It’s probably safe to say that great vegan food relies more on herbs and spices than any other type of cuisine there is. Whether you’re trying to make tofu taste like chicken, or simply pull off a great tasting hummus, you’ll be completely helpless without an arsenal of essential seasonings in your cupboard.
I couldn’t tell you how many spices and herbs there are in the world, but I’d venture to say it’s a pretty large number. Dried herbs and spices aren’t cheap, and knowing which ones to stock up on can feel a bit confusing at times. Do you really need marjoram? What about fennel? How often will you find yourself reaching for the ground saffron or cardamon? Over the years, I’ve come to realize there are at least 20 herbs, spices, and seasonings that are essential for vegan cooking. There are certainly far more that can be used, and you could even get away with far less, but if you always have these on hand, you can make wide variety of great tasting dishes anytime.
All of the spices and herbs below can be stored dry in a pantry or cupboard, so you don’t have to worry about them going bad – however, you should replace them at least once a year because they will lose their potency and flavor over time. You can also use combinations of these herbs and spices to make popular spice and herb blends, like ranch seasoning, curry powder, and Montreal steak seasoning.
20 Essential Dried Herbs and Spices for Vegan Cooking
#1. Old Bay (Crab Seasoning)
Old Bay gives any dish a fishy, seafood flavor. It’s the easiest way to make tofu taste like fish or turn linguine into seafood pasta sans the seafood. However, Old Bay is not the only crab seasoning out there, and anyone of them will do. Of course, you could always make your own crab seasoning, but it’s just way easier to keep a container of this stuff in the pantry.
#2. Smoked Paprika
You might be wondering why I put smoked paprika on this list instead of ordinary paprika. The simple answer is: smoked paprika is better. Not only can smoked paprika take the place of ordinary paprika in any recipe, it also gives food a smoky, chipotle flavor that both vegans and meat eaters love.
#3. Sea Salt (Kosher Salt)
Salt is an obvious must, but I specifically recommend sea salt because it is vastly superior to table salt, in my humble opinion. It tastes better, it’s more versatile, and it contains trace minerals. It’s also less processed and doesn’t contain any additives. I say it is more versatile, because if you buy it coarse, you can grind it down to the desired fineness for specific recipes as needed.
#4. Cracked Black Pepper
Much like sea salt, it’s amazing what some fresh cracked black pepper can do for a dish. I put it on virtually everything I make. Sometimes it’s all you need to take a soup, salad, pasta, or other meal over the top.
Coriander is an interesting spice and herb. In the US, coriander is the name of the seeds that come from the cilantro plant. The seeds are often dried and ground into a powder. The leaves and stems of the plant are used fresh and called cilantro. However, in the UK, the leaves and stems are also called coriander. But none of that really matters. What really matters is that coriander is delicious and it’s a great addition to many dishes and spice blends, especially soups and curries.
As with coriander, you’re bound to find cumin in almost any great curry dish. But its usefulness certainly doesn’t stop there… Cumin is a great addition to any savory dish, and even some desserts, like this black cumin pie. It tastes great in bean soups and chili, and I often add it to my veggie burger recipes, dips, marinades, and more.
Turmeric is great for digestion, anti-inflammatory, and it turns anything it touches yellow. Want to make tofu look like scrambled eggs? Add a little turmeric. Want to give your cashew cheese a bright yellow cheesy color? Add a little turmeric. Want to make yellow curry? You guessed it.
#8. Chili Powder
You can’t have real chili without chili powder, but that’s not the only dish that will suffer without it. If you’re making anything in the vein of Mexican, Tex-Mex, or southwest, you’re gonna want some chili powder on hand. It’s also a great addition to soups, stews, casseroles, breakfast scrambles, curries, dips, and so much more.
Cinnamon is certainly a popular spice, but I’m not sure if most people know just how versatile it is. You can add it to any dessert; it’s great on toast, pancakes, and waffles; and you can even use it in savory dishes, like chili and Indian curry. Sometimes I like to sprinkle it on grapefruit with a little ginger powder.
#10. Ground Ginger
If I’m making a stir-fry or a curry, I’m probably reaching for fresh ginger; but if I’m baking, spicing up my peanut butter, or making my hot chocolate taste like gingerbread cookies, I’m grabbing my trusty bottle of ground ginger. Pair it up with cinnamon for a winning combination every time.
