices. If you only cooked Indian food, you could have a more focused spice cabinet. But let’s assume that you, like me, practice a vaguely multicultural cooking routine, roasting chicken in the Greek style (oregano, thyme, garlic, lemon) one night, and whipping up tostadas (chili powder, cumin, red pepper flakes, oregano) the next. In that case, you’ll need to build out a minimalist spice rack with enough options to fuel your curious approach, but not so many that you’ll overwhelm your shelves and forget to use what you already own.

If you’re starting from scratch, here’s a tip: Don’t buy all the spices at once. Even though they’ll last a long time, you’ll hate your grocery bill that day. Instead, each time you make a trip to the store for some other ingredients, pick up one or two jars. In a month or two, you’ll own the whole bunch. Alternatively, ask for a starter set from Penzeys for your birthday.

Here’s how to build out a cheap, versatile spice cabinet that will take your cooking to the next level.