The spice of life

Joined Dec 7, 2009
As spices are a very critical part of our recipes I wonder if it would be a good investment to purchase higher quality spices for particular menus.

At my current level of culinary expertise I purchase the least expensive of spices.

I wonder if I am making a mistake when you weigh the cost and the outcome.
Joined Feb 1, 2007
Part of it depends on what you mean by most expensive and least expensive.

There are a few things to keep in mind about spices. First off, whole spices are always better than those already ground or otherwise processed. With rare exception, whole spices never go bad (if they did, the whole spice trade would have been impossible).

Thus, you should, whenever possible, buy whole spices and grind them yourself.

Within that framework, however, there are sometimes quality differences based on specific variety, country of origin, and other factors. This definately contributes to cost differences. But whether or not the quality differences justify the additional cost is something you have to balance for yourself.

I believe most here would agree with me that it's better to buy smaller quantities of higher quality spices then to buy a large quantity of less expensive ones.

Next: Heat, light, and oxygen are the enemies of spices. Ground spices, especially, degrade rapidly in their presence. As a general rule, ground spices maintain their potency for about a year (cut that in half for dried herbs). After that you may as well discard them. Thus, those big plastic jars of Tones herbs and spices initially look like a bargain. But unless you use large quantities of them, you wind up tossing more than you use---making them actually more expensive in the long run.

It would also help you to learn what makes quality differences. This isn't always easy (people devote lifetime studies to this), and cost isn't always the criterium---although it's usually a good starting point.

To give you an idea, look at vanilla extract. Under the law, it can be called "pure" if it contains, in addition to vanilla bean, alcohol, water, and sugar. So there's a reason why one brand's 16-ounce bottle of "pure" vanilla extract costs four dollars and change, while another brand's 4 ounce bottle costs seven bucks.

While nobody can make the decision but you, I would leave you with this advice: Great cooking consists of only two things: good techniques applied to good ingredients. There's no reason that axiom shouldn't apply to herbs and spices.
Joined Dec 7, 2009
KY thank you so much for the time you have devoted to answering my post. I will be looking into whole spices in the future and you have given me some great advice.

This is great to get all this information for free, I am going to review the info on the sponsers and from whom it is suggested I buy because I want to return something to the group.

I think I have posted 3 or 4 times in two days and learned a very lot.
Joined Feb 1, 2007
Kevin, something I should have included in the other post.

An easy way to learn, for yourself, the differences between whole and preground is to get some peppercorns and a small container of ground pepper. Grind or crush the peppercorns yourself. Smell the preground, and smell the fresh ground.

I guarantee you'll notice the difference. Now apply that to all the spices you use.

BTW, don't confine your experiments to single-spices only. Thanks to the internet, recipes for almost all blends, particularly ethnic and geographic ones, can be found with a simple search. Got a recipe calling for za'taar? It's in there. Need a creole seasoning mix? It's in there. Wanna make Chinese five-spice powder? It's in there. Ras el hanout? Garam masala? Texas barbecue rub? Google is your friend. Just remember to only mix up the amounts you expect to use in a reasonable amount of time, because once the spices are powdered.....
Joined Feb 13, 2008
KY is right as right as can be.

One small observation, though, reflecting commercial realities. Sometimes, frequently even, the freshest, best quality spices are available only in fairly large sizes. Also, sometimes, frequently even, best quality spices cost less (in absolute terms) in larger as opposed to smaller sizes.

Furthermore, it's in your best interests to learn the best sources avaialble to you. For many people that will be one or two e-tailers like Penzeys. Others will search the web to find specialty e-tailers like Golden Gate vanilla and saffron whose price/quality ratios for those two "spices" simply cannot be beat.

Still others of us, "we favored few," have markets in our neighborhoods which supply top-quality at reasonable prices. I buy almost all of our packaged herbs and spices from various ethnicities' brick and mortar stores in the San Gabriel Valley.

