What You Need to Know About Buying, Storing, and Cooking with Spices

It’s no secret that I believe a solid knowledge of spices is essential to great cooking. Proper selection and addition of good quality spices to a dish can elevate the flavor with little effort and minimal cost; that alone is reason to learn how to use spices and incorporate them into daily cooking.

However, cooking with spices doesn’t start with popping a lid and adding the required amount. This post is a good starting point; it is a summary of a Spices 101 series I wrote last spring and is well worth a refresher. At the bottom of each section you can click through to read the full post on each topic.

As I fully believe adding spices is one of the simplest way you can transform a forgettable dish into something memorable, I hope you’ll begin your journey with the exotic here.

Buying Spices 101

Learning to source and purchase fresh, quality products is paramount when learning to cook well with spices. Here are my top five tips:

1. Avoid Supermarket Spices

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

2. 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.
  • You know what you are getting with whole spices. Ground spices may have other ingredients such as salt, rice or flour mixed in. Also, ground spices are not required to be free of contaminants.

3. Buy the Best Spices You Can Afford

Cheap spices are cheap for a reason; it’s no secret that many contain foreign matter. What kind? I go into more detail here.

  • Shop at Ethnic Markets.
  • Source a local spice merchant.
  • Shop at a reputable online source.

4. Buy Small Amounts of Spices at a Time

Spices stale quickly, so don’t by them in bulk. 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.

5. Whenever Possible, Grow your Own

The best solution for sourcing dried herbs is to grow your own, or purchase from a friend or family member who has a garden.

Read the full post: Spices 101: What You Need to Know About Buying Spices.

Three Options for Grinding Spices

Now that you understand the benefits of buying whole spices, you need to figure out the best way to break them down. As with most kitchen equipment, a simple tool is best for grinding spices; here are my recommendations for three types, each with different benefits.

1. Mortar & Pestle

This ancient, yet effective tool is ideal for crushing small amounts of spices, bruising herbs, and also works well for pestos, curry pastes, or sauces or dips with the mortar taking the place of a mixing bowl.

  • Pros: Offers instant results, a fast clean, and a perfumed kitchen.
  • Cons: Requires a bit more elbow grease. Not ideal for large amounts.

I get by with this 4-Inch Marble Mortar and Pestle, however, I may need to upgrade to something much larger soon.

2. Electric Coffee Grinder

If you do a lot of cooking, I recommended you purchase an inexpensive coffee grinder and dedicate it to a lifetime of spices. It’s an affordable investment that will simplify your cooking with its fast results.

  • Pros: Efficient, effective with tough, stringy spices.
  • Cons: Requires some effort to clean, but there are a few tricks that can be learned.

This Krups Fast Touch Coffee Grinder will do the trick perfectly.

3. Microplane

This kitchen tool is useful for spices such as nutmeg, tonka bean and some types of cinnamon. A gourmet’s best friend, it is also handy for grating ginger, garlic, chocolate, citrus rind and many other ingredients.

I use this Microplane for spices and other aromatics.

Read the full post: Spices 101: Three Options for Grinding Spices (Recipe: Quick Mojo Sauce)

Storing Spices 101

When storing spices, your biggest enemies are: air, light, heat, and humidity, so a decorative spice rack conveniently situated above the stove is not doing your spices any favors.

Instead try:

  • The freezer
  • Inside a cabinet door
  • In a drawer
  • On a pantry shelf

Open storage can also work if spices are sealed in tins, and counter-top storage is fine, as long it is not near a direct heat source or window.

It’s important to know how to store your quality spices properly so that they’ll maintain their maximum freshness and potency.

Read the full post and learn about the best types of storage containers: Spices 101: Storing Spices (Recipe: Black Pepper Shrimp)

Cooking with Spices

Lydia of The Perfect Pantry shared with us Ten Ingredients You Absolutely, Positively, Must Have on Your Spice Rack. It’s an excellent place to start when building a spice pantry. Remember though, spice varieties appeal to individuals in different ways and that is why the best spices for your kitchen  are the ones that makes your senses dance.

Final thought: Be bold. Experiment. And taste, taste, taste. There are few mistakes when it comes to spicing food, the greatest being under-seasoning.

UPDATE: The sweet Amber of Bluebonnets & Brownies is hosting a timely giveaway for custom set of 6 spices from  SpicesInc.com! While I’ve never tried their product, Amber vouches for them, and it certainly sounds like the perfect opportunity to freshen up that spice cabinet. Good Luck!

