How many herbs and spices do you really need in your cabinet?

The people at McCormick & Company Inc. analyzed traditional holiday recipes and found that more than 180 of them use eight key seasonings. The company made up a holiday gift pack of seven of these seasonings. (They excluded vanilla). Their "essential eight" list is:

• Vanilla

• Cinnamon

• Allspice

• Clove

• Nutmeg

• Sage

• Ginger

• Poultry seasoning

But depending on what dishes you're likely to cook, you may not need all of these.

I can think of other flavorings that might make a "holiday essentials" list. What about mint found in lots of holiday candies and cookies? Or rosemary, with its Christmas-y, pine-ish aroma? Some of my friends really like cardamom, often used in Scandinavian pastries.

Readers, tell me what herbs and spices you consider essential for the holidays, and why. I'll publish as many answers as space allows.

Vanilla is the workhouse of the flavor world, not only adding its own taste but enhancing other flavors, too. Most people use it in its extract form, but connoisseurs prefer the real beans.

Cinnamon is a big favorite, showing up in more than 40 holiday recipes from sweet potatoes to glazed ham to French toast. And it's a great holiday aroma to have in simmering potpourri on the stove, especially when combined with other "sweet" spices such as allspice, cloves, ginger and nutmeg.

Cinnamon is more complex than what people might think. I learned about the different components that make up the flavor of cinnamon when I visited the McCormick Technical Innovation Center in Hunt Valley, Md., a few years ago. We identified a woody note, and a musty factor (we called it "100-year-old basement"), and what the McCormick folks called "cinnamic aldehyde," (we called it "Red Hots candy"). We also found that cinnamon from Vietnam (often labeled "Saigon cinnamon") has more of the "Red Hots" component than does cinnamon grown in Indonesia.

Nutmeg is used in eggnog, but several chefs have told me that a pinch of it perks up savory dishes, too. Heeding their advice, I always add about 1/4 teaspoon to my spaghetti sauce.

Ginger is another multi-tasker. It's the key to gingerbread, but it's also good in stir-fries. Cloves and allspice round out that warm, sweet spice group often associated with gingerbread and pumpkin pie. Ham is often studded with whole cloves. Allspice has some of the flavor combination of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves (hence, the term, allspice) and is used in Caribbean-style jerk seasoning.

But what if you only use allspice or cloves once a year in pumpkin pie? If so, you'd be better off with a jar of pumpkin pie spice, which is usually a blend of these five spices. Or, if a recipe calls for pumpkin pie spice and you already have those spices on hand, mix up your own.

Also, do you need both sage and poultry seasoning, often used with turkey and/or dressing? McCormick's poultry seasoning is a combination of sage, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, black pepper and nutmeg. If these ingredients are already sitting in your cupboard, you can mix up your own and save yourself the cost of another little jar.

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