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Finding Herbs & Spices for a Song

Posted Aug 25 2008 2:51pm
When I moved into my first apartment, one of my first orders of business was to set up my kitchen. As example of my priorities, I packed a KitchenAid stand mixer into my boxes of graduate school essentials.

The kitchen was smaller than most bedroom closets, windowless, and offered about 1 and 1/2 square feet of counter space; I wasn’t deterred (much). I had what I needed to get started, and set to work stocking the cupboards, drawers and shelves with my hodge-podge collection of hand-me-down cookware, a jumble of silverware, and a cookbook collection that rivaled (or possibly exceeded; it spilled over into the living room) my academic texts.

What I didn’t have was herbs and spices.

Anyone who has ever wandered the baking aisle of the supermarket knows that herbs and spices don’t run cheap. The store-brands are marginally less expensive than their name-brand counterparts, but the offerings are far more limited: there is no Piggly-Wiggly brand of star anise or cardamom.

Yet quality herbs and spices are essential for great cooking and baking. Additionally, they were vital for my budget-wise cooking. Black bean soup without the cumin and chiles? Marinara sauce without the bay leaves, oregano and basil? Pumpkin bread without the cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg? The thought was almost as unpalatable as the products.

The cost of herbs and spices can be prohibitive for one item, even these days; when I see a $12 bottle of cardamom, my brain calculates 40 diapers. And back in grad school, stocking an entire kitchen-supply was exorbitant. It was also depressing—I imagined a year (years?) of oatmeal, top ramen and saltines. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to hand over the cash for a month’s worth of groceries for one bag’s-worth of spice tins and bottles.

I made do for a few weeks, buying a bottle of cinnamon here, a tin of oregano there. Then I made a breakthrough that changed everything: I took a trip to the local Co-Op.

The Co-Op in question is Bloomingfoods (in Bloomington, IN), and what I have come to discover is true for many co-ops, health food and natural food stores: they offer herbs and spices for sale in bulk, for a fraction of the cost. A spice tin-full of most any herb or spice cost 25 cents to $1; in no time, my kitchen was filled with every ordinary and exotic spice I could think of, and all for about twenty dollars total.

Crystallized ginger is still one of my favorite examples of the price difference in bulk vs. jarred spices. Whenever I have the opportunity to visit a Whole Foods Market , I load up several plastic bags-full because it’s a mere $5.99 a pound. By contrast the 2-ounce bottle of McCormick’s Spices brand crystallized ginger at my local supermarket is $8.99—that’s $71.92 PER POUND! There’s a Whole Foods near my parents’ home; my suitcase was ginger-ific when I flew back to Texas in January.

An added bonus to buying herbs and spices in bulk? I’ve found that they’re consistently fresher than the bottled ones. And because they are so inexpensive, I can replace them as soon as they lose their oomph.

If you don’t have a co-op or natural foods store nearby, take heart; other sources abound. Ethnic grocery stores and online sources offer great bargains as well as excellent quality. What follows is my round up of all the options. Hope it spices up your February (and well beyond).

No cooking today, but a bit of baking…

Cooking is taking a backseat today. I did some baking earlier including a family recipe for molasses cookies (I’ll post later) to take to a Superbowl gathering (they have lots of spice, which is what got me started on the subject of today’s post). I’m not a big football fan, but I’m looking forward to a few long-overdue slices of pizza.

While the oven was on, I also whipped up one of my favorite muffin recipes; it is worth sharing. It’s always on the back of the Bob’s Red Mill brand of flaxseed meal. They are loaded with carrots, apples, raisins and cinnamon, so they end up tasting like carrot cake. They don’t have any oil; the flaxseed provides all of the moistness (and did you know flaxseed has Omega-3s? Great stuff if you’ve never tried it). The muffins are easy to whip up and freeze well, too. The only change I make is to use white whole wheat flour in place of the all-purpose flour. Here’s the link to the recipe:

Bran Flax Muffins

(Could they have come up with a more uninspiring name? Perhaps Colon Blow Muffins - Anyway, it belies their deliciousness)

Camilla’s Guide to Finding Great Herbs & Spices on a Budget

(1) Natural Grocery Stores: herbs, spices and seeds can be purchased in bulk. A small amount can be purchased for pennies. For example, I am a ginger fanatic, and crystallized ginger is one of my staples for baking.

(2) Ethnic Grocery Stores (see list below): both exotic and more common herbs and spices can be purchased in small, packaged amounts or in bulk for lower prices than at supermarkets and specialty cooking stores.

(3) Online Spice Companies: There are many online spice companies, but my favorite places are Penzeys, Frontier Co-op, Spicehunter and the Gourmet Foods section of offer dried herbs and spices ranging from the everyday to the exotic. Their prices are typically lower than supermarkets and specialty cooking stores, the amounts are variable, and “starter” packages are available (e.g., for different ethnic cuisines, baking, grilling, etc.). The information for online spice companies will be especially valuable for readers who do not live near large urban centers and, hence, are more likely to have limited access to many dried herbs and spices.
If you want to buy a lot of crystallized ginger in bulk, I love Reed's Ginger Brew brand of ginger; it is $33 dollars for 11 pounds, but you can share with fellow baking friends or freeze it!

List of Ethnic Markets and the Herbs & Spices Commonly Available at Each

Mexican or Latin Markets: Oregano, epazote, cinnamon, canella, ground and whole dried chiles, whole and ground cumin seeds, annatto seeds (achiote), bay leaves, and dried cilantro.

Indian Markets: Curry blends, ground turmeric, cumin seeds, ground and whole coriander seeds, anise seeds, cardamom pods and ground cardamom, sesame seeds, ground ginger, garam masala blends, mustard seeds, and dried mint.

Middle Eastern Markets: Cardamom pods and ground cardamom, saffron, turmeric, paprika, chile peppers, anise, cumin and fennel seeds, mustard seeds, cinnamon sticks and ground cinnamon, vanilla beans, fenugreek, dried mint, ground and whole coriander

Chinese Markets: Five-spice powder, whole Szechuan peppercorns, dried shrimp, whole and ground cumin seed, whole and ground star anise, sesame seeds, cayenne pepper, red pepper flakes, cinnamon sticks and ground cinnamon.

Italian Markets: Dried basil, dried oregano, dried thyme, fennel seeds, ground nutmeg, whole nutmeg, ground cinnamon, garlic powder, onion powder, onion flakes, and bay leaves.

Thai Markets: Dried lemongrass, Thai chile pastes, chile powders, star anise, dried mint, dried cilantro, dried Kaffir lime leaves, palm sugar, dried shrimp, turmeric, dried Thai basil, green peppercorns, and ground ginger.

Eastern European Markets: Sweet and hot paprika, caraway seeds, coriander, mustard seeds, ground mustard seeds, fennel seeds, rye seeds, peppercorns, pickling spices, mustard seeds, ground cinnamon, cinnamon sticks, garlic powder, onion powder, poppyseeds.

Japanese Markets: Ground ginger, black sesame seeds, white sesame seeds, wasabi powder, wasabi paste, pickled ginger, bonito flakes, dried shrimp, dried mushrooms and mushroom powder (e.g., shitake and woodear) and palm sugar.
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