Does your spice cabinet need a little spring cleaning?

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. Wonderful tips Aimee! I’m going to have to reevaluate my spice rack!

  2. Thanks for the information! I especially appreciate the comments around where to buy and in small quantities. I recently cleaned out my spice cabinet:
    http://girlfriendlifeline.blogspot.com/2011/03/organizing-spice-cabinet.html
    and I have a ton of spices still in their original unopened packaging. Does that 6 month clock start from when you open the package?
    Thanks!
    tpdval’s last post: Go To Lunches- Beans on Toast

  3. Awesome tips… I am totally going to try and buy them whole and grind them. Cant wait to taste something with FRESH spices! :)

  4. Great advice from top to bottom, Aimee! I linked to this for my giveaway post. :)
    Amber | Bluebonnets & Brownies’s last post: Snickeroos

  5. Christine says:

    This is one of those projects I’ve always meant to tackle. We’re moving soon, so my new resolution is not to take any yucky spices with me. I’ll fill in from scratch!

    Also, I buy many of my ethnic spices at ethnic stores and I have found that the taste is so incredibly different that I need to adjust the amount down from what a recipe calls for. My curry powder, that has about two words on it in English (Curry Powder), is so spicy I only put 1/4 of what is called for in any given recipe or it is too spicy to eat!

    • Good point, Christine. Oftentimes with fresh, good quality spices, we can use far less. So we may pay a little more, but it all balances out!

  6. Great tips, Aimee! Thanks for sharing all these valuable tid-bits.

  7. I love these informative post! So well written and such a great resource.

  8. You can also find fresh spices at an Amish market or sometimes at a farmer’s market.

  9. Thanks for the tips!

    For storing spices, especially for Indian dishes, which call for a lot of stuff, I suggest buying a Masala Dabba (literally means “spice box”). They are beautiful and convenient. They come in two or more sizes, too.

  10. I am sure that cooking with whole spices will make a dish even more flavorful than the spices you buy at the supermarket. I need to implement better spices in my spice repertoire.

    Thanks for the informative blog!

    http://faithfulsolutions.blogspot.com/

  11. Thanks so much for the great article! I have been looking for a guide like this for a while. :) Definitely bookmarking this!

  12. I do a pretty good job of using my spices and cleaning them out when I don’t. This is great reminder for everyone that spices don’t last forever!

  13. Great tips! I use parsley, cilantro and basil a lot and I buy it fresh. Just today however, I bought a parsley and basil plant at the farmer’s market. I would love a cilantro plant too, but they didn’t have one!
    Bernice
    Living the Balanced Life’s last post: The cure for everything and an interview with a blogger

  14. These are really excellent tips. Thanks so much for sharing this very valuable information to us.
    Maris (In Good Taste)’s last post: Baked Tofu via Terry Waters &amp Dana Treat

  15. What a great post- thanks for the info. Our problem is storage- lots of spices that are trying to crowd into one tiny drawer… sigh…
    The Newlywed Chefs’s last post: Measuring Cups and Spoons Giveaway!

  16. Great tips, this is very helpful! I have so many spices it’s slightly ridiculous!
    Jamie | My Baking Addiction’s last post: Baking with Peanut Butter Alternatives Peanut Allergies

  17. I have an old electric coffee grinder. I am trying to grow my own spices, but is not very easy, it requires time.
    Elena’s last post: my 200th appearance on SquidooSpirit Top 40 list

  18. This article is reminding me how badly I need to go through my giant spice collection and clean house. I have some whole spices, but I should really just get rid of all of the odds and ends of ground spices and mixes that I have. Then I’ll have to upgrade. I just LOVE spices!

  19. Love all of the great tips Aimee, seriously! I’m printing this out for future use and I thinking that it should be laminated to my pantry door.
    Tickled Red’s last post: Caramel Brownie Cheesecake

  20. Sverige says:

    It works the same today as it did new, and I use it about 10 times a week. For the money, it can’t be beat. That said, this grinder is not for everybody.

  21. You can buy bulk spices by the half oz at http://www.sensiblespices.com for less than $1 shipping included. Fresh, affordable and small amounts that won’t sit in your spice rack for years.

  22. Thanks for the spice tips. It is a great reminder to get rid of old spices which i really need to do.

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