Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Tools and Tips: Dried Herbs and Spices

Bags of Penzeys Spices


When I was growing up, it seemed like there were only two options when it came to dried herbs and spices: McCormick or generic. And there wasn't much of a difference between the little red-capped plastic bottles from McCormick or the big cheap plastic bottles from the generics. The spices all seemed about the same - rarely potent to either nose or tongue.

So when I began stocking my own kitchen, you can imagine which of these two I chose (big and cheap). And it's not hard to understand why others might do the same - why pay more for the pricey red caps when the generics are just as good?

Garlic and Onion Powder

But today, there really are more than just two choices. Most grocery stores (except perhaps Walmart) carry at least three different spice brands; a simple Google search will turn up countless spice suppliers; you can even buy organic spices at some local grocers (except perhaps Walmart). Choices abound - and you don't have to look very hard to find them.

So the real question becomes, is there a best choice when it comes to spice?

First, I'll make a confession. I'm no spice expert. I still buy generic spices in big plastic bottles - because I'm cheap. And I never toss out old spices - because I'm cheap. And with the exception of dried oregano and bay leaves, I find most dried herbs to be nothing but weak, sad versions of their fresh counterparts. (This might also be because I'm cheap.) There are countless spices I've never even smelled, let alone tasted or cooked with, so keep in mind that any advice provided here is based on my own specific cooking habits and frugality (cheapness).

But I suspect I'm not alone. I suspect there are plenty of cheapskates who have a hard time detecting any slight nuance in flavor or scent between the expensive, red-capped spices and the cheap, big-bottled generics. Why pay more for less? So perhaps you'll be surprised when I tell you, there CAN be a difference.

Morton and Bassett Bay Leaves

There came a time, not so very long ago, when I emptied my last bottle of generic bay leaves. One of our local grocers carries organic bay leaves from Morton & Bassett. Intrigued by the impossibly vibrant color, I dubiously purchased my first glass bottle of expensive bay leaves. Suspiciously, expecting disappointment, I opened the bottle. And froze. The scent was so powerful I actually laughed in disbelief. I couldn't believe the difference in both flavor and aromatics of these leaves versus the generic Walmart bay leaves. Or the "premium" red-capped bay leaves.

So on the next trip, I tried a bottle of Morton & Bassett dried oregano. And I was again stunned at the potency. Incredibly, it was like discovering oregano for the first time in my life. There really COULD be a difference between different spice suppliers. And maybe, in a few select cases, I actually could justify spending a few more dollars for a superior spice.

About that same time, two friends recommended I check out Penzeys Spices. Hesitant at first, I quickly fell in love. For the first time, I could examine and smell the spices BEFORE I purchased. Here there was variety. Here, every spice potent and full-bodied. And for the frugal cheapskate inside, the prices all so reasonable! Welcome to the new world of spice!

Bags of Penzeys Spices

With such wonderful options as Morton & Bassett and Penzeys, it seems silly to rely on the one-size-fits-all red-capped approach from my past. Instead, I prefer exploiting the ever expanding spice possibilities to obtain the very best spices at the lowest price possible.
  • Penzeys: I buy most of my ground spices, curries and salts from Penzeys Spices. The spices are reasonable in price and I love the opportunity to smell before buying. Cinnamon is the spice I buy most frequently (by far) and I prefer Penzeys Vietnamese Extra Fancy cinnamon for its potency of flavor. I have yet to find a cinnamon I like better.

    Vietnamese Extra Fancy Cinnamon
     
  • Morton & Bassett: I prefer Morton & Bassett (via Amazon) for my green dried herbs. The two primary green herbs I use are oregano and bay leaves with an occasional need for dried basil. Despite foodie prejudice, I actually prefer California bay leaves to the more frequently found Turkish bay leaves. I find Morton & Bassett's California bay leaves to be particularly aromatic and flavorful.

    Morton & Bassett and Penzeys Dried Oregano
     
  • Gordon Food Services (GFS): I buy kosher salt, garlic powder and onion powder from GFS. Where I am, it's hard to find my favorite brand of kosher salt (the only brand that does not add an anti-caking agent to the salt). GFS not only sells it, but sells it cheap!

