Initial costs for jars and bulk spices will pay off in the long run when you build a spice selection at home.
WHEN MY HUSBAND set out to buy bulk spices one winter day, I figured he’d come back with cumin and curry powder — plus cardamom for the granola I like to make, and maybe cinnamon.
He did. And those were just the Cs.
The 60-plus spices he returned with ranged from anise seed to za’atar, spanning a world of cultures. Some were familiar standbys; some we’d never cooked with before. The investment opened new horizons for our home cooking, while making our daily meals surprisingly simpler.
Rack it up
Different cooks will have different needs, but here’s what worked to add a large spice selection to our busy kitchen:
• Our spices are stored in squat glass half-cup jars, wide enough to fit a tablespoon inside the jar, large enough that they don’t require constant refills and transparent so we can see when the supply’s running low. We labeled each jar clearly on both sides.
• After toying with one system where the most common spices stayed on the kitchen counter, and another where they were roughly organized by cuisine, we found it simplest to arrange them alphabetically in a kitchen cabinet. Storing them on risers saves space and makes them easier to see.
• Spices vary hugely in price. Buying from Central Market bulk bins, where most of our jars were filled for less than $1 apiece, the final tally was far less burdensome than the costs of prepackaged supermarket jars. Starting from scratch, we spent more money up front on spices than usual, but we’ve more than made back the difference. We’re lucky in Seattle to have fabulous options like World Spice Merchants and a good selection in bulk bins at every market from Fred Meyer to Whole Foods. We also found excellent choices at ethnic groceries such as Indian Sweets & Spices in Shoreline.
It was suddenly rare, for instance, that a new recipe required an extra shopping trip, and correspondingly more likely that we would actually experiment with something new. In our old spice life, an inspiration to cook Yotam Ottolenghi’s popular “cauliflower cake” after seeing the recipe online would have been thwarted by the ingredients list. This time, nigella seeds were as readily at hand as the recipe’s flour and baking powder. New-to-us Middle Eastern dishes were easier to test with that za’atar and sumac in the cabinet. Long ingredient lists in our new Indian cookbook, the likes of mustard seed, turmeric and garam masala, were easily assembled in a row.
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In our old cooking habits, we piled spices in undated random bags and jars. Neither our eyes nor our noses could pick out what we needed from the jumble of twist-tied baggies and faded McCormick containers. More than one batch of that granola was tanked because the bag of cardamom I thought I remembered seeing turned out to be a few pinches of coriander.
About a year into the revamp, we’ve gained insights into our cooking habits. Our most-used seasonings? Sea salt, cumin and Mexican oregano. Our tall jar of soft, aromatic vanilla bean pods also was refilled more than once; we make far better use of the beans now that they don’t dry out or get lost in the back of the pantry.
Bigger jars hold our haul of mustard seeds, because we learned to make our own mustard and wanted a more substantial supply on hand. On the other end, we learned that some spices will need refills only to ensure freshness. We’ll never reach the bottom of our container of ground mace after seeing how strongly a small amount flavored our experiment with sausage.
And as psyched as we were to have juniper berries on hand when a meat recipe called for them, it’s unlikely we’ll ever want more than a tablespoon. We’ll keep the jar on hand, though. A recipe we came across for homemade gin calls for a quarter cup of juniper berries, not to mention more of that coriander and cardamom.