Spice – At What Cost?

I’m going to do something quite out of character for me – I’m going to do a short post, at least I’ll try.  My motivation is triggered by an experience I had yesterday at the grocery store – and I find it impossible not to share it with you.

I decided a few days ago to make some Jewish rye -the  Jewish rye bread of my youth in the New York metropolitan area (OK, New Jersey, so!).  Now, for those of you who care, this is ‘anti Jeffery Hamelman’ rye bread!  In his book, Bread, Hamelman goes on an overly long rant against American Jewish rye bread, mostly because (I think) it’s made with white rye flour, and apparently Jeffery will only abide dark rye in his breads.  Whatever – this is a bread I love, as do millions of others.

Hamelman also objects to the use of caraway seed in his ryes, and Jewish rye uses a lot of caraway.  But when I pulled my jar of caraway from its hiding place, I discovered I did not have enough to continue the bread – so, off to the store I went.

Now, I generally know better than to buy spices at the local grocery store.  I don’t know why, but the cost ratio of spices purchased at the local grocery, and those purchased, say, online is simply absurd – so I knew I was going to spend way more than if I was getting it in bulk.

But I was not prepared for the shock which awaited me on the spice isle of our local Wal-Mart – a small jar (1.2 oz) of caraway could be had for only $6.85!  And my bread needed 3 Tbs, which would be easily more than half of that jar.  On to the next store. In the end, I found a 1.6 oz jar for 4.60, which I bought – but not happily.

Today, while my sourdough Jewish rye loaves baked, I did a quick check of my current favorite website for spices, San Francisco Herb Company, just to see how much caraway should really be.  Once again I received a shocking surprise – although I expected to see a huge difference in price, I wasn’t ready for the discrepancy before me – here I could get a pound of caraway for $3.75!!!

Wow. I must admit that as I sit here, my emotion is first anger, followed by personal embarrassment for being caught in emergency need.  And my third emotion is the desire to share with you this experience so that if you are not yet aware of the opportunity to be securing your spices online, or shopping in an environment with many choices for bulk buying, you might add that option to your next spice/herb refreshment.

My Current Spice Collection

In closing -I did say I’d do a short post- allow me to also share my current thoughts on how best to replenish your spices – we all know that all those spices lose their effectiveness over time, and if you find yourself using a 3 year old oregano in a sauce that has no character, you’re really a victim of faulty reasoning.  First off, recognize that for most spices, buying a pound will often cost less than buying an ounce at the grocery store – so if you buy a pound, give half to a friend, use an ounce or two during the following year, and then pitch the rest, you’re still ahead of the game in every way!

Think about it – do some quick math – and I think you’ll agree.  And if you replenish more often than once a year, rethink that too – those spices and herbs are on a yearly growth cycle themselves, so if you’re replenishing every six months, you’re simply trading your six month old stock for the merchant’s six month old stock – save 50% and restock once a year.

How often do you replenish your herbs and spices?  And where do you buy your new stock?
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Top photo courtesy, getrichslowly.org

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About drfugawe

I'm a guy with enough time to do as I please, and that my resources allow. The problem(s) are: I have 100s of interests; I have a short attention span; I have instant expectations; I'm lazy; and I'm broke. But I'm OK with all that, 'cause otherwise I'd be so busy, I'd be dead in a year.
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16 Responses to Spice – At What Cost?

  1. Frances Quinn says:

    Hi, Dr. To be honest I replenish when the almost need arises. I haven’t bought spices in the supermarket for at least nine years. I had never heard of the company you mention but have always ordered spices and herbs from Penzey’s on line. I will, however, check out your source.

    Now as for the spices losing their flavor. Sorry I think that is all a bunch of hogwash. I have never noticed a change in my recipes if the oregano was one week old or 10 months old. Therefore, I am never in a hurry to throw spices or herbs out the door. If I rub some in my palm, I find the aroma is still there and therefore, I think, the flavor.

    • drfugawe says:

      There is, of course, no reason to replenish if your own taste is telling you your spices are OK – it’s only something that makes some of us more comfortable that we are not missing out on a full flavor enhancement – might be our imagination, but …

  2. Frances Quinn says:

    Well, here I am again. Just checked the prices of San Francisco to Penzey’s. I’ll be shopping at San Francisco from now on. Thanks, again, for a great blog.

    • drfugawe says:

      There are some spices I won’t bother getting in bulk, like cardamom, since San Fran Herb asks $26 a lb – those kinds I get in smaller quantities – Penzey’s is a good place, and I use them too, but only for the smaller stuff.

  3. Doc, agree with you completely! I buy all my spices every couple of years at the local Indian spice market or the Lebanese wholesaler, and the prices are massively cheaper. Much fresher too!

    • Frances Quinn says:

      Celia, you’re right. When I lived on Long Island, I bought all my spices from a local Indian market and they were wonderful and inexpensive. The Indian market here is about an hour away and I just don’t always want to drive that long to do a little shopping.

    • drfugawe says:

      I would’a bet on you, Celia.

  4. Joanna says:

    I thought this was going to be an exposé of the seamier side of the spice trade..

    • drfugawe says:

      Personally, I think the obscene markups on spices, simply because they take it from a big bag and put it in a cute jar, is seamy enough! What’s the seamy side in Euro-land?

  5. Joanna says:

    you mean the relative costs of small jars of spices vs buying loose or bulk spices? I would think it’s the same all over the world. I hope the bread came out just right though :)

  6. Bonnie says:

    I’m in AZ, the price for herbs and spices in ethnic sections (Hispanic, primarily) of major grocery chains are always so much more reasonable then in the “Spice” aisle. I’ve found caraway seeds in this same section too, 4 or 5 oz. for about a dollar. Its not a great price, but better than the pretty little jars.

  7. Oh, now I’ll have to go price some caraway seeds here. It’s not something I would normally buy.
    I’ll bet your bread was delicious.

    • drfugawe says:

      Hi Brydie,
      Well, as Jo says, it’s pretty much an industry standard, but as Celia and Bonnie know, the ethnic groceries are much less, even on the smaller packs – and if you buy bigger bags there, you get super savings.

  8. You’ve made me want to try Jewish Rye bread now! I’m going to try all sorts of rye to see if I like any of them since I need a reason to make a rye because I hate the feel of rye dough :)

    I forgive Hamelman for his rant…we all like to have one now and again! ;-)

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