If you walk down the spice aisle of your local grocery store, you'll find as many spice blends as actual spices. Some of them are painfully, eye-rollingly cheesy ("New Orleans-style flavor? Seriously?). Others, like five spice powder and vadouvan, are more worth your while.
I'm a big fan of spice blends when they're made with care and quality ingredients, not just some ham-handed effort to reduce a cuisine to a dust. They're quick ways to deliver powerful flavor that often come with some storied tradition, and they've saved many a late-night meal from blandness.
The problem, though, is even if you've made a blend yourself, your spices are locked into a set ratio. One blend may be perfectly balanced for sautéed fish, but it falls flat over roasted vegetables. A chili powder could be great on duck but too spicy for a pot of beans. If I have all the time in the world, I'll make small batch of blended spices for every dish I cook. Since that rarely happens, I rely on spice kits.
A spice kit is basically a blend-to-be, a shortcut that can still be customized for specific dishes. Cooks familiar with Indian cuisine may recognize my inspiration: the masala dabba, a tin with small containers of like-minded spices, to be pulled out of the cabinet and used in a moment's notice. A kit may contain cumin, coriander, fennel seed, and peppercorns (more or less a stripped-down garam masala)—spices that are used in all sorts of Indian dishes but in different proportions. Stashing spices together will make you more likely to use them. You won't have to dig through cabinets for a missing ingredient. You can adjust ratios to the taste of your diners (especially helpful when chiles are involved). And you can also add spices to your dish at different times to get different levels of flavor from them.
A kit doesn't need more than three or four herbs and spices to be worth your while. I think the best examples of the form are stripped down to frequently-used spices that you're comfortable with. Consider paprika, black pepper, cayenne, and celery seed for a "Cajun-style" blend that neither sucks nor is culturally reductionist. There's nothing out of the ordinary here, and no intention to create a big, bossy blend that makes everything it touches taste sort of identical. Minimalist spice kits force us to remember that spices are best used with a mindful, restrained hand.
Spice kits offer amazing versatility, even when your pantry is bare. When all I have is potatoes and fresh green chiles, I reach for a kit of mustard seed, asafoetida, cumin, coriander, and amchoor—an approximation of South Indian cooking I also use with tomato gravies for curries and vegetable fritters. Except the potatoes will get more mustard seed, the tomato more sweet coriander, and the fritters more pungent cumin to cut through the batter. Depending on how I feel, I'll sometimes skip the sour amchoor, another level of versatility that kits offer over fixed blends.
To house your spice kit, you can pick up an actual masala dabba online or at any Indian grocery. Or, if you're still up to your ears in cookie tins from holiday baking, repurpose one with some plastic baggies full of spices. I like to keep small amounts of spices in my kits and the larger bulk bags in the back of the cupboard. This also means I can grind and store a small amount of whole spices without the whole batch losing potency over time.
Though spice kits are most useful for spice-heavy cuisines, they can be used for just about anything. Try making an herbes de Provence kit to whip out for French dishes, or a Spanish-inspired blend of smoked paprika, rosemary, and saffron for everything from soup to rice to grilled meat. I even have one for baking spices just so I always have some close at hand.
How about you—do you have any kit-worthy spice combinations?
About the author: Max Falkowitz is a proud native of Queens, New York. He'll do just about anything for a good cup of tea and enjoys long walks down the aisles of Chinese groceries. He is also known to make ice cream on occasion. You can follow him on Twitter at @maxfalkowitz.