Frugal Spices

Frugal living does not need to be Spartan and cost efficiency does not require huge sacrifice. Rather, in seeking to stretch our dollars we are attempting to get more, have more and, at least for many us, share more, than we would if we did not pay attention to our spending habits. Warren Buffet, for example, clearly can afford more than just about anyone else in the world, but he still lives in the same home that he has owned for decades. He is happy there and does not feel the need to buy a McMansion just because he can do so if he wants to do so.

Often, frugality becomes a matter of acquiring the knowledge that we need as consumers to make intelligent purchasing decisions. Whether we are purchasing shoes, buying admission to a museum or buying anything else that we need or want, knowledge is hugely important.

Today, I was looking in my kitchen cabinets and realized that my wife and I have dozens of different herbs and spices. We both like to cook and we both like layers of flavor in what we eat. As a result, we have cooked with a lot of different spices over the years. Most spices we use up quickly, especially because when we experience a new flavor, we like to stretch the experience to include a number of new dishes. Nevertheless, many of our spices have been on the shelf for quite a while and I quickly realized that I did not know when we should be getting rid of half used spice jars. Of course, if I don’t know when the spices will reach the end of their useful lives – keeping in mind that I won’t ruin a meal in order to use a spice that is well past its prime – I can’t try to plan menus that will use up our supply of spices before they need to be thrown into the trash.

Clearly, I needed knowledge that would both help me to avoid wasting spices and help me to better understand the ingredients that I use in my cooking. In that sense, the knowledge that I could gain by researching spices would not only help me avoid wasting spices (and thus money) and help me to be a better cook by teaching me about some of the more fundamental ingredients in my cooking. So I did my research and here is what I learned:

Whole Spices or Ground Spices? Spices that are ground have a shorter shelf life than spices that are purchased whole. As a result, the shelf life of ground spices will typically be half that of whole spices. According to US governmental guidelines, whole spices have a shelf life of four years and ground spices have a shelf life of about two years. I would purchase only enough spices to last for half of the shelf life of the product (about a year for ground spices and about two years for whole spices). That will help to ensure that I run out of the spice before the spice approaches the end of its shelf life, especially since as consumers we really do not know how long a spice has been on the shelf at a grocery store. I also suggest writing the purchase date down on your spice bottle so that you know when you purchased it.

When in Doubt? A good quality spice may be better after two years on the shelf than a poor quality spice after three months. Regardless of guidelines, use common sense and use your nose. If a spice does not smell strong and spicy, either throw it away or accept that it is probably not going to flavor your meal the way that you want it would if it were fresh.

How Should I Store My Spices? In general, keep your spices away from heat, light, air and moisture. That means that in your kitchen the best place to store most of your spices is in an airtight container in a cabinet or drawer that will not admit light. Keep your spices away from your stove, oven, dishwasher, refrigerator and other appliances that generate heat (and yes, your refrigerator will generate heat!). Spices, other than vanilla beans and vanilla extract, can be stored in a refrigerator without suffering damage, but only poppy seeds, sesame seeds and chili peppers really benefit from storage in a refrigerator. The refrigerator is not always the most convenient place to store your spices, however, so keep that in mind before you move all of your spices into it.

It did not take me very long to learn the basics of spice purchasing and storage, a little more than ten minutes. That research, however, will stay with me for the rest of my life and it will help me to adjust my purchasing and usage in order to avoid waste and maximize my purchasing efficiency.

A little research will go a long way. What simple purchases do you make without really knowing enough to make an informed purchase? What do you think you should be researching before making a purchase?

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4 Responses to Frugal Spices

  1. Ann says:

    Research always helps! :-)

    Spice and herb-wise I tend to grow my own herbs whenever possible. I dry some in the fall and throw out the dried when I have new fresh in the spring. If it’s a seed or nut, I like to buy whole and grind my own.

    When I got back into carving and sculpting, I didn’t like how a lot of carvers glooped paint on their carvings and basically stained rather than painted my work. I knew I was in it for the long-haul and I mix my own colors and I create stains the way old furniture makers did (mixing oil based tints), so I bought the largest tubes of the 3 primaries, black and white that I could find. Years later, I still have most of those tubes, but I’ve found that, though the paints will hold up, the tubes don’t! LOL Learned the lesson that smaller (not smallest) may be the best choice. :-) If I’d paid attention to how little I actually used to create what I was doing, I would have known better in the first place.

  2. A Fan says:

    Another great article, David! THANK YOU!
    I am going to print this and place it in my spice cupboard.
    I’m also going to pass it along to my family & friends!
    Your articles are always so helpful!!

  3. Suzanne says:

    It sounds like a really obvious thing, but I’ve also trained myself to buy the smallest possible container of a spice if I’m trying something new or buying something I know deep down that I won’t use very often. I kept buying these large bottles of spices (the 3 oz. bottles) that looked nice in my spice rack or were high quality, organic, etc., but then I’d use the spice once and there it would sit until I had to throw it out. Now, I buy the really small (1 oz) McCormick containers for the more unusual spices. If I find I’m using it up in a snap, great – I can start buying the larger size. But if not, I haven’t spent money on 3 times more than I needed, only to throw it away later.

  4. Agneta says:

    I save a lot of money by buying spices in bulk @WinCo and Fred Meyer. Another plus is that I can buy as much (or little) I need.

    If your grocery store has a bulk and/or health food section, it is definitely worth checking out.

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