Spices 101: What You Need to Know About Buying Spices

One might think that learning which spice to add to which dish is one of the first things you would be taught in Spices 101, but they would be wrong.

Learning to source and purchase fresh, quality products is paramount when learning to cook well with spices. Would you make a fruit salad with moldy fruit? Spread rancid butter on fresh baked bread? Of course not.  Likewise, you should aim to use the best spices and herbs possible, for reasons we will discuss below.

This is the second post in our Spices 101 series. In my first post, I debunked common spice myths and pointed out how proper selection and addition of good quality spices  to a dish can elevate the flavor of a dish with little effort and minimal cost. Next week we will talk about how proper storage is important for preserving your newly acquired quality spices, followed by how to grind whole spices and finally,  learn what spices to stock your pantry with.

For now, let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly facts about buying spices.

Photo by
SINDELL357

Rules for Buying Spices

This post could have been titled “Throw away your spices and start over” and as harsh as that may sound, it’s not far off in describing how I feel about the state of most spice cabinets I see.

Here are my purchasing tips for stocking your pantries and spicing up your life – through food.

Stay Far Away from Typical Grocery Store Spices

Products on the shelves of your average grocery chain my have been there for a year or more, and they probably sat in a warehouse up to a year before that. Since the average shelf life of ground spices maxes out around six months, chances are you’re buying stale spices.

Also, these spices are generally very poor quality and may contain nasty contaminants, which we’ll look at in a minute.

Purchase Whole Spices

  • Purchase whole spices and grind them yourself to retain maximum potency and ensure a fuller flavor.
  • Whole spices will stay fresher, longer. Since ground spices have such a short shelf life, chances are every ground spice in your cabinet right now is past it’s prime.
  • You know what you are getting with whole spices. Ground spices may have other ingredients such as salt, rice or flour mixed in and FDA regulations do not require suppliers to list these add-ins as ingredients. Also, ground spices are not required to be free of contaminants.

Buy the Best Possible Spices You Can Afford

Cheap spices are cheap for a reason. The health regulations for ground spices are lax, with the ASTA (American Spice Trade Association) cleanliness specifications stating that “…it is not possible to grow, harvest, and process crops that are totally free of natural defects”. *What, so let’s just grind them in and sell them? Pretty much.

What are these ‘defects’? Well if you really want to know, a few of them are mold, exctreta (yep, that’s poo), dead insects, rat hairs, wire, string and a list of other ‘foreign matter’.

What percentage of this foreign matter may be in your pre-ground spices? It’s shocking, but up to 20% for some is still considered “acceptable”. The average is much less, but still…. Ick.

So what can you do to source better spices?

  1. Go to Ethnic Markets. Often ethnic markets have good quality whole spices at affordable prices. They are selling spices that are used regularly and are re-stocked much faster than an average grocery store where spices may sit for much longer. Of course ethnic markets can sell poor quality spices as well, but talk to the staff. Smell the spices and buy a small amount to try at home to see if you like them.
  2. Source a local spice merchant. These spices shops nearly always guarantee quality and freshness. The best part? You can usually chat with the staff about how to incorporate their products into your cooking. Some may even have recipe cards to hand out.
  3. Source Quality Spices Online. If you cannot locally source whole spices, consider purchasing online from a reliable company. There are many options out there. Here are my recommendations:

Avoid gourmet shops selling regular spices at inflated prices. It happens plenty. If you’ve been to your local ethnic market and/or specialty spice merchant and experienced the real thing, you can usually just use your eyes and nose to identify the frauds.  Most spices are incredibly pungent, and should never smell musty.

Buy Small Amounts of Spices at a Time

Spices are not the ingredients to be buying bulk for your home kitchen because they do go stale. Unless you are a very active cook and are heavy-handed with the spices, I wouldn’t recommend buying bulk spices.

Remember, if you’re buying good quality spices, you won’t need to use as much for cooking as they will be much more potent than standard grocery store fare. A little goes a long way.

Final thought: When You Can, Grow your Own

The best solution for sourcing dried herbs is to grow your own! Or buy from a friend or family member who has a garden. Hang bundles of fresh herbs upside down to dry, then fill mason jars with their fragrant leaves. Stored properly (which we’ll talk about next week) these herbs will last all winter.

There is growing interest in knowing where your dairy, meat and vegetables come from. Don’t you want to know where your spices come from as well?

About Aimee

Cooking has always been Aimée's preferred recreational activity, creative outlet, and source of relaxation. After nearly ten years in the professional cooking industry, she went from restaurant to RSS by trading her tongs and clogs for cookie cutters and a laptop, serving as editor here at Simple Bites.

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Comments

  1. Great advice. The thought of reinvesting is scary lol but I guess doing a couple at a time is easy enough to do. It is scary to know the ick acceptable things that may be in our spices now.