    Box of Kosher Salt
     
  • Vanilla Extract: I buy the cheapest vanilla extract I can find with the lowest alcohol percentage possible (check the label - anything under 42% is fairly good quality). Penzeys is my current supplier, although I'm not opposed to McCormick or even generics. However, I do not recommend generic Walmart or GFS vanilla extracts as the alcohol percentage is far too high (thus diluting the vanilla).

    Vanilla Extract Box
     
  • Spices I do NOT Buy: There are a few spices I do not buy including ground black pepper, dried parsley and garlic salt. Ground black pepper is a dreadful substitute for freshly cracked black pepper, dried parsley has very little flavor and simply CANNOT take the place of fresh parsley and garlic salt is nothing more than some proportion of garlic powder mixed with salt - I would rather precisely control the amount of garlic and salt in my recipes.

Buying Spices
  • Smell before you buy: Whenever possible, smell the spice before buying. If you've got a good sniffer, you'll quickly find what's fresh and fragrant. By inhaling a tiny sniff, I can pretty much taste the spice and know if it's the shade of flavor I'm searching for.
     
  • Buy appropriate sizes: I buy big bags of cinnamon and tiny bottles of garam masala because that matches my usage pattern. Ground spices lose potency throughout their 3-4 years lifespan, so buy accordingly.

    Vietnamese Extra Fancy Cinnamon
     
  • Buy in bulk when appropriate: Sometimes it makes sense to buy a lot of a particular dried herb or spice if you know (for sure) you'll empty the bottle. I use bay leaves like they're going out of style, so I don't hesitate to save by buying 3 bottles at a time from Amazon.

    Morton and Bassett Bay Leaves
     
  • Not all spices are created equal. Cinnamon vs. cinnamon vs. cinnamon; Californian vs. Turkish bay laves; Mexican vs. Mediterranean oregano; the list goes on and on. Sample different varieties (or smell them if possible before buying) and make notes on what you prefer.
     
  • Whole vs. Ground: Many spices are more potent or authentic in flavor when freshly ground such as peppercorns, fennel, nutmeg, cardamom and cumin. So if you have a spice grinder, buy the whole spice variety and skip the powder. Keep in mind that you may need to adjust some recipes as some powders (like nutmeg) are more or less intense than the freshly grated or ground.
     
  • Spice Grinder: For a long time, I used a mortar and pestle to grind seeds (e.g. fennel) and a hand-grinder for my peppercorns and sea salt. But last Christmas, my mom bought me a wonderful spice grinder made by Krups. While I mostly use it for grinding fennel and peppercorns, I highly recommend its ease-of-use and grind quality.
  • Krups Spice Grinder

Storing Dried Herbs and Spices
  • Keep away from heat
  • Keep out of direct sunlight
  • Do not store your spices over or next to your cooktop (due to heat)
  • Spice Shelves
  • Store in a cool, dark, dry place if possible
  • Keep spices in glass or metal containers - the essential oils for some spices can be absorbed by plastics
  • Spice Jars and Cans
  • Spice containers should remain air-tight when closed (avoid pop-top or snap-open lids)
  • Date your spices - you can use a small piece of masking tape and a pen. Most dried herbs are good for 1 to 2 years while most ground spices are good for 2 to 3 years. I'll be honest - I don't do this. But I should.
  • Don't throw away your outdated spices - save them for dishes where precision and potency are not as critical (such as soups, granolas, savory breads, etc).
  • Save empty glass and metal spice containers - you can now refill these bottles from bags (such as the case with Penzeys) or transfer spices from plastic bottles.



