In my opinion, spices are the key to a successful kitchen. With a healthy array of spices and spice mixes, you have the foundation for nearly any dish that you want to make; the culinary world is your oyster. With a depleted cupboard of spices, however, nearly every recipe looks intimidating and unattainable.
As easy as it is to go to a grocery store and dump the spice aisle into your shopping cart, there's a more fun solution that yields better results at cheaper prices: making your own custom blends for your favorite dishes. You'll still need to buy most of your spices (after all, you can't exactly "make" whole allspice) but the spices and spice mixes that you can make are well worth it. Here are some of my favorites:
Outside of salt and black pepper, I use red pepper flakes and garlic powder more than any other seasoning. To be honest, it's not even close. I love both of these spices, which add delicious subtle flavors when cooked with, and strong aromatic notes when added on top of pizza, sandwiches, or quesadillas.
Start with the fresh ingredients: garlic and peppers.
You can choose any kind of peppers you like, depending on preference, availability, and heat tolerance. Red serrano peppers are pretty standard for chili flakes, though I like to add a few alternately colored peppers as well, just to add a little complexity.
Prep your peppers by simply removing the top and slicing them in half, lengthwise. If you want to reduce the heat of your red pepper flakes, you can remove some or all of the seeds (I recommend leaving them all in; chili flakes should be hot, right?) For the garlic, simply peel and slice thinly.
Line a sheet pan with parchment paper or a silicon baking sheet and add your peppers and garlic to a sheet pan. Keep the two ingredients separated, and turn your oven on very low: 170-180°F is ideal, but 200°F works just fine as well.
Keep an eye on the oven, as different sized peppers and garlic will cook at varying speeds. The garlic should take anywhere between one and three hours, and will be golden brown, crisp, and completely dry when it's done. Remove them and return the peppers to the oven.
The peppers should take four to six hours, and they'll be completely dry, light, and papery when they're done, too:
To make the red pepper flakes, simply throw the dried peppers in a food processor, and blitz for a few minutes. Be careful when you open the lid, as lots of spicy chili residue will escape, and it's not fun to inhale!
For the garlic powder, you'll want to put your dried garlic pieces in a spice grinder, or a mortar and pestle. Grind until they're as fine as you want: you can make granules, or a very fine powder, or go anywhere in between.
Spice mixes are one of the most overpriced items you'll find in a grocery store. Companies throw together 50 cents of various spices, give it a marketable name, and charge you 7 dollars. So just make your own!
With a few foundational spices, you can make fish seasoning, poultry seasoning, pumpkin pie seasoning, or any number of other mixes and rubs. My personal favorite, however, is everything bagel mix, which works wonderfully on any kind of homemade bread. Just add equal parts salt, garlic powder, red pepper flakes, dehydrated onion, sesame seeds, and poppy seeds, and give it a good stir.
Then coat it on your bread or bagels either right before or right after baking, and you'll have an unbeatable treat.
I also love to make steak rubs (though I'm vehemently opposed to rubs on good quality cuts of steak). Steak rub should be a staple of any pantry, as you never know when you'll be grilling and want to add a little extra flavor to a cheap cut of steak, or even a pork chop or chicken breast.
Steak rub couldn't be more simple: just add equal amounts of all your favorite savory spices (I like to add cinnamon or cloves as well, to balance out the spicy components), and then two parts salt. There's no wrong combination!
Aside from the fact that homemade spices and spice rubs simply taste better than their store-bought alternatives (and at cheaper prices), you're bound to impress your friends when you tell them that that steak rub was homemade, and used garlic powder that was also homemade.
It's worth going to a natural/health food store or a specialty spice store to get fresher spices. Often the quality is better and you can buy in smaller increments for your custom-blended mix, instead of having to buy a whole bottle of mace or cardomom at your local grocery store—if they even have them.
And definitely check out the Latino, Asian, Mediterranean, and other ethnic markets in your area for great deals. Any spices related to Indian, Mexican, or Korean cooking are going to be the fraction of what they might cost at your local branch of a mega grocery chain.