Moral of the story: With a few exceptions, "the most expensive money can buy," is seldom the best.

Joined Feb 1, 2007
I had hoped that I'd made that point, BDL---that absolute cost and what one pays at the checkout counter---aren't necessarily the same. But maybe wasn't that clear.

Take those big Tones jars. Direct costs, on a per gram, ounce, whatever basis, are very appealing. But if you've got a 16 ounce jar, and only use an ounce of the spice before tossing the rest, then it becomes very expensive indeed.

On the other hand, those little jars lined up in the supermarket are probably the most expensive way to buy spices, from a cost per gram viewpoint. But for several reasons, not the least of which is that they can be used up fairly quickly, they might actually be the best value.

And, again, it depends whether we're talking whole spices or processed ones. The big Tones jar of peppercorns, stored out of the light, can be a great bargain. But the same jar of cracked black pepper is a waste in the home kitchen.

For folks like Kevin the problem is double barreled: On one hand, he's learning about spice use per se. Tied in with that is learning what determines "quality" in a particular spice. And both those require time in grade.

I guess I'm one of the "favored few" as well, because I have several outlets where I can buy all the common, and many not so common (would you believe even stuff like ajwain? Who'd a thunk it in central Kentucky?), spices out of the bulk bins, or in reasonably sized packages.

It often takes some searching out to find these outlets, particularly for those not living in or near a major city. But it's amazing what you can find if you're not afraid of going into ethnic markets.

As a side benefit, as I'm sure you know, it's not just herbs and spices you find in those places. It's the whole range of foodstuffs used by that ethnicity. Often the quality is higher than elsewhere, and the prices, surprisingly, lower.

One example, out of many I could provide. The Lebanese market I frequent is, literally, the only source of fresh lamb I've been able to find in Lexington. They buy the carcasses from local farmers, and do the butchering on premises. Yet, it's actually cheaper than the frozen New Zealand lamb stocked elsewhere.
Joined Jun 16, 2007
I don't know if the original question refers to herbs or not, but I'd say that for some there's no substitute for fresh--ginger, parsley and cilantro, to name a few.

Is ginger an herb or a spice? :smiles:


Staff member
Joined Mar 29, 2002
While fresh ginger is very different than its other forms, it's also no substitute for other forms, such as powdered, that have their own uses.
Joined Feb 1, 2007
Yeti, as a general rule, think in terms of the hard parts of plants as being spices, and the soft parts as herbs.

Thus, seeds, roots, bark, pods, sometimes fruit would be spices. But leaves, soft stems, and flowers would be herbs.

Ginger would thus be a spice, because it's the root (well, actually rizome) of the plant.

Herbs and spices can even be from the same plant. Thus, coriander (in the U.S.) is a spice, but cilantro is an herb.

There is, to be sure, some overlap. But overall this rule of thumb holds true.

The only reason it really matters is it often determines at what point in the cooking stage you add them. Again, there are exceptions. But by and large, you add spices early in the process and herbs late.
Joined Nov 5, 2007
One of the best spices I've ever had was free, except for all the money it took to get it here. My wife has been involved with a folkdance group that does Eastern European music - Bulgarian, Hungarian, etc. A number of years ago the group went to Szeged [ spelling ?? ] in Hungary for a dance festival. One of the items she brought back was a small packet of paprika. Fresh paprika. Real paprika. It was *the* *best* paprika I have ever had.

So let's see - the dollars it took to get her there and back again, divided by the ounce or two of .... never mind, I don't want to do this math.

Joined Dec 7, 2009
Wow, this post is really popular, or is it just me?:lol:

So I suppose they have a whole paprika for my Marsala, garlic powder is what it is I suppose, Pepper is a no brainer, Onion power just powder right, perhap cayanne peppers whole, dried leaf oregano and thyme are what they are correct.

I will attempt to visit some of the ethnic markets in my community and at the same time investigate some of the intricacies of the cultures therein.

