It’s the Baking Season! 10 Genius Hacks to Beat the High Cost of Spices
November and December bring a slew of our favorite holidays. While we get nostalgic about Christmas trees and New Years’ parties, what we really love is the food. Cookies, brisket, droolworthy mashed potatoes, spicy hot chocolate — they’re all important parts of the holiday season.
Do you show love by making a ton of food for friends and family at this time of year? Does your neighborhood or work place organize potluck gatherings? If so, a word of caution: Holiday meals are expected to cost more this year, so all