April 26, 2013 at 3:06 PM ET
Almost everyone has a cabinet or drawer filled with herbs and spices that hardly see the light of day. Instead of using a pinch of this or that, turn those herbs and spices into custom blends that will be your secret weapon in the kitchen. We’ve got five delicious spice mixes including homemade ranch for salad dressings and dry rubs, a tomato sauce blend and a classic BBQ rub for meats of all kinds. All you have to do is mix them together, store them in a (labeled) airtight container and season away!
Italian Tomato Sauce Blend
“Italian seasoning” in the spice section of the supermarket is a blend of dried herbs such as basil, oregano and parsley—tasty, but a little one-dimensional. This blend, including a bit of sugar, garlic and onion powder and a touch of chili flakes, adds layers of flavors to any Italian dish. Use a heaping tablespoon of it in a meatloaf mixture or in your next batch of meatballs. You can also sprinkle it over pizza or pasta or an Italian sub; best of all, it’s the only thing you need to season a quick pot of rich tomato sauce.
Zingy Mustard Ranch Mix
Ranch dressing is so easy to buy you probably don’t even think you could make it at home. For a very minor effort, you’ll be rewarded with far fresher flavor and no additives or preservatives. This tangy ranch mix is based on buttermilk powder, an ingredient readily found in the baking aisle of nearly any supermarket. If you can’t find it, you can leave it out, but be sure to use buttermilk and not milk if you’re making ranch dressing out of this mix.
To make ranch dressing or dip, mix 1/2 cup mayonnaise and 1/2 cup milk (or buttermilk) with 2 to 3 tablespoons of the mix, depending on how strong you like it. This seasoning mix is great as a dry rub for fish or chicken, and you can also sprinkle it on hot buttered popcorn or oven fries. Drool.
Golden Curry Blend
Even though you can buy a container marked “curry powder” in any grocery store, in classic Indian cooking, spices are always custom mixed for freshness of flavor. This mild and fragrant curry blend is a good starter to help explore what flavors you prefer. If you like it hotter, add a little more cayenne; if you like it sweeter, bump up the cinnamon and nutmeg a bit.
To make a simple chicken curry for dinner, sauté a sliced onion, two minced cloves of garlic, some minced fresh ginger, and a pound of sliced chicken breasts in a tablespoon or two of oil. Add 2 tablespoons of the curry blend and a 15-ounce can of coconut milk (low-fat is fine). Simmer gently for 15 minutes, until slightly thickened and serve over hot rice.
Smoky BBQ Rub
There are endless variations on barbecue seasonings and rubs and this is a terrific blend to experiment with. Once you try this out, you may find that your own tastes lead you into different flavor combinations. As long as you don’t make it too salty, it’s hard to go wrong. What makes this one special, however, is the inclusion of smoked paprika, also known as pimentón. Once a specialty ingredient from Spain (the best ones come from La Vera), it’s now widely available. If you don’t have it, double the amount of regular (or sweet) paprika; but adding it makes any barbecue taste naturally, addictively smoky, no grill needed.
This Egyptian condiment (also spelled duqqa or dukkah, and pronounced DUE-kah) can be as complicated or simple as you like. Many versions include a variety of nuts, such as pistachios, almonds and cashews, but hazelnuts are the classic choice. For a brighter flavor, you can also add a handful of crushed dried mint leaves along with the sesame.
It’s often served with pieces of warm pita, to be dipped in oil and sprinkled with the dukka, and it’s wonderful atop sandwiches or sprinkled over roast vegetables. And don’t be surprised if you find yourself eating it by the spoonful out of the jar — it’s that good. Don’t halve this recipe, or it won’t grind properly in your food processor.
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.