By Cat Morris
We are coming into spice season. Mmmmmm! Cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove come to mind as the weather begins to turn and the days get shorter. Now is a great time to clear out your old herbs and spices so you can start the cool weather season on a fresh, flavorful note.
If you’re like me, you never remember what you have in the cabinet, and often return from the store with a container of herbs or spices as insurance against being left short on a special recipe. I believe we all have that spice we can never recall seeing recently in the cupboard, and that spice, for me, is cinnamon. No matter that I possess pounds of the stuff: I inevitably find myself staring at grocery shelves, wondering, “Am I out of cinnamon?”
Now is the time to officially take inventory and update my holdings. In addition to lots of cinnamon, I admit to owning ancient jars of stuff I’ve barely touched. It hurts to think of tossing something for which I paid a pretty penny, and just possibly might need someday.
The good news is that since I first bought some of those ancient, pricey jars, I have discovered that quality herbs and spices are not expensive. In fact, if you have been buying your herbs and spices from a mainstream grocery store, as I used to; cease and desist: Supermarkets impose scandalously large mark-ups on spices. That .12 ounce jar of McCormick bay leaves that costs $3.99 at your favorite grocery store? The same quantity from a local health food store will set you back a whole 17 cents. Did that get your attention?
Let’s do some math:
As of this writing, McCormick bay leaves at one major grocery store cost $3.99 for a .12 ounce jar, which comes to $33.25 per ounce, or $532 per pound (not that you’d ever need a whole pound of bay leaves).
By contrast, Frontier brand bay leaves from the bulk section at Natural Mercantile of Hamilton cost about $1.21 per ounce, or $19.30 per pound. Yes, that would be a $512.70 price difference from the grocery store for a pound of the same product.
[Incidentally, if you were to actually need a whole pound of bay leaves, Costco sells a one-pound container for a whopping $6.40.]
Would you like another example? Ground cloves are priced between $6-8 dollars per ounce at one major grocery store right now. I found them elsewhere for $.86 per ounce. In a recent comparison shopping exercise, I found that I could replace one-ounce quantities of fifteen common herbs and spices for less than $14 total by buying them outside a supermarket, versus upwards of $60 at the supermarket.
Another fantastic, and often even less expensive, source for herbs and spices is ethnic food stores. Indian markets, or Mediterranean and Mexican grocers will have large quantities of excellent quality spices for a fraction of the cost at a mainstream grocery store.
Unless it’s a seasoning I use a lot, I prefer to buy herbs and spices from a health food store because I can purchase as little or as much as I like. I am charged only for what I take. If I need a larger quantity, I’ll hit a local ethnic store for high quality spices sold in larger amounts, and store them at home in pint sized mason jars. And of course, if you can use a pound or so of a seasoning (I can’t) warehouse stores such as Costco offer fantastic prices.
How long will your freshly purchased herbs and spices keep? The Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Food Storage Guidelines for Consumers indicates that dried herbs and ground spices will stay fresh at room temperature for six months, or one to two years in the freezer. Whole spices will last 1-2 years at room temperature and 2-3 years in the freezer. (Interestingly, the shelf life of ground mustard is reduced by chilling it, so always keep mustard at room temperature.) If you keep your spices at room temperature, keep them in a dry, dark location. Avoid storing them above your cook top, where their flavor will suffer from heat.
The best way to check the freshness of herbs and spices is to open the container, put some in your hands, and check for strong aroma, taste and color. Seasonings kept longer than recommended won’t hurt you, so don’t fret if your oregano is five years old. It won’t do harm, but it won’t have much taste, either.
I’d love to hear where you find the best bargains on herbs and spices in the area. Email me at Cat.Morris@earthlink.net or visit us online at brleader.com and leave your comment following my column.
In last month’s column I promised an article on extreme frugality. I spoke too soon. My apologies, but I couldn’t resist writing about getting great deals on herbs and spices first, what with holiday cooking right around the corner!