Buying Spices

When it comes to spices, some people are all about simplicity.

My mom, for example; she has a total of three spices in her cabinet: garlic powder, salt, and pepper.

Obviously as an act of rebellion, when I started learning to cook, I would periodically try to sneak spice jars into my mom’s shopping cart at the supermarket. I mean, I’m all about the salt and garlic powder too, but you gotta give this foodie some room to grow, Ma… a little oregano never hurt anyone, ya know?

But nooooooo, my mom wouldn’t have any of it. “Spices are too expensive,” she’d say as she heaped an armful of spice jars back into my arms, leaving me to hang my head in culinary shame as I trekked back to the spice isle to replace them. I’d stand there, staring in awe of the massive alphabetized rack before me; “All the cool chefs have spices,” I’d think disgruntledly to myself, “I never get anything cool! Just stupid salt and pepper!”

Now that I’m older and live off of my own paychecks, I have to concede — my mom was partially right, spices are expensive…

if you buy them in a supermarket.

I’m a firm believer in maintaining a full and varied spice rack, but I’m also hell-bent on not breaking the bank to do it.¬†Here’s the secret:

buy in bulk.

No, no, I don’t mean bulk as in the Costco style — not “buy 45 cans of tomato sauce for the price of 40” type of bulk.

In the land of co-op supermarkets, buying in bulk means that the store buys a large amount directly from a supplier, with no product labels or fancy names. Then they let you, the shopper, take exactly the amount you want and charge you by weight. Many co-op supermarkets (and some Whole Foods stores) do this with dried foods like pastas, rices, flours, granola, dried beans, and yes…spices. Some (like mine) even offer cooking oils in bulk.

This is what the bulk foods isle looks like at my supermarket:

Usually this means that you pay a lot less than what you would pay for a packaged, labeled product. More importantly, it means you can get exactly the amounts of food you need or want, which is particularly helpful if you’re scoping out a recipe that requires rarer ingredients, like semolina flour, chickpea flour, cornmeal, etc.

Yep, buying in bulk is truly a chef’s saving grace, especially when it comes to purchasing spices.

This is a small sample of the spice isle at my local co-op. Those big jars all contain spices and are organized alphabetically. You find the ones you want and transfer your desired amounts into small or medium sized plastic baggies. Then you slap a PLU code on ’em, take them up to the register and cash out.

Most of “those in the know” recommend you only buy the amount of spices you’ll actually use in a year. By the time 12 months rolls around, most spices have lost their flavor and color. Unfortunately, if you buy the stuff in jars from Shaw’s or Stop&Shop or any other big supermarket, you’re usually getting a lot more than you’re going to need in a year. You’re also paying between 75% to 90% more per an ounce to buy the jarred stuff. Here’s a quick price comparison I found over at TipHero:

Not only great for stocking up on those big name spices (like those listed above) that we all cook with often, but also stellar for those little-known spices you’re only going to use once or twice. Need two tablespoons of amchoor powder? Instead of buying a whole jar, you can pick up exactly two tablespoons… for roughly 25 cents.

When I first moved to Boston, I set up my kitchen with my very first spice rack by buying 20 different spices from my local co-op. My total start-up costs? $7.15. Uhhh yeah… that’s awesome.

So where do you find these magical bulk places? Like I said, co-op supermarkets! Chances are, your town has one. If my tiny little college town in Delaware had one, there’s a good chance that there’s one by you too. Local Harvest is a great website for finding these things out.

Anyways, that’s my little two-cents worth on spices. Hope it was helpful! Happy shopping!

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