    BTW great spice drawer!
    .-= Evelyne@CheapEthnicEatz’s last blog: Cheap Ethnic Eatz 3rd Anniversary Dinner =-.

    • That’s a great approach, Evelyne. When you run out of a herb or spice, replace it with something a little better. You won’t regret it!

  2. Great Information! Thanks :)

    Sandie
    .-= Sandie Lee’s last blog: AWESOME GIVEAWAY!! =-.

  3. This is a great information. I buy my spices from a little shop in Toronto called The Spice Trader. Organic, fresh and wonderful. I have never really thought about going to an ethnic market though – great tip!
    .-= Jan (Family Bites)’s last blog: Bread Love =-.

  4. Mountain Rose Herbs is another good source. (http://www.mountainroseherbs.com/)
    .-= Jennifer Jo’s last blog: My one and only =-.

  5. Great post! I need to find a spice shop in London. Any recommendations?
    .-= Pure Mothers’s last blog: Book Review: Free-Range Kids =-.

  6. There is a new spice supplier here in Calgary that has beautiful spices – although they’d never heard of Tonka Beans! But they suffer from high prices. Like almost everything else in this city.

    And I would have to say that it is thanks to you that I finally converted to grinding my own. Once you do that you never go back!
    .-= Cheryl Arkison’s last blog: Cardamom Ice Cream =-.

    • That’s great, Cheryl! I’m so glad I’ve converted another person. =) Let me know if you need some tonka and I’ll ship some out.

  7. I have much to learn about spices apparently. I’d have to agree with the lady up above; it sounds daunting to just toss out all of my spices (not that I have many; they’re such an expensive part of my meager grocery budget, I feel bad throwing them out if they aren’t used much). I’m really looking forward to drying and storing fresh herbs! This will really tie in with what I’m growing.

  8. OK, EWWWWWW about grocery store spices! That is sickening!

    I like to go to Penzey’s Spices. Their products are very comparable to grocery store prices and the spices are so fresh!

    Another source for herbs is your local health food store. You can buy whatever amount you need and they are usually very reasonably priced.

    How do you recommend grinding your own spices?

    • Hi Tammy,

      Sounds like you’ve already sourced some great spices in Penzeys. Great tip about the health store, that is true.

      I use a small coffee grinder or a mortar & pestle for grinding my spices. We’ll cover storing & grinding spices in an upcoming post. Stay tuned.

  9. Great tips, Aimee! I order all of our spices from Mountain Rose Herbs and think they have great quality and prices. I like to grind mine in a mortar and pestle, though I am looking into other avenues. I was shocked when I went to buy turmeric at the grocery store and found 2-3 Tablespoons for $5! I can pay that much at MRH for fresh ground and get an entire pound.
    .-= Shannon’s last blog: Wild Edibles: Garlic Mustard and Recipe for Green Lentils with Wild Garlic Mustard Pesto =-.

    • Shannon, I like the time that a coffee grinder saves some when I grind a lot of spices-say for a blend- but love my mortar and pestle for little stuff.

  10. Hannah Hudgin says:

    Great tips, Aimee! Thanks for writing on this topic. I can’t wait to read the next one about storage. I grew some of my own herbs last year and fell in love with how great they tasted compared to store bought ones.

  11. What about spices at an organic market? I recently bought ground ginger and cinnamon at “Planet Organic” and they smelled fabulous compared to my local grocery store. Do you think they’d still carry most of the same concerns?

    • It really depends on the market, Kika. You’re on the right track by smelling them, though. Your nose plays an important role in deciphering the freshness of the spices.
      Talk to to owners & staff, ask questions.
      The turnover of spices may be slow, and that would be a cause for concern about freshness, but the spices would probably be better quality than a grocery store.

  12. Great post! I’m really looking forward to your post about drying and preserving herbs. I’m going to have a little herb garden this year and I’ll definitely want and need to preserve the extras.

    I have begun to buy spices “in bulk” from our local co-op. The spices are from nearby farms and so I think they are much fresher. And by ‘bulk’ I mean that I take my own used-up container or jar, and mark the tare weight, and use a tiny scoop to refill it. These have been much fresher and bolder in flavor than the grocery store versions.

    I think spices should not be skimped on, especially as I try to cook healthy food. The flavor doesn’t have to (and at my house, doesn’t usually) come from butter, cheese and thick creams and fats. I use lots of flavor from the spice cupboard! So I don’t like to be cheap about it, although I confess to having purchased a couple of store-brand versions…that I’ll be throwing away because it’s like eating sawdust…but I can use the containers to get refills.
    .-= Nikki Moore’s last blog: Growing up and needing new stuff (and orange furry monsters) =-.

