Please see Part 1 of this series, where we discussed the market dynamics that drive the cruel and unusually high spice prices in your grocery store.
Today's post, Part 2 of this series, contains advice on how to beat these unfairly high prices and escape the spice industry's stranglehold on your grocery bill.
The spice industry has us between a rock and a hard place. Not only are most spices horribly expensive, but they are crucial ingredients in any recipe. Thus it seems like you have little choice but to pay through the nose for whatever spices you need.
In reality, however, there are lots of ways to spend less on spices and seasonings, and today's post contains ten tips to help you do just that. I'm sure this list is far from exhaustive, so readers, if any of you out there have additional ideas on how to save money on spices and seasonings, please share them in the comments section. Together, we can defeat the spice cabal!
1) Start With the Latin American Foods Aisle
If I had to give one commonality among today's tips, they all essentially involve running screaming from the traditional spice aisle of your traditional grocery store. But don't worry, you won't have to run very far (or scream for very long) to follow tip #1. In fact, you'll only run about 50 feet--to the Spanish/Mexican foods aisle! You can find many spices here at significantly lower prices than the regular spice aisle. Moreover, other foods, including dried and canned beans, can be found at discounts here too.
You wouldn't think your grocery would sell a product at one price and then 50 feet away sell a similar product at a totally different price. But it's just another of the many idiosyncrasies of the grocery store industry. Indeed, the Latin American foods aisle is dominated by an oligopoly of food manufacturers completely different from the rest of your grocery store. Some of these companies are big international firms like Goya which are trying to establish their own dominant market position in the USA, and as a result, these companies will often price their spices and other food products below market in order to gain share. That means extra savings for any consumer willing to travel a few feet to do a little comparison shopping.
2) Visit Local Ethnic Food Stores in Your Town
In most western countries, towns of even modest size have enough immigrants to support a wide range of fascinating ethnic food stores. But ethnic food stores are more than just places to visit to learn about new and unusual foods. These stores also fundamentally subvert the spice cabal.
I've already shared my experience buying a lifetime supply of guajillo chiles for only $2.50 in a Mexican food shop two miles from my home--heck, I even got the chance to practice my Spanish. And just a few months ago I was in an Indian specialty food store in Manhattan and found cayenne pepper at $3.99 for a 1/2 pound bag. That's less than a third of the price at my local grocery store.
Let's face it: there are some 35 million people in the USA who are either first- or second-generation foreign born, and many of these people buy much of their food items at smaller ethnic food stores. That is simply an enormous market opportunity, and best of all this market is widely fragmented and not under the control of large distribution or retailing oligopolies.
The companies that sell to these customers don't have the distribution clout to get onto the shelves of major grocery store chains, but so what? They can simply bypass the spice cabal by distributing to these smaller stores. And this is an opportunity for you as a consumer, because you can find spices and other products in these stores at prices that reflect true competition, not the faux competition of the spice aisle. Visit some of these stores in your community, and you may be shocked at the deals you find.
3) Speak Up
You might recall in Part 1 of this series how I suggested that the spice cabal keeps prices high in part because we as consumers tolerate these high prices. Let me a make a contentious statement: if only two or three companies control what's on our grocery store shelves, then we as consumers have an obligation to undermine this control. In short, we need to become intolerant consumers.
One way you can do this is by telling the store manager (or by writing to the store chain's management) that you're disappointed in the number of choices of spice brands in the store and as a result you're considering taking your business elsewhere. And when you see a new--and reasonably priced--spice brand in your grocery store, buy it, and be sure to tell the store manager. If enough consumers speak up, the store actually will offer more choice to its customers. Everybody wins this way.
4) Buy in Bulk...
The next time you're buying spices, compare the price per unit of bulk sizes to the price per unit of the smallest jars. Even at Penzeys Spices, a popular but relatively expensive spice supplier, you can buy a one pound bag of cayenne pepper for about 40% of the per-unit price of the smallest 2.1 ounce jar. That's a massive savings. And if you're ever buying a spice that's common to a lot of different recipes that you like to cook (spices like black pepper, cayenne pepper, cumin and oregano come to mind), always buy the largest container you can find.
