Clockwise starting at the top: bay leaves, whole nutmeg, whole cloves, Tony Chachere's Creole Seasoning, paprika, poultry seasoning, Italian seasoning, pumpkin pie spice, center: stick cinnamon. Click for a larger photo.
Spices are a very personal thing to most cooks. Southern cooking can get quite spicy, so you do need to have a few things on hand other than plain old salt and pepper. I have a pretty extensive collection of spices, but there are some that I can't do without. Here is a look at my favorites.
Bay Leaves - these are leaves from the Bay Laurel tree and have a lovely fragrance and flavor. I probably use this more than anything else
Paprika - this red spice is made from ground red peppers, but isn't really hot unless you use a lot. I use small amounts to give nice color to breading on fried items or a lot to add zing to barbecue sauce.
Oregano - this traditional Italian spice is used in sauces and for seasoning on certain meat dishes.
Basil - another traditional Italian spice. This is the one that gives good pizza sauce its special flavor.
Italian Seasoning - I use this one often as it is a blend of several spices including oregano, basil, and thyme.
Thyme - this relative of oregano is used most often in chicken dishes.
Rosemary - very aromatic spice that can be used fresh or dried to season chicken or lamb. Be sure to rub fresh rosemary between your hands to bruise it and release the oils before you use it.
Sage - an essential spice for poulty that can be used fresh or dried, but is easier to use in powdered format. Native Americans used sage as a purifier because of its lovely fragrance.
Poultry Seasoning - this is similar to Italian seasoning, but is made mostly of sage and is for use on chicken, turkey, and other poultry. Each brand has a different mix, so try a few to find the one you like best. I always preferred McCormick brand when I lived in Alabama, but it isn't available here in Canada. The two I have now are: No Name (a Canadian store brand) which has thyme, sage, marjoram, rosemary, black pepper, and nutmeg; Durkee which has black pepper, coriander, sage, thyme, savory, and allspice. I prefer the No Name blend over the Durkee.
Tony Chachere's Creole and More Spice Seasonings - these are really great for anything you want to spice up and give a Cajun flavor. They both list the ingredients as salt, red pepper, other spices, and garlic. You use it as a salt substitute since it has salt in it. The regular version isn't too hot but has a little kick and the More Spice version is much hotter. This stuff is great on grilled pork chops!
Chili Powder - use this in chili or anything you want to give a Mexican flavor. It has a very strong flavor so don't add too much without tasting first.
Cinnamon - I use this in either powdered form or sticks of dried cinnamon bark. Use it to spice up fruits, pies, cobblers, and cakes.
Cloves - This is used but whole and ground and often in conjunction with cinnamon. It has a much stronger and sharper flavor than cinnamon so it usually used in much smaller quantities.
Nutmeg - This is also used a lot with cinnamon and/or cloves for spicing fruits and other desserts. It is also great if you add a small amount to mashed potatoes. You can get it ground or whole, but the whole ones will require you grate it to powder yourself to use it. Very strong flavor so a little goes a long way.
Ginger - I don't use this often, but some desserts call for it. Another one with a very strong flavor to use sparingly.
Pumpkin Pie Spice - This blend of spices can be used to substitute for individual spices where more than one of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, etc. are called for. It is a blend of cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice. Just total up the individual amounts and use that amount of pumpkin pie spice to save time and avoid dirtying multiple measuring spoons.
Cream of Tartar - a natural by-product left behind after grape juice has fermented to wine. It is used to stabilize egg whites for whipping and as a leavening agent in baking.