Joined Feb 1, 2007
Well, Kevin, herbs and spices are the basic flavor building blocks of cooking. So it's only natural that people be interested in them.

Paprika is just dried, ground chilies. The specific peppers used determine flavor and heat. In Hungary there are, literally, dozens of paprikas, ranging from sweet to atomic.

The difference between paprika and chili powder is that most chili powders are blends, rather than being made from a single chili variety. For example, McCormick's chili powder consists of "chili peppers, spices, salt, silicon dioxide (added to make free flowing) and garlic."

Unfortunately, unless you grow your own, it's difficult to find paprika in the U.S. in any but ground form. Just try and get the freshest you can find.

Evidently, the masala recipe you have specifies powdered spices. Not a surprise. Many recipes do, because for most people, that's how they buy their spices. However, if you want a nice garam masala (which is the spice mixture for many Indian dishes), a good starting point is the one given by Suvir Saran in his book, American Masala. Here it is:

Garam Masala

1 tbls dried miniature rosebuds (optional)
A 1-inch piece cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
2 bay leaves
1/4 cup cumin seeds
1/3 cup coriander seeds
1 tbls green cardamom pods
1 tbls whole black peppercorns
2 tsp whole cloves
1 dried red chile
1/4 tsp fresly grated nutmeg
1/8 tsp ground mace

If the roses have stems, break them off and discard. Heat the roses with the cinnamon, bay leaves, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, cardamom pods, whole peppercorns, cloves, and chile in a medium skillet over medium-high heat, stirring often, until the cumin becomes brown, 2 1/2-3 minutes. Transfer to a spice grinder or coffee mill, add the nutmeg and mace, and grind until powder fine. Store in an airtight container for up to 4 months.

Dried miniature rosebuds are difficult to find. But they do lend a pleasing, floral note to the mix. If not, leave them out.

Mace and nutmeg are related. Mace is the outer husk of the nutmeg, and has a stronger flavor. Historically, it was sold in pieces called blades. These have, alas, all but disappeared, and you'll have to use preground mace. As with the paprika, try and get the freshest you can find. If you can't find it, just leave it out.

It would be easier to give advice if you included the recipe you have. The ingredients, as you presented them, don't mean much. Personally, rather than garlic- and onion-powder I would use the actual alliums, perhaps caramelizing the onions, and lightly sauteing the garlic.

You can sub fresh oregano and thyme if you like, on a 3:1 basis. That is, if the recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of dried oregano, you'd use 3 teaspoons of fresh.
Joined Apr 16, 2006
One note about the whole spices thing: some spices, cinnamon, cloves & nutmeg come to mind, are too tough/fibrous to be dealt with by your average home coffee grinder.

I've ground cinnamon & cloves in my coffee grinder as part of garam masala, but if I needed ground cinnamon for say a batter or dough, I'd use commercially ground cinnamon.
Joined Sep 16, 2009
You don't need to purchase an expensive type of spices. As long as they got the same characteristic and taste it would be nice if you buy a least expensive one than buying expensive. Alternative would be fine as long as you maintain the taste and how it should be cook.
Joined Feb 1, 2007
Everybody, of course, has to make their own decisions as to how important quality levels are. While it's true that the most expensive is not necessarily the best, you can get carried away with that "so long as characterisitics are the same" concept.

A Ford Escort and a Caddy Coupe de Ville have the same characteristics. They are both cars, both use internal combustion engines, both take you from point A to point B in reasonable safety and comfort. But are they really the same? I'm sure General Motors would argue that they're not.

The earlier example I used with vanilla is a case in point. The less expensive 16-ounce bottle of Tones pure vanilla extract contains an unknown quantity of vanilla bean extractives, with the beans probably coming from Mexico; 35% alcohol; an unknown quantity of water; and an unknown quantity of corn syrup. Neilsen-Massey, on the other hand, uses Madagascar beans (considered the best in general trade), and is exchangeable one-to-one at the rate of 1 tbls equal to 1 bean.