Also, if your store has a bulk foods section, be sure to look it over. Many grocers carry spices in bulk, as well as other expensive foods like nuts, teas and even granola.
5) ...And Don't Worry About "Spice Fade"
Whenever the subject of buying spices in bulk comes up, there's always an immediate and predictable response from the spice snobs out there. They argue that you should never buy spices in volume, regardless of the savings, because spices lose their spiciness over time. In fact, a truly crazed spice snob might claim that you should throw out all your unused spices after no more than six months.
Bunk. Here's the real truth. Yes, some spices will by definition lose their efficacy over time. The real question is, how much time? If you are careful to store your spices in a cool, dark place in airtight containers, your spices will last for years, not months. You can even consider storing your spices in the freezer where they'll keep still longer.
A general rule of thumb for ground spices is they will last up to three years before losing a significant degree of their fragrance and flavor, as long as you keep them cool and dry. And if you can buy bulk spices in seed or kernel form rather than in ground form, you can extend their shelf life to four years or more, depending on the spice. We'll address grinding your own spices in more detail in Tip #7.
Furthermore, this alleged loss of flavor will be extremely gradual, and discernible only to chefs with the daintiest palates. I'd argue that the typical Casual Kitchen reader is more interested in striking a reasonable balance between spice freshness and cost rather than militantly throwing out all spices after six months.
Just in case, though, if you'd like to test your palate for spice snobbery, try making two versions of, say, my mole sauce recipe. Make one batch using nine- or twelve-month-old cinnamon, and make another batch using brand new cinnamon. If you can clearly tell the difference, then you should probably stop reading Casual Kitchen and resign yourself to a life spent paying through the nose for expensive spices.
Spices may not quite last forever, but they last a really, really long time. Buy them in bulk, and instead of worrying about spice fade, concentrate on cooking more.
6) Never Buy Spice Mixes--Make Your Own
If there's one rip-off even worse than store-bought spices, it's store-bought spice mixes. Regular readers of Casual Kitchen will recognize spice mixes as textbook examples of second-order foods, which contain extra manufacturing and branding costs imputed into the retail price. Worse, you don't have any control over what the manufacturer puts in these spice mixes, and many of them contain excess salt and MSG.
The solution here is to make your own. It's easy to find great spice mix recipes, and they're actually fun and quite satisfying to make. Start with Cheap Healthy Good's post on making your own spice mixes--it contains a well-researched list of sites for any and all kinds of spice mix recipes as well as some compelling math on how horribly overpriced these mixes can be.
You can also use your cookbooks as a resource. Many cookbooks make a point of including directions on how to make various spice mixes right alongside their recipes. I rely on Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen for my Cajun and Creole spice mixes, and for my Latin American spice mixes, I rely on Daisy Cooks.
7) Grind Your Own
It wasn't until Laura began experimenting with Indian food recently that we took our first tentative steps toward grinding our own spices.
There are quite a few advantages to grinding your own spices, and these advantages extend beyond simply saving money. First, as discussed in tip #5, spices will keep significantly longer in their whole form than in ground form. Thus you can confidently buy bulk packages of whole spices without worrying about spice fade. Furthermore, many spices (not all however) cost much less in their whole form. Thus, by buying whole spices in bulk you get a layer of savings on top of yet another layer of savings.
But the best advantage of grinding your own spices is culinary. Food tastes just a bit better when you go that extra step and freshly grind those spices just seconds before you put them in your recipe. However, there are limits to how much extra work we'll take on in putting dinner on the table. This blog is called Casual Kitchen after all, and by the way, didn't I just spend half of tip #5 mocking spice snobs? You'll have to decide for yourself to what extent it's worth it to you to experience the culinary and economic pleasures of freshly ground spices.
Let me share one final detail on this tip and then we'll move on. Here's a link to the spice grinder that we have in our home, which sells for a fairly reasonable $19 on Amazon (and for the old-schoolers out there, here's an elegant and even less expensive mortar and pestle for grinding spices too). If you regularly use spices like cumin, black pepper or other seasonings that are reasonably easy to find in whole form, it shouldn't be too long before you earn back the modest cost of an inexpensive spice grinder.
