The price of spices can shock both everyday home cooks and part-time dabblers. Prices for a bottle easily go higher than $3, some even reach $8, which is hard to swallow when you only need a few whole cloves or a tablespoon of curry powder for that new recipe you want to try.
It's money you don't relish spending, especially if you don't know when you'll use the spice again. There are plenty of us with overflowing pantries of expensive spices that haven't seen a stockpot since Bush was president — the first one.
For the sake of this story, I'm using the term spice to include dried herbs, though they are different. Spices, ground or whole, come from roots, flowers, fruits, seeds or bark of plants mostly grown in tropical locations (ginger, cloves, cinnamon, saffron). Dried herbs are from the leaves of plants (thyme, oregano, basil). Pepper is a spice; salt is not. It's a mineral.
No matter where they come from, we want to pay less for them. Life does need spice, though, to add vibrancy and diversity to our food. Imagine a world with no chili, curry or cinnamon rolls. Boring. Spices also let us span the culinary globe and expand our repertoire beyond chicken fingers and burgers.
Rather than avoid interesting recipes because they call for cardamom or pumpkin pie spice or even cream of tartar, learn how to get more for less out of your spices. These tips will set you on your way.
Buy generics or less popular brands. When you purchase spices by industry giants — McCormick and Spice Island — you are paying for massive marketing campaigns and other expenditures. Store brands and the Latin label Badia (look for displays near the Hispanic foods) cost less. A 2.5-ounce container of McCormick chili powder is $2.49 and Badia is $1.79 for the same amount. Publix store brand cost about the same as McCormick but for almost twice as much (4.5 ounces). Spice Island's 2.4-ounce container of chili powder is $4.49.
If you only need a tablespoon, buy a tablespoon. Many natural food stores and specialty shops sell spices and dried herbs in bulk or in small packages. The Savory Spice Shop in St. Petersburg, 400 Beach Drive NE (727) 290-9893, stocks many hard-to-find and everyday spices, selling them in bottles as well as by the ounce. Other resources include Spice & Tea Exchange stores in Tarpon Springs, 824 Dodecanese Blvd. (727) 491-3030, and John's Pass at Madeira Beach, 110 129th Ave. E (727) 319-4000.
Assess what you have in the pantry and look for recipes that use those spices. This keeps your purchases from languishing in the dark reaches of the pantry. Many recipe sites' search features let you plug in ingredients you want to use and then find recipes for you
Don't let good per-weight prices lure you into buying large quantities. Unless you are running a restaurant, the industrial-size oregano is going to go bad before you can use it all. If you can't help yourself, split the container with a few friends. Share the cost and divide up the bounty in snack-size resealable bags or small jars with tight-fitting lids. You don't see spices sold in tins anymore for good reason: The metal didn't keep moisture out. Plus it rusted.
Date bottles with a Sharpie when you buy them so you know how long you've had them. The spice companies claim that spices last about a year but that's mostly to get you to buy new annually. Most will be good for about four years. You've likely got spices older than that. Open and take a whiff. If they don't smell like whatever they are, toss and buy new. Red spices (cayenne, paprika and chili powder) begin to fade as they age and lose potency.
Keep your cabinet organized so you don't overbuy. You've wasted your money if you find you've got multiple containers of nutmeg, dried oregano and poppy seeds. Organize alphabetically or by flavor profile. For example "sweet spices" (cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, etc.), "savory spices" (chili powder, curry, cumin, etc.), seeds (sesame, poppy, whole nutmeg, caraway) and dried herbs and blends (Italian dried seasoning, thyme, basil, parsley). Or simply keep a list taped to the inside of your cabinet.
Learn about substitutions. For example, ground mace — the reddish, net-like covering that grows around the nutmeg seed — is sometimes called for in small amounts in cookies. Ground allspice, ginger, cinnamon or nutmeg stand in well. Dried parsley is just as good as dried chervil and ground nutmeg and cloves combine to create a pumpkin pie spice alternative. A Google search will turn up a number of substitution charts, or you can find one at mccormick.com.
You'll get more life out of your spices if you store them in a dark, cool place. That means not next to the stove or oven. The three enemies of spices and dried herbs are heat, moisture and light. These elements sap flavor, which contributes to flat food. Freezing spices may add moisture and cause them to clump.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.