Saving on Herbs and Spices

Spices are expensive! But so yummy and quite imperative if one likes different cuisines and/or if one is trying to cut fat and calories from one’s diet. Not only are they expensive, they also never come in quite the right size container. During the winter, I go through chili powder by the half cup or more several times a month, but a tablespoon of marjoram lasts me for several years.

My first foray into saving on spices came several years ago when I saw that warehouse clubs sell them in the 16 ounce size, usually for about double what you’d pay for the 1-2 ounce container in the grocery. Hello, you perfect size container of chili powder! And why, cayenne, you’ll do wonderfully for sprinkling in the garden to keep the squirrels away (much cheaper than the cayenne mixed with filler at the garden center — and it works!). However, the bay leaves and peppercorns was not a good deal for me as I just can’t use them before they lose their potency.

Several years later, I saw the bulk spices at Whole Foods, in a little shelving unit by the bulk foods. I nearly choked when I saw that many are $50 per pound! BUT…you’ll only need an ounce or two — sometimes less. You can buy what you need. So I can buy that tablespoon of marjoram or a half-cup or so of oregano. They have most every usual spice, and some that are unusual (to me, anyway), like annatto, lavendar buds, and nettle. Want to try to make your own chai tea and need star anise and cardamom pods? Buy three or four of each instead of springing for a larger quantity at the grocery to see if you like them.

How much can you save? Here’s what I saved today:

Herb/Spice Weight @ WF $ @ WF Grocery 1 $ Grocery 2 $
Oregano  .03 lb / .48 oz  $0.36 McCormick Oregano, .75oz $2.79 McCormick Oregano, .75oz $4.99
Whole Cardamom  .04 lb / .64 oz  $2.00 McCormick Gourmet Collection, Ground Cardamom, 1.75 oz $12.19 McCormick Gourmet Collection, Ground Cardamom, 1.75 oz $13.25
Cayenne  .07 lb /1.12 oz $0.63 McCormick Gourmet Collection, Ground Cayenne, 1.00 oz $4.69 McCormick Gourmet Collection, Ground Cayenne 100% Organic, 1.00 oz $5.69
Cumin  .11 lb / 1.76 oz  $1.21 McCormick Ground Cumin, .90 oz (need 2 containers) $9.38 House Brand Ground Cumin, 2 oz $2.00
Marjoram 1 tbsp, no weight $0.00 McCormick Gourmet Collection, Marjoram, 0.25 oz $4.75 McCormick Gourmet Collection, Marjoram, 0.25 oz $4.85
Mace  .12 lb / 1.92 oz $2.70 McCormick Gourmet Collection, Ground Mace, 1.5 oz 7.87 McCormick Gourmet Collection, Ground Mace, 1.5 oz 7.99
Annatto Seed  .03 lb / .48 oz  $0.27 Not available Not available
 TOTALS:  $7.17 (without annatto) $41.67 (without annatto) $41.67

A couple of notes on the table. I bought about one third of the weight of cardamom, and I bought pods so I can grind them myself instead of the pre-ground pods. But if I went to the grocery needing cardamom, this would be my only option. I bought two containers worth of cumin. The small amount of marjoram did not produce a weight at the register, so it was free. Yes, I questioned the cashier who said there was no charge! I bought a little more mace than a container at the grocery, and if my recipe needed more (my recipe for knockwurst might), I’d need to spend another $7.87-$7.99 to get the extra nearly 1/3 of a container. And annatto seed is not to be found at either local grocery.

I checked the price of two grocery stores, one is the store with the better prices with a good, but standard, selection of foods. The other is the more upscale store with a larger selection of items.

So, without purchasing the annatto or the second container of mace, I saved $34.50 at my usual store, or almost 80%!

At the upscale store, the single house brand item  cumin, being a larger size so only one was needed, not to mention that it is less than half the price of a single container of the name brand. That saved a ton of money, making that store seem less expensive. However, both stores offer more house brand items than are shown on the online shopping websites, so your savings may vary.

And, if organic matters to you, Whole Foods can only sell organic items. Only one of the items, the cayenne at the upscale store, was labeled as organic. Your savings may be even bigger if organic matters to you.

One thing to remember if you buy bulk spices is that you put your spices into little plastic bags secured with a twist tie. On that twist tie, you’ll write the PLU (code) so the cashier rings it up right. Do yourself a favor and also write down the name of the spice so you don’t have to guess when you get home (so just what are those dried green leaves? Basil? Oregano? Mexican Oregano? Marjoram?

When you get home, you won’t want to store them in the bags, as the aromas will meld together if stored together (cayenne flavored oregano, anyone?) and they’ll lose their potency much quicker. Save the old containers. I’m kind of partial to the old-fashioned tins (still available at Kroger), since they don’t let light in, have the shaker/pour/spoon tops, and store more compactly on my spice shelves.

You can also purchase spice tins, but find a place that sells them in bulk instead of paying an obscene price for the same thing at a housewares store. I bought these in a 3 oz tall variety, they’re like the old, metal Band-Aid hinge-top boxes. They work great for herbs and many spices, but the tiny holes for the hinges allow humidity to turn salts and many powders into a brick. I’d recommend the 4 oz tins that don’t have the hinge.

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