Cutting the Grocery Bill: Reducing the Cost of a Good Spice Rack

By Thursday Bram on 10 March 2008 (Updated 21 March 2010) 16 comments

I’ve managed to cut my grocery bill in half, but I’ve struggled with one set of expenses more than I ever though possible. I use a lot of spices and every time I turn around, I feel like I need more cinnamon or basil. I’ve been investigating my options and in the past two months I’ve made a dent in the amount I spend on my spices. That dent only adds up to a few dollars so far, but if I can keep at it for the long haul, I think I’ve found another way to be frugal without feeling like I have to give something up.

1. Buy in bulk.

There are a lot of things I don’t like buying in bulk because I just don’t have room to store them. Bulk for spices, though, still means a container a third of the size of a cereal box. While some experts say that spices only last about six months, most spices can actually hold out for a whole year (and since most spices are only harvested once per year, that ‘new’ batch of oregano may have already been in storage much longer than you’d think).

2. Dry your own.

If you can pick up fresh herbs at your local farmers’ market, the price will be significantly less than the dried stuff at the supermarket. Dry them with a dehydrator or other drying process in order to extend their shelf life.

3. Grow your own.

I got the idea to go one step further from drying my own herbs to growing my own. This year, I’m only doing a few pots out on my balcony , which works just fine for my apartment, and I can’t guarantee what the breakdown between what I actually produce and the time and effort I’ll put in to it, but I think it will be worth it.

4. Buy online.

There are plenty of spices that I can’t produce on my balcony, from issues of room to issues of pollination. There are plenty of options, from very inexpensive to premium. Even tried-and-true Amazon has a good selection, as long as you’re willing to buy in sufficient quantity. The only point I would bring up is that quality is crucial for spices, and purchasing from a reputable seller can be worth a premium price. I routinely buy in large quantities from Penzey’s for just that reason.

No matter which of these approaches you are considering for stocking your spice rack, make sure that you have airtight containers to keep your spices in. Whether you buy in bulk or dry your own, you’ll need your own spice containers. I reuse old ones, save jars and use single serving yogurt cups.

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Guest's picture
Spencer

I buy at the local food coop. They buy in bulk and resell to me in whatever quantity I want. I've got a collection of little spice jars that I've had for years, so the only cost is the herbs and spices themselves.

In fact, just yesterday I decided it was time to dump the spices and renew the whole set. I bought small amounts (less than an ounce, generally) of about 25 different herbs and spices. Most of them, I bought less than a dollar's worth, and that will last me 6 months to a year. The prices look ridiculous, $12/lb, $29/lb, and in one case $50/lb (mace). But since I'm buying 1/2 to 1 ounce -- that's what fits in my jar -- the total price was maybe $1.50 for the mace, and less for everything else.

If there are spices you use a lot of, for "ethnic" cooking, try the ethnic groceries. Whole spices last a long time, so the 4 ounce bag of cardamom that I bought at the Indian grocery for a few bucks has lasted me years, and when I split the pods and grind the seeds, it smells just as good as new.

Guest's picture
Deirdre

I actually do much of what you advise with the exception of stocking up -- for most items. I do notice many herbs and spices losing their potency after a few months (powdered ginger, for example, just doesn't last). So I buy in small amounts, as needed, from my local health food store. They buy in bulk and package the herbs, and they cost me the same amount per ounce whether I buy a lot or a little. I save by buying small amounts because I don't end up throwing so much out.

I've done bulk ordering through a co-op and through Penzey's, and each time, I have ended up throwing out quite a bit after a year.

I also freeze a ton of basil in the summer -- enough to give me several pesto meals and flavor many more dishes during the winter.

Guest's picture
Kathryn

I have a difficult time believing you're going to generate much cost savings drying your own herbs unless you're also the one growing them. A 1.5 oz jar of dried basil costs a buck at the dollar store, and it takes more than half a pound of fresh basil (about 10 cups!) to produce an equivalent amount if you're drying your own. That's easily $5 or more worth of basil at typical farmer's market prices. There are culinary advantages to using fresh herbs in some situations, but I'm skeptical of the claim of cost savings.

I'll second the recommendation of buying in ethnic markets if you have access to them, especially if you can buddy up with some friends to do a "group buy". (Speaking from personal experience, it takes an undogly amount of time to use up a quarter-pound of coriander unless you use it all the time.)

Guest's picture
Barbara

Couple of things i learned from my mother:

1. She uses her microwave to dry herbs. She doesn't actually heat them, but she lays the herbs out on plates, stacks them diagonally so they don't actually sit on each other, and leaves them in there for about a week. Whenever she needs the microwave, she removes them temporarily, and then puts them back in when she's finished cooking. I've never tried it but she swears by it.

2. For those of us who keep the spice rack on the wall above/behind the stove top, spices go bad faster. The constant heat rising from the stove isn't good for them. I keep mine there because it's the most convenient to be able to just grab without moving your feet, and I use them so constantly that it doesn't matter, but if you cook less seldom, just a thought.

Guest's picture
Guest

Barbara, I've had luck with a modification of your Mom's drying procedure. I lay the leaves out on a plate lined with a paper towel and cook for 8-10 second increments. You have to watch them so they don't ignite (and stink the place up), but I went through a few bundles of basil this way last summer, and I'm still enjoying it. I stored the leaves in a mason jar in a cool dry place.

Guest's picture
Katy

McCormick makes a 'vietnamese cinnamon' that is better than all others, IMHO. It's a little pricy, but you can use less. Superb quality.

