Choosing spices is one thing; keeping them organized and fresh is another. This do-it-yourself version does the job: the Lee Valley watchmaker's kit shown here ($11.50, leevalley.com). Each lightproof case holds 15 aluminum containers that are easy to dip into with a measuring spoon. Stock them with herbs and spices from your local grocery store, or try an on-line source, like those below.
Remember that buying herbs and spices in small quantities helps ensure freshness. (Store any overflow in a shoebox in the pantry or a closet, out of the way of your work space and counters.) Fitted with glass tops and labels, the individual containers in these kits tell you at a glance when you are running low on lemongrass or sesame seeds. And unlike those bulky spinning carousel racks and spice ziggurats that approach the upper atmosphere in some kitchens, the entire box of 15 containers is compact enough to stick in a drawer or on your cookbook shelf.
The Basics Box
The Basics Box contains the 15 herbs, spices, and seasonings that no kitchen should be without―such familiar friends as cinnamon and oregano (for the entire list, see the Basic Spice Checklist). If possible, buy whole peppercorns and nutmeg rather than ground versions: The flavors of freshly ground pepper and freshly grated nutmeg far outweigh the inconvenience of preparation.
The Gourmet Box
For the serious cook, there are no substitutes for the right ingredients. The Gourmet Box holds more-exotic offerings, including fleur de sel (French sea salt) and―when Asian and Indian dishes are on the menu―piquant lemongrass and fragrant fennel. You can find all 28 seasonings on the Gourmet Spice Checklist.
The Spice Hunter
Since 1980, Lucia Cleveland, founder of the Spice Hunter, has traveled the world in search of great seasonings. She imports vanilla beans from Madagascar, cinnamon from Vietnam, bay leaves from Turkey, and white peppercorns from Malaysia. Today Cleveland sells more than 150 spices, including a line of organic spices. Every jar of SH spice comes with a customized recipe.
Penzeys, a family-owned company based in Brookfield, Wisconsin, offers a huge variety of whole and ground spices in a range of quantities, so you can order a 1.2-ounce jar of Hungarian paprika or, if you have it every day on your oatmeal, a 16-ounce bag of cinnamon. The Penzeys website and catalog include descriptions of every spice, as well as recipe suggestions and tips.