Last week I talked about stocking foods in my pantry. I like to keep certain staples on hand to use as the basis of meals, and as emergency meals (in a pinch). Things like canned goods, pasta, frozen meats, etc.
But equally important, at least to my mind, is having a well-stocked spice cabinet. Adding a pinch of this and a pinch of that to otherwise-boring foods can bring them to life, and make them interesting rather than ho-hum.
But if you’re like me, you look at the prices of the teeny little jars of spices in the grocery store and think, “Yeah, if I didn’t actually want to have any money left for food….”
There are a couple of ways to deal with this.
Where I live, I’m lucky enough to have access to a couple of really good spice shops. They sell spices either in jars or in plastic bags. One will even measure out specific amounts of spices for you. Why is that a good thing? Well, for starters, you don’t have to keep paying for the spice jars over and over again. You buy the jar once, then get just enough to re-fill it, which saves you a significant amount of money. Also, it doesn’t even need to be an actual “spice jar”. I keep my spices in 4-oz. canning jars. They stack neatly, have wide openings that let me reach in and grab a pinch, can be labeled on top or side, and fit neatly in a drawer (which is where I currently store most of my spices).
And the second is that you can buy only as much as you’ll use before it goes bad. While it’s true that spices don’t necessarily “spoil,” they do lose flavor over time. In general, leafy herbs (thyme, sage, parsley, and so on) won’t hold their flavor for more than a year. Ground spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger might be good for a little longer, but definitely not more than two years. Whole spices, like black peppercorns and whole nutmegs will last the longest. And anything that’s been in your cupboard for more than five years needs to be thrown out. Period.
Other places that might sell herbs and spices in bulk are health-food and natural-food markets like Sprouts or Whole Foods. If you’re really lucky, you might find an old-fashioned food co-op, an ethnic market, or a new-age boutique with an herb and spice counter.
And if you don’t have any of those options available to you, I’d suggest mail order. Three companies I’d recommend are:
Like most cooks, I have certain herbs and spices I consider essential, and that I try to keep on hand at all times. My essentials include:
- Italian seasoning
- Bay leaves
- Garlic powder
- Onion powder
- Black pepper
- Kosher salt
- Sea salt
- Mild curry powder
With just that list, there’s a lot you can do. Don’t be afraid to experiment; if you’re not sure how a spice will taste in a dish, sample a little bit on a spoonful of food before you throw it in. Be conservative with your spicing, as you can always add more, but you can’t take the spices out once they’re in.
Note also that I recommend garlic and onion powders rather than salts. It’s far too easy to end up with a too-salty dish when the salt comes mixed with the seasonings. And yes, when possible, I prefer to use fresh garlic and onion, but sometimes you just need a dash of flavor, or you want something that will spread evenly throughout the dish. But I also make sure my powders are as fresh as possible, so they has plenty of flavor. Likewise, fresh herbs would be preferable, but they’re not always available or affordable.
(I also have a list of more exotic things I like to keep on hand. But I think I’ll save that for a later post.)
So in order to save money and have the freshest spices available:
- Buy the smallest amount you think you’ll use in the next year.
- Buy in bulk and re-use existing jars.
- Buy herbs and spices as whole as possible: leaves rather than powders, seeds rather than ground.
- Buy the essentials first, and augment as finances allow.
- Season carefully. Try a little at first, and add more if it works.
What spices and herbs do other people consider essential? What other tips do you have for buying spices on a budget?