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.
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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?