8) Dry Your Own
Let me share some math with you: a half-ounce jar of dried parsley flakes can cost anywhere from $2 to $3 in the traditional spice aisle. Yet you can buy an enormous bunch of fresh parsley in your produce section for as little as 99c. Heck, half the time when I use fresh greens or herbs to invigorate one of my recipes, I end up using 25% of the bunch and letting the rest of it go to waste. Why not make good use of those leftovers greens--and save a ton of money--by drying them for future use?
Drying your own spices and herbs can be done easily and with very little equipment. The method I've used successfully requires only an oven and a basic cookie sheet. Set your oven on warm, spread the herbs out on the cookie sheet, and place them in the warm oven for a few minutes. Then, turn the oven off, leaving the oven door closed, and let the herbs sit in there for the rest of the day. Note that some herbs are hardier than others, so keep an eye on them while the oven is on, lest they (speaking from experience here) burn to a crisp.
You can also air-dry your herbs, using nothing more than some paper bags and rubber bands. Bundle 4-6 branches of each type of green or herb with a rubber band, place the bunch upside down in a paper bag with several holes cut into it, and hang the bags upside down in a warm airy room. In two weeks or so you should have a wonderful bunch of dried spices that you can crumble into jars and keep for years.
9) Grow Your Own
Why stop at just mixing, grinding and drying? Why not take that last, final triumphant step and create your own seasonings entirely from scratch? You'll find herbs like oregano, basil, parsley, dill, chives, rosemary, sage and many others surprisingly easy to grow, and you don't need a big backyard (or even a yard at all) to do it. And it goes without saying that eating these herbs and spices fresh will give you a taste sensation you'll never get from the store-bought stuff.
Despite living in a small apartment, we've successfully grown chives and basil indoors with very little effort. One year, using seeds I got for free from my father's garden, I literally grew a lifetime supply of chives from a single medium-sized pot that sat on our windowsill. We nicknamed our little chive plant Beaker and we used to joke about giving him haircuts when it came time to harvest and dry the chives. How can you beat something that gives you an occasional laugh, takes almost no effort and helps you save money on spices?
If you're interested in pursuing herb growing further, here's another helpful post at About.com that can get you started (see especially the "suggested reading" and "related articles" links at the bottom of the page).
10) Use the Internet to Disintermediate the Spice Cabal and Your Grocery Store
Our final tip on how to save money on spices and seasonings comes from the same resource you're using right now to read this blog.
Yep, the Internet. It's the ultimate consumer protection tool because it has fairly low barriers to entry (after all, it's a lot cheaper and easier to set up a website than it is to set up a national grocery store distribution network), and because it allows consumers to compare prices from multiple vendors without even having to get out of their chairs. This means you get fierce competition among spice and seasoning vendors for your consumer dollars.
Here's a typical example: At Atlantic Spice Company you can buy one pound bags of cayenne pepper (at different hotness levels no less) at prices ranging from 23c to 26c an ounce. That's less than a third of Penzeys price for their one pound bag, and it's less than one-tenth the price of the store-bought McCormick brand. In fact, an entire pound of cayenne at Atlantic Spice costs less than a single 1.75 ounce jar of McCormick!
Where else but in the spice oligopoly can these companies mark up merchandise by a factor of ten (ten!) before selling it to the public? Preposterous.
In the "Related Links" section below, I share a list of well-regarded websites where you can buy spices at prices far below your traditional grocery store spice aisle. If you have a favorite spice site that you don't see there, please feel free to tell me about it.
I hope you've found this series of posts on spices helpful, and I hope you can successfully apply today's tips towards beating the spice oligopoly at its own game. I'm sure there are many more ways to save money on spices beyond the ten I've listed today, so readers, please share your thoughts: what ideas have I missed?
Online Bulk/Reasonably Priced Spice Sites:
Atlantic Spice Company
Buffalo Creek Spices
The San Francisco Herb Company
Other Spice Sites:
Penzey's Spices: expensive but highly regarded spices and spice mixes
Advice on drying herbs from About.com
CheapHealthyGood's encyclopedic post on spice mixes
How to Live Forever in Ten Easy Steps
Mastering Kitchen Setup Costs
Stacked Costs and Second-Order Foods: A New Way to Think About Rising Food Costs
Ten Strategies to Stop Mindless Eating
How to Write an Effective Complaint Letter
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