Is it Time for a Spice Rack Makeover?

by on February 24th, 2011
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I enjoy cooking. I’d like to consider myself a minor-league foodie of sorts. Like many, I prefer the results of a new recipe rich with flavors rather than a frozen entree or chain restaurant fare. In my mind, one trait of a being a food aficionado is a well-used spice rack. I may not know how to use it all, but I love fully engaging in a recipe that calls for ingredients like cardamom, saffron, or coriander. In my mind, I feel more accomplished in the kitchen when I’ve integrated a concert of exotic spices.

If you would like to supplement your own spice rack, there are a couple strategies for getting the best value for your spices. While true foodies will probably argue otherwise, I buy most of my spices at the grocery store. With the right timing, sale, and coupons, I’ve been able to maintain a collection of the higher end McCormick herbs and spices. (McCormick’s Gourmet collection). My costs usually end up being about 50% off or better of the retail price.

There are a few other options for buying spices besides the supermarket. If you aren’t as picky about quality, dollar store spices may work fine – particularly on some less critical spices. Grocery stores typically carry similar quality shakers of spices. If you don’t see the lower cost variety, ask for help. Two stores I regularly shop stock the lower cost variety in a different area than the rest of the spices.

Avoid spice collections you’d commonly buy as a wedding gift for a newlywed couple. In, fact, avoid buying them for the newlyweds, too. Lower cost gift sets generally have a poor reputation for freshness and quality. You may end up buying spices you won’t realistically use – no matter how pretty the collection may appear. Finally, most collections are designed to be displayed on the counter – which is a no-no for maintaining potency.

Avoid overpriced spice mixes with celebrity chef brand names. After assembling the ingredients yourself, you’ll almost always come out way ahead financially.

If you would like very good quality in smaller quantities, consider shopping at a retailer that sells gourmet ingredients or at a smaller international grocery store. You can purchase very fresh herbs and spices in bulk. You may pay more per ounce, but if you would only use half a shaker before the spices become bland, you may come out ahead. This may also be a good way to try spices you don’t want to commit $6 or $7 to. If your cabinet space is limited, it goes without saying that baggies and smaller shakers take less room.

If you have the choice, whole spices will almost always last longer than their ground counterpart; twice as long, in fact. You will need a mortar and pestle, pepper mill, or grinder for most recipes but the rewards of a freshly ground spice can be an abundance of flavors and aromas.

After you get your herbs and spices home, they need to be kept dry, cool, and out of sight. As mentioned earlier, don’t display them on the kitchen counter. Keep them away from the stove and with lids always closed tightly. When you apply spices to your recipe, do not pour them directly into your boiling cauldron. Steam can fill the spice container – and humidity causes caking and degradation. Instead, measure your spices separately and apply them from measuring spoons or ingredient bowls – just like you see on TV.

When should you replace spices? Many aficionados will say six months from the time they are opened or ground (if you purchased them whole). Spice kings, McCormick, will tell you that ground spices are actually good for 2-3 years if stored and used properly. They further state that herbs are good for 1 to 3 years, seasoning blends are good for 1-2 years, and whole spices, seeds, and extracts will maintain their potency for up to four years. The exceptions are poppy and sesame seeds which last two years and vanilla, which lasts forever.

To keep better track of the age of your spices, I recommend getting a few sheets of those neon circle stickers that are commonly used for garage sale price tags. When you purchase new spices, write the date on the circle and stick it to the bottom of the shaker. If you own McCormick spices, you can enter the code from the bottom of each bottle at their “fresh tester” form to verify the age of the spice:

If you have neither a purchase date – nor a code, McCormick offers these helpful tips to deduce spice freshness: “Check the color of your spices and herbs-they should be vibrant. If the color has faded, chances are so has the flavor. Rub or crush the spice or herb in your hand. If the aroma is weak and flavor is not apparent, it’s time to replace it.”

Of, course, if a spice’s potency has faded, rather than tossing it, you could try doubling the amount called for – although, again, true foodies may scoff at the thought.

As the holidays approach, and you consider new and daring dishes to impress, consider a spice upgrade. It may be just the ammunition you need to eat more great food at home at a fraction of the cost of what you’d pay a restaurant to assemble for you.

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