Monday, November 28, 2011

A Spicy Plate: The Biggest Rip-Off

I was in my local David's Natural Market picking up a few things. Being a specialty store, it's not the most cost-friendly, but they do have sales and if you pay attention to what you're buying you can actually do alright price-wise. They tend to have the more unusual items on my shopping list like muscovado sugar, brands that use BPA-free cans (most don't and I do not need 1200% more BPA in my body), as well as ice cream and butter sourced from local farms. They also have a great bulk section loaded with oats, nuts, legumes, and spices.

I strolled past the jarred spices and picked up a container of bay leaves. Seven dollars! I was annoyed at the price, but tossed them into my cart, figuring I would see if they had any in the bulk section when I got there. They did, and I'd like to share the numbers with you:

1 jar of gourmet bay leaves (.14 oz) is around $7.
Bay leaves in bulk (I purchased about .5 oz) are 79 CENTS.

Yep, a spice company sold bay leaves in a tiny jar for $50 (that's fifty) per ounce and I got a bag of bulk bay leaves for $1.58 per ounce.

I'll admit, this is an extreme example, but it illustrates a great point which is that buying spices to cook with can be prohibitively expensive and probably scares a lot of people away from branching out in their cooking. I'm sure there is some quality difference between the jarred and bulk spices, but for dried leaves that are removed from the dish before it is eaten - whatever difference there may be is not worth the spike in price. With other spices, I imagine the most improvement in flavor is obtained by grinding them freshly in the kitchen (remember how it was with coffee?), which I am not prepared to do.

So how can you afford spices? And which ones are worth your money? If you haven't figured it out, look in the bulk section of stores; huge chains generally do not sell spices in bulk but some health food stores do. The absolute best place I've found to purchase spices is at ethnic markets - Indian, Mexican, and all varieties of Asian. There, the spices are inexpensive. They typically come in large packages so you won't have to buy a new jar every other week, and it's easy to find the exotic ones that have been eluding you. Here's my list of essential dried spices for cooking (not baking):

Bay Leaves
Cardamom (green pods and/or powder)
Cayenne Pepper
Chili Powder
Coriander Seeds (these are the seeds that form on your cilantro plant, for you herb gardeners)
Cumin Seeds
Curry Powder (mild-to-medium)
Garam Masala (it's a blend of other spices, but it's tedious to make and so good it's worth buying)
Ground Coriander
Ground Cumin
Nutmeg (whole is better than ground, but both are good)
Sea Salt & Black Pepper (freshly ground)
Vanilla beans (whole)

I'd love to know if readers have other suggestions for must-have cooking spices! Once you've got your spice cabinet stocked, get inspired to use them and whip up some flavorful and aromatic dishes.

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