Spice up your boring, bland pantry goods, with a versatile assortment of herbs, flavorful blends, and more.

By Sarah Zorn
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Many of us have significantly reduced our grocery shopping budgets, and are primarily cooking with long-storage items from our freezers and pantries. Which basically translates to a lot of chicken cutlets, along with plenty of beans, rice, and pasta, for beige, boring meals. But it doesn't have to be that way, just look to your humble spice drawer as your greatest culinary weapon.

Since most spices and herbs last roughly three to five years (whole spices, as opposed to ground, have the longest shelf life), chances are you have a bottle or two hanging around that haven't fossilized into lackluster dust. But even if they have, there's a way to revive an ancient stash of oregano. "Flavor comes from essential oils within the spices, which dissipate over time," says Julie Gould, director of brand management for Spice Islands. "If you put some in the palm of your hand and push down on it, the friction will activate the oils, and liven up what you've got."

Gould also recommends prolonging the life of your spices by keeping them in a cool, dark spot away from light and heat (meaning the cabinet over your stove is the worst), and not shaking that bottle of herbs directly over your pots and pans when cooking, because the rising steam will clump and dull your spices.

So what are the spices and herbs you should make sure to stock up on if you want to turn everything from canned beans to tuna into building blocks for a gourmet feast? These are our top picks.

Garlic Powder

Gould stresses purchasing garlic powder over granulated garlic, as the increased surface area contributes to more pronounced garlic flavor. It can be used to add depth to basic boxed mac and cheese, and sprinkling it over hummus made from canned chickpeas adds a pleasant zing.

Smoked Paprika

Not all paprika is created equal. While many add a color boost and little else, using a premium smoked version featuring real chili peppers pumps up the flavor of your food. Sprinkle it onto canned veggies for them to get a more roasted taste, or stir into canned beans for a smoky kick.

Turmeric

Turmeric's sunny yellow tint provides a cheerful makeover to dull, beige food. Since it has a subtle earthy flavor, a little pinch can be unobtrusively added to just about anything, from steamed rice to soups and salad dressings.

Dill Weed

"This is great for all those cans of tuna you have," suggests Gould. "Herbs in general are a great way to add an element of freshness, to food that's not necessarily fresh." Add a sprinkle to salads made from canned tuna or chicken, mix into grain bowls, or use it to boost flavor in batches of pasta.

Za'atar

This classic Middle Eastern spice blend has a bright, citrusy kick thanks to the addition of sumac. Sesame seeds and herbs like oregano and marjoram round out the blend, which is incredible when combined with olive oil and used as a dip for pita, or sprinkled atop jarred vegetables like roasted red peppers and artichoke hearts.

Cajun Spices

This blend that will transport you straight to the Bayou. "If you have a lot of rice and pasta right now, they're great bases to experiment with, and test different flavors on," said Julie. Add Cajun spices to rice and beans for a spicy twist, or stir into creamy pasta (or even instant potatoes) to balance out the richness.

Nutmeg

Either whole or ground, nutmeg is great in baking, which plenty of us are raiding our pantries to do. Blend a dash into quick breads, boost the flavor in muffins, or add as a topping to a bowl of oatmeal.

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