Today, I feel like writing about the biggest culinary scam — pre-packaged herbs and spices. Maybe ‘scam’ is too harsh, but I find it difficult to spend $5 on a half-ounce of herbs.
I ran to Whole Foods this morning to pick up a few needed spices for a few dishes I’ll be cooking this week, and I suddenly wondered if everyone else is aware of this. Although many of Whole Foods products are more expensive than a mainstream grocer, it does offer the most amazing savings on herbs and spices. Just head to their bulk foods area and prepare to be thrilled!
Buying spices and herbs in bulk provides a greater cost savings and typically fresher products. Not all stores offer bulk herbs and spices, but it’s worth checking around your local area. Whole Foods is an organic grocer offering a nice bulk section, however you have many online options including stores like Penzey’s or The Spice House. Online stores may offer an even larger variety than carried locally, just remember to factor in the cost of shipping.
Save money – buy small quantities in bulk!
The number one reason to buy herbs and spices in bulk is to save money. Buying individual jars can be cost prohibitive and usually wasteful. I often need a small quantity of a particular spice for a recipe, but do not need an entire jar. An individual jar of spice can easily run $3-6 depending on the variety. Buying in bulk doesn’t mean buying the economy size version, but instead buying from a source where you can measure out how much you want.
Today, I purchased 2-3 tablespoons (~1/3 ounce) of each of the following spices: green cardamom, whole cloves, mustard seed, whole cumin, and cinnamon sticks (3 3″ sticks). To buy individual jars for each of these items would have totaled well over $15. Buying in small quantities, my total cost for all 5 spices came to $2.61! Here are a few of the prices:
Check for freshness before buying
Every source will be different, so it’s important to judge the quality and freshness before purchasing. I tend to find that bulk spices are much fresher than the jarred counterparts.
First, I look at the color of the spice to assess if it ‘looks’ fresh and natural. For example, I’ve looked at whole cumin seed at different stores. Sometimes it looks very dry and very brown, while at other stores the cumin has a tinge of greenish color and didn’t look at though it’s been sitting around for years.
The second test is to smell the spices — are they filled with aroma? Using the cumin example — the brown cumin didn’t have much fragrance. I had to sniff to really smell much of anything. With the cumin that had a tinge of green color, it’s aroma hit me as soon as I approached it.
Glass jars are my preferred choice since they can be re-used. I love to look at jars of spices all lined up, but sitting out in a bright, sunny location will reduce their potency. It’s best if they are stored in a cool, dark drawer or cupboard.
Buying herbs in bulk also meant that I needed jars to store them in. I purchased a few glass jars for $.99 each at Cost Plus World Market. They work well and can be re-used as I buy different spices.
Today, I cleaned out my spice drawer and decided to throw out several spices that hadn’t been used in a very long time (i.e. commercially packaged jars). I decided to be thrifty and re-use these rather nice jars (see photo above). A bit of hot water, soap, and a sponge cleaned them up in 5 minutes. For extra-difficult labels, just scrubbed as best you can then place into the dishwasher. I find that the dishwasher will usually remove the labels without much energy on my part.
Most reference sources say that herbs and spices have a shelf-life of 6 months. I think this guideline is a bit strict and have found many to remain good for much longer. Potency will reduce over time, so a good rule of thumb is to throw it out when the flavor begins to dip. Trust me, if you add a tablespoon of oregano to your spaghetti and you don’t taste oregano, you’ll know that it’s time :-)