Both have "vanilla" characteristics. But one is an Escort and the other is a Coupe de Ville.

Taking it even a step further, artificial vanilla extract would have vanilla characteristics, including flavor. But, from a quality viewpoint is not even in the running. But it certainly would be the least expensive.

I put no value judgement on this for other people. Cost is certainly an important consideration for many. And personal orientation towards ingredients is a factor as well. The point is, folks like Kevin, who are relatively new to all this, should be aware that there are, indeed, quality differences, and that those differences can reflect how the final dish comes out. After that, which to use is their choice.
Joined May 26, 2001
The way to deal with nutmeg is to get whole nutmegs and grate if fresh -- if you have a fine Microplane or a box grater with a fine side, you're all set. I have a Microplane nutmeg grater -- a little box with one side a compartment to keep the whole things (or parts, since one goes a long way) and the other side the grater and a compartment to collect the grated nutmeg. But it isn't necessary to invest the $$ as long as you have the other ways to grate it. And really, you should -- the improvement in flavor and texture over store-bought ground nutmeg is worth it. Plus the whole ones do keep forever.

And Kevin, please please PLEASE don't use onion or garlic powders, unless you are making a dry BBQ rub. For other cooking they are just nasty, and using "fresh" onions and garlic is inexpensive.
Joined Feb 1, 2007
please please PLEASE don't use onion or garlic powders, unless you are making a dry BBQ rub

I think the problem with dry rubs is that we tend to make much more than we need immediately. That is, we are creating a spice mix that we'll use over and over again, with the unused balance stored in the pantry. So for that we do use things like garlic and onion powder, and crushed dried chilies.

But, if making just enough rub for immediate use, there's no reason not to use fresh. The idea is to really crush and chop the alliums (and or chilies) fine; making them more into a paste than, say, a mince. Easiest way to do this is in a mortar, using the pestle to crush them with the salt and other spices. Alternatively, they can be chopped as fine as possible, mixed with coarse salt, and rubbed into a paste with the side of your knife.

Technically this won't be a dry rub, of course. But the difference in flavor is well worth the extra effort, IMO. Any extra, btw, can be stored in the fridge, same as you'd do with harrisa.
Joined Apr 16, 2006
Sure there is. Concentration of flavor. Of course, not everything dries equally well, & dried stuff rarely tastes just like fresh, but drying isn't ipso facto bad. Most people don't knock raisins for not being fresh grapes. Now a paste is perfectly fine; I use them often. But for barbecue (pork/ribs/brisket), I'd use a dry rub.

Actually, come to think of it, I can't think of anything but dry rub that I'd use onion & garlic powder for...

Re vanilla - did you happen to see Cook's Illustrated's taste test of vanilla extracts a while ago? Here's the last paragraph of a short version from their Best Recipe book: (they tested extracts in yellow layer cake, & mixed 1:8 in milk, apparently a vanilla-biz thang)

"The results of this tasting were so shocking that we repeated it, only to come up with similarly surprising findings. Tasters couldn't tell the difference between real & imitation vanilla. In fact, in the yellow layer cake testing, the imitation extracts took first & third place, with two "premium" brands, Nielsen-Massey & Penzeys, leading the pack among real extracts. In the milk tasting, the imitation extracts took the top two spots, followed by real extracts from Nielsen-Massey & Penzeys. Although we are loath to recommend an imitation product, it seems that most people don't mind imitation extract, and, in fact, many tasters actually like its flavor. Note that you won't save money by choosing an imitation extract - it costs about the same as pure vanilla extract."

You can save money by making your own extract - all you do is soak a couple beans in vodka. I made some from Madagascar beans; I just got some Tahitian beans, perhaps I'll make some extract from them & see if there's much difference.

I got a hoot out of that taste test, though (which included professional pastry chefs, who must have been mortified).
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