#11. Garlic Powder
While I typically prefer cooking with fresh garlic, what am I supposed to do if I don’t have any on hand? Am I just supposed to not taste garlic? That is totally insane and out of the question! I always keep a bottle of garlic powder in my pantry for whenever I run out of fresh garlic. Garlic powder is also better suited for some things, like making dry spice blends and rubs.
#12. Onion Powder
Same concept as the garlic powder. When you’re out of onions but you want that oniony flavor, you can always fall back on onion powder. It’s also handy when you want to add the flavor of onions without all the moisture that comes with them.
#13. Italian Seasoning
Italian seasoning is a blend of oregano, basil, thyme, rosemary, and other herbs and spices. It’s not hard to make, but it’s a lot more convenient to simply by a big jar of the pre-mixed stuff. It’s great in a pinch, or whenever you simply feel like whipping up a quick Italian dish without any hassle.
#14. Crushed Red Pepper
Adding crushed red pepper to a dish is the quickest and easiest way to make it spicy. Cooking it tends to increase the heat, and there’s almost no limit to just how hot you can make a dish with crushed red pepper alone. On the other hand, you can use it sparingly and easily keep the heat to a minimum. I always keep a big bottle of it around.
#15. Lemon Pepper
Lemon pepper is a great seasoning to have when you’re trying to imitate seafood and chicken dishes. It also tastes great on vegetables, like asparagus.
#16. Five-Spice Powder
Five-spice powder is a common spice blend used in Asian cooking, particularly Chinese food. It is also used in Arabic cuisine. There are many variations, but it usually consists of: star anise, cloves, Chinese cinnamon, Sichuan pepper, and fennel seeds. It’s traditionally used on meats, or in marinades and batters. For vegan applications, you can rub it on your tofu, tempeh, or seitan; use it to season your stir-fries; or even use it to make a spiced cake. Having a bottle of five-spice around can be a real time saver and come in handy often if you like making Asian food.
Just like its homonym, you can never have enough of it. Thyme is a common ingredient in many seasonings and a staple in Italian cuisine.
Rosemary pairs wonderfully with thyme and other Italian herbs and spices. It has a distinct and robust flavor and aroma that can completely transform a dish. It can also completely take over a dish and ruin it, so always use it cautiously and sparingly.
Much like rosemary, dill also has a distinct flavor that can hardly go unnoticed in a dish. It’s not an herb you will likely find yourself using frequently, but there will be certain times it’s crucial to the recipe. For example, if you want to give something a ranch flavor, dill is an integral ingredient.
I won’t lie, parsley is not one of my favorite herbs. But, having a jar of dried parsley around can really come in handy. It’s used in so many different recipes spanning across multiple continents and cuisines. It’s also a common ingredient in many spice blends. I doubt parsley will end up becoming one of your favorite herbs, but it might be the one you use the most.
Cilantro is best used fresh, and therefore it’s not something that may be practical to always have around. But it’s certainly one of my favorite herbs and I encourage everyone to use it frequently and abundantly.
Basil is another herb I think is best used fresh. You can use fresh basil to make pesto, top a Neapolitan pizza, or add some extra flavor to pastas and salads. While it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a spare bottle of dried basil in the cupboard, you’ll probably find that it’s not essential. On the other hand, you could always keep a pot of it on your windowsill.
Nutmeg is used in many savory and sweet dishes spanning across many cuisines, including Indian, European, Indonesian, and Japanese, to name a few. Nutmeg is a great companion to cinnamon and ginger, but isn’t nearly as essential, and experts agree it’s always best used freshly grated, which is why it’s not in the top 20.
Much of what can be said about nutmeg can also be said of cloves. However, cloves have a pungent flavor and aroma that can cut their way through just about any other seasoning. While certain recipes may rely on cloves to give the dish its unique flavor, most home cooks won’t find themselves using them very often. That being said, if you like to make curries often, you may want to add cloves to your list of essentials.
Indian Black Salt
While neither a spice nor an herb, some might consider nutritional yeast a seasoning. I certainly consider it a vegan essential, regardless. Nutritional yeast gives any dish a cheesy, nutty flavor. It’s also a great source of protein and other nutrients. Read more about it here.