    • You co-op sounds excellent, Nikki. I like how you can buy just how much you need.

      And cooking with spices should certainly be approached with abandon, you’re right about that!

      Best of luck with your herb garden. What are you growing this year? I always use oregano, rosemary, thyme, basil & parsley in copious amounts.

      • Nikki Moore says:

        Not totally sure what I’m growing yet. It will be my first try at a garden (just a bunch of containers on out apartment patio) and I’ll be getting started plants soon. Basil, oregano, rosemary, mint, and thyme for sure…also hoping for lemongrass and sage. We’ll see how well they do! Looking forward to your next spice post!
        .-= Nikki Moore’s last blog: Growing up and needing new stuff (and orange furry monsters) =-.

  13. I buy my spices “in bulk” just as Nikki does from above. I store them in those tightly closed magnetic tins with a clear top-so I know when its time to refill!
    .-= Melissa’s last blog: Buttermilk Poundcake =-.

  14. Great post. As a college student living on my own for the first time, I have discovered a love for cooking. I am definitely a fan of experimenting with different spices in my food to get that fuller, more satisfying flavor.

    I want to experiment with growing my own spices now that its spring. What would you recommend that a busy college student attempt to grow?

    • Hi Heather,
      Almost all herbs are easy to grow — some a little TOO easy! Herbs like mint and oregano love to take over, so if you have limited space, keep those ones in a planter.

      Grow what you love to cook with! Basil, parsley and thyme have a wide variety of uses. Rosemary is lovely too and can be brought indoors and wintered.
      .-= Aimee’s last blog: Weekend Reading: Spice Edition =-.

  15. Love this series. I never thought about the source of our spices. I’m always tempted to buy the larger size jar to get a better deal, but I had to laugh the other day when I looked at a spice jar and noticed it’s a generic grocery band from a store that doesn’t exist in this state. Forget the six month rule, we moved here 4 yeas ago – oops! Guess we didn’t need to but that one in bulk.

  16. Every year my Mom gives me dried spices in mason jars as part of her Christmas gifts to me and my brothers. It is something that I really love and treasure, and although it seems small, I look forward to it every year. I guess it just means a lot more when I know my mom grew them and dried them and jared them for me.

    • That is truly special Stacey — and a great homemade gift idea for all those DIY-ers!

      My mom recently sent me a jar of dried mint that she grew, and the smell was incredibly transporting. I know exactly how you feel about your herbs from your mother!
      .-= Aimee’s last blog: Weekend Reading: Spice Edition =-.

  17. Another great online source that ships to all of North America is The Spice House, based in Chicago. They hand-grind spices every week, and if you buy ground spices there, you really know what you’re getting.
    .-= Lydia (Soup Chick)’s last blog: Seven soups every Saturday: fresh pea soup recipes =-.

  18. What a great article! Thanks, I will definitely use this when shopping for spices.

    http://www.sweetsonian.com
    .-= Sarah Marie’s last blog: Taco Night =-.

  19. Hi,

    I really love your images of spices and would like to use one or two for a magazine article on the Spice Trade. You would be credited in the magazine.

    Please let me know asap if you are interested.

    Thanks

  20. Kathleen K says:

    I enjoyed your article! When we began eating healthy several years ago, I learned about using organic spices. Unfortunately, nonorganic spices may be irradiated, and I assume they are unless the company specifically says they aren’t. Mountain Rose offers bulk discounts on their spices and teas if you purchase in whole pound increments. I try to get together with some friends twice a year and we place a bulk order together, which gets us a discount, plus we save on shipping.

  21. I often wondered why the food in Sri Lanka (where I was born) tasted so much better even though I used the same spices here in the US. Then I discovered many of these spices at the supermarket, especially the powders were nothing more than rubble. Made to meet a price point on the supermarket shelf. In Sri Lanka spices are ground and mixed daily in the home kitchen for cooking and I can tell you the taste sensation that process creates is out of this world. And ethnic stores are a really good source, but lately even they are being infiltrated by mass market brands, so look closely for real authentic ethnic store brands. I found those with foreign lettering is a good indication of quality (by no means foolproof) since ethnic buyers will not tolerate shoddy quality.

  22. Excellent, helpful article. thank you.

    How are the spices Trader Joes sell? What about the spices at my local co-op? Does organic equal better quality?

  23. Great advice. I’m already replacing my spices with better spices as each bottle ends. I order most from Penzeys and some (the ones that aren’t available through Penzeys) from ethnic markets.

    A question about buying in bulk: How much do you recommend to buy at a time? Also, do you have information on freezing spices? I’ve decided to order from 1/2 lb to 1 lb, depending on price and how much I use. I put some in a jar for the kitchen and the rest in the freezer. I read somewhere that helps keep them fresh.

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