Guest's picture
Jess

I'd highly recommend purchasing spices at "Ethnic" groceries; online or local. You'll find Indian spices in particular (including cinnamon) much MUCH cheaper. For $4 I can buy enough bulk cinnamon bark to last me 6 months, when ground. (And I go through cinnamon like some folks go through soda.) If I bought it pre-ground at my local grocery, the bill would be absolutely insane. (Something like $50.)

You might try www.ishopindian.com as a resource if you don't have any local Indian food stores. For Mexican spices, www.mexgrocer.com/ .

Guest's picture
Lauren

The best storage solution I've found so far is a spice rack my father invented called SpiceStack. It allows you to organize up to 27 spice bottles (or 54 half-size little guys) from the grocery store in a compact space in your dark, dry kitchen cabinet where spices will stay freshest. The drop-down drawers make it easy to find the spice you need and help save you from buying duplicate spices (go count how many paprikas you have, I dare you!).

Check out SpiceStack at SpiceStack.com. Its $29.95 (and 50% off additional units) plus S&H. We also sell airtight spice bottles for those of you that like to buy in bulk.

Happy Spicy Cooking!

Guest's picture
Milton Hicks

I've started growing my own herbs indoors with grow lights. What I don't use fresh gets put in the dehydrator and placed in "handi-vac" bags for future use.

I'm not a gourmet cook/taster so I have no problem buying other spices at discount stores, plus I will buy in bulk on eBay for the specific spices I use heavily and don't grow (like dry mustard or seed).

I found a nice website (E.D.FOODS) for spices jars and I've standardized my entire spice cabinet, making labels on my computer, so everything is easy to find/use. That ended finding 5 jars of one spice because I always thought I was out because I didn't see it.

I'm also learning to make my own condiments since it becomes cheaper, less salt, and very rewarding, plus you can play with the taste to your liking.

It was mentioned about Ginger (powder) not lasting long. Buy your Ginger root(s) and store in your freezer. Lasts for years. Take out and use what you want.

I also find it much easier to chop up and freeze Bell Peppers, Onions, and similar items, so its always available for recipes year round and I don't have to run to the store at the last moment because I don't have a green bell pepper in the frig. Once chopped the pieces are flash frozen before being vacuum bagged so its easy to measure what you want.

BTW, if you haven't invested your $10 yet for the Reynolds "Handi-Vac" unit you are definitely missing out on some major convenience and food saving.

Guest's picture
Guest

It took years for me to try it, but growing a lot of your own spices is a great way to go. I have found that Basil, Dill, Parsley, and Oregano grow amazingly well in assorted pots. And, they will keep growing and growing and growing....the more you pick the more they grow. If you start from seed, it costs very very little, and only investment is a little time at first. Make sure they are watered, and keep in a sunny spot. No worries, all the fresh herbs you need. I am sure other herbs work just as well, just haven't tried them.

Oh, also, I have found great success in saving extra seeds to use later in the year or the next year. So, the $1 or $2 package of seeds can spread over several seasons if kept in a dry place. That way you don't feel like you are wasting seeds, if you grow a few pots at a time.

Shelle

Guest's picture
Sylvie M.

Unless you're already gardening, growing and drying your own herbs isn't going to save anything, and most spices can't be grown by ordinary gardeners.

I bought a jar of Italian mix at my local dollar store seven years ago, and I'm just reaching the bottom, with the scent and taste still quite strong. Keep in a dark place and away from heat for longevity. Any time I need a replacement I look first at the dollar store, and second, at the Rite Aid drug store. Not exactly the usual source, but worth checking out. The selection varies at both, and you may not always find what you want, but when you do, the savings are significant.

Guest's picture
Guest

In the non-ethnic aisle, the spices are $2-$3 for a tiny little jar. Two aisles down, they have some Mexican-sounding brand of the same spice for 80 cents, and you get 1/2 an ounce. They seem to be the same spices. At some stores, they even stock more than one brand, but, again, they all seem to be the same things.

Guest's picture
Guest

Hello

You may want to try the 99 cent store. They have the same brand name stuff (and same size) as large supermarkets that cost 3-5 dollars.

Guest's picture

If you live in an area with a large Latino population, check out Mexican stores for spices. Especially popular with this community are cinnamon and cumin, which you can buy very inexpensively. They don't go in for things like basil and tarragon, but they do have good varieties of marjoram, oregano, bay, thyme, and a lot of things whose names you can't pronounce. Also they have more varieties of peppers than you can imagine, dried and fresh.

BTW, you don't need a dehydrator to dry herbs. Grow your herbs in pots (or the ground, if you have it). When they reach a point where they want to go to seed, cut the stems back. Gather these together in a kind of bouquet and tie with string at the cut end of the stems. Form a loop at the free end of the string. Use this to hang the herb bunches from whatever handy place you can find--in the garage, in the kitchen, on the balcony. All you need is to have the air circulate pretty freely around them. Soon enough, they'll dry up nice and crispy.

Crumble them up and put them in saved jars. Keep in a cool, dry place.

You can make fines herbes by mixing equal parts parsley, chervil, and tarragon.

Guest's picture

Our website mainly aims at providing Indian Spices and Groceries to people outside India freshly ground from India.
Spices like NagKesar, Dagadphool, Triphul are also made available to people outside where they do not get it.

URL : http://spicesonline.info/indian-spices

Thanks & Regards
Chetan Laddha
Jyotiraj Spices

Guest's picture
Guest

Been frugal forever and gardened my whole life. The best way to cut spice expenses is to go to an Indian food grocer and buy your spices. They are far more fresh that what is found in a standard American grocery and cost far less. Then grow the fresh herbs you like and use a lot of in the summer and use it fresh - such as basil, dill, sage and rosemary. You'll eat a lot better and save too! Others have also mentioned online sites from which you can order.