13 comments:

  1. Kayle (The Cooking Actress)September 4, 2013 at 8:57 AM

    This is such a helpful post! Love the tips :) I totally agree about garlic salt btw :P

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  2. I'm so glad you found it helpful, Kayle - there are still a lot of spices I need to investigate and sample, but garlic salt has always baffled me ;)

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  3. Great post! Especially the tips on storing spices -- if you're going to pay extra for the good stuff, might as well make it last as long as possible! And I am a huge fan of Penzey's spice house. I get just about all of my herbs and spices, plus vanilla extract, from Penzey's. My husband loves their tahitian vanilla, in particular, which is especially hard to find elsewhere (impossible in most regular grocery stores, in fact). We also like a few different varieties of their cinnamon -- the "true" cinnamon, the saigon, the vietnamese... and they are all so different in flavor! It really is amazing what good quality will do for a seemingly simple item. And as you said, Penzey's has some of the best prices around, and you get the added benefit of getting to wander around and smell (and in some cases taste) what they have. The people there are usually really knowledgeable as well, and can tell you where the spice came from and when it was ground. I could wander their store sniffing things for hours, haha!

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  4. Oh, and I should add -- I always used to be a little baffled by the generic (and name brand) varieties of paprika in the store. I always thought they were so bland, and didn't know what everyone was raving about when they talked about how good paprika was. Then I tried REAL spanish and hungarian paprikas from Penzey's spice house, and holy cow... that stuff in the store is powdered and dyed sawdust in comparison! I use paprika all the time now, and it's one of my favorite spices. :)

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  5. I completely agree with everything you've said, Willow - Penzeys is awesome and they've revolutionized the way I think about spice and dried herbs. And paprika - well, I love both their spanish and hungarian varieties. But I do have to credit McCormick for introducing me to the wonders of smoked paprika. A few years back, like you, I was baffled. Then I picked up this little glass bottle (way over-priced) from McCormick of their smoked paprika and I couldn't believe what I'd been missing...

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  6. Very true, very true, and very true! Great post Mark! One thing I started doing years ago is growing my own herbs. There are some herbs like sage and tarragon that it's so hard to buy the equivalent of home grown. However, you are so right that some of the smaller shops like Penzey's and one of my favorite (Season with Spice) sells the BEST herbs and spices. You open their jars and get that whiff that one should always get when they buy new herbs. I can't think of anything for the spice cabinet that I buy in bulk and spices I never buy from the big guys.

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  7. Bintu @ Recipes From A PantrySeptember 5, 2013 at 6:50 AM

    Thanks for the tips. I dont think I have access to these brands but I agree wit you when you find the right spice brand it make a big difference. Like I discovered with La Chinata smoked paprika.

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  8. I had never come across Season with Spice, so I had to look them up - I love the variety of spices and I suspect this supplier will be added to my list. I also love the free shipping - definitely a plus if I have to order w/o smelling :) I'm so glad you enjoyed the post and I'm happy to hear that someone with your cooking history approves!

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  9. It's true - I think all of the suppliers I mentioned are local to the US - but I'm positive there are international equivalents around the world. I'd never heard of La Chinata, so I looked them up - very impressive process and control over quality...

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  10. Great post! Dried thyme is often quite decent, too - worth checking out. Some herbs and spices I use only occasionally, so I sometimes store them in the freezer - they do lose strength, alas, after they've been opened. I agree that Pennzeys is a great place to buy spices. Great time about Gordon Food Services - I was only vaguely aware of them, and my local supermarkets don't stock Diamond Crystal Kosher salt (I agree it's the best option). They have a store not far from where I live! I'll have to check them out. Thanks.

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  11. I agree with you, John - dried thyme isn't bad and I do have a bottle of it around. I almost always use fresh thyme though - I guess I just prefer working with fresh if I can get my hands on it. I need to start growing some ;) I'm glad the tip on GFS was helpful - I definitely recommend checking them out - occasionally I find helpful things at great prices...

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  12. I agree with kitchenriffs re thyme. It's usually better dried imo. I also like to get my dried spices and some herbs in Indian-Pakistani shop - much cheaper and often better quality. I may be a bit of a snob though as I lime to toast and grind whole spices as I need them, but I know not everyone had the time or inclination. Great post.

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  13. I don't think I've ever been to an Indian/Pakistani shop before but given the number of spices and frequency with which they're used in both cuisines, it makes sense that such a shop might stock superior spices... And I have heard that toasting spices before grinding can enhance the flavor - I've just never taken the time to try it :/

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