If you still only stock salt and pepper, this is for you.

A good portion of us are still getting the hang of cooking spaghetti for ourselves, so when it comes to using spices, it’s easy to be overwhelmed with all the choices. That’s why we turned to Patricia Erd, co-owner of The Spice House in Chicago and second-generation spice merchant (her parents started the business in 1957!) for some guidance.

Erd says even a Top 10 list of spices won’t cover all the cabinet essentials. In fact, in a random poll of 25 customers, she got a list of 33 different herbs and spices they included as their top picks. Regardless, she curated the best recommendations for newbies like us.

Which ones do I really need?

(1)Salt (2)Pepper (3)Paprika
(4)Chili Powder (5)Garlic Powder (6)Cumin
(7)Cinnamon (8)Oregano
(9)Thyme (10)Onion Powder
  1. Salt
  2. Pepper
  3. Paprika (smoked paprika is the most popular in recent years)
  4. Chile (any type is fine?—?chili powder, crushed red chile pepper flakes or cayenne pepper)
  5. Garlic Powder
  6. Cumin
  7. Cinnamon
  8. Oregano
  9. Thyme
  10. Onion Powder

Erd recommends experimenting and letting your own Top 10 evolve over time.

But can I just get a spice blend or two instead and call it a day?

Well, sure you could, but you’ll have much less individualized control over the flavors in a dish. In other words, you may just want to use oregano, not a full Italian blend.

If you do want to add spice blends to your arsenal, choose unique flavor combos you can’t recreate on your own. Erd says buying pre-made blends makes sense, since they can include as many as 25 ingredients that would be pricey to purchase individually. You also have the added bonus of only shaking from one bottle when you season your dish.

Erd says The Spice House’s best-selling blends are named for Chicago neighborhoods and the immigrant backgrounds they represent. Their most popular is ‘Back of the Yards,’ a garlic-pepper butcher’s rub inspired by the German and Irish immigrants that grew the neighborhood’s meatpacking market.

But it doesn’t stop there. They’re currently creating a blend that will work well with trendy fermented veggie dishes.

Okay, now I have some spices, but how do I actually use them?

Erd says the way you add spices will largely depend on what you’re making. But she notes that it’s always important to taste your dish often in the final stages to see if you need to add anything more. Also, luckily for all of us, a good recipe will specify when to add all the spices it calls for.

And if you’re really clueless, salt is your best bet. Erd calls it the “magic ingredient that brings out, or intensifies, the flavor in a dish.” And interestingly enough, salt doesn’t just make your food taste salty; it also helps your tastebuds pick up on many of the flavors that you wouldn’t be able to detect without it!

If you’re feeling really inspired, you can download The Spice House’s 52-page catalogue of all their spicy offerings so you can start experimenting to find your own Top 10!

All photos from Getty Images