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This versatile spice is a must-have.

Dried herbs and spices are an essential part of any cook’s kitchen, but there are always a few that have a permanent spot at the front of the spice rack. Let’s call them your Starting Five. For me, that would be whole black peppercorns (in my trusty grinder), ground cinnamon (for baked goods, oatmeal, and savory dishes), red pepper flakes (my go-to spice any time I need a hint of heat), chili powder (this mix of herbs and spices is an instant flavor booster in so many dishes), and the MVP (or MVS?): ground cumin.

What is Cumin Used For? What Does It Taste Like? 

I run out of ground cumin more than any spice in my spice cabinet, which tells you a lot. Cumin’s warm, earthy, slightly peppery flavor and aroma works in more dishes than you may realize. Not only is it probably in your favorite chili recipe, it’s a key ingredient in Indian curries, Middle Eastern specialties such as hummus, and Mexican dishes like fajitas. Cumin is a delicious match for meat, especially beef and pork, but it can also give vegetarian dishes more depth and complexity. I love pairing roasted sweet potatoes and carrots with cumin—the smokiness of the spice balances out the vegetables’ natural sweetness.

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How to Toast Cumin Seeds

Whether or not you grind your own cumin seeds (confession: I don’t), it’s a good idea to toast the spices before using them, especially if they have been in your cabinet for a while. Place the whole seeds or ground cumin in a small, dry skillet over low heat. Toast, stirring constantly, until the spices are fragrant, then immediately take the pan off of the heat and transfer the spices to a bowl so they don’t burn. If you are using whole seeds, you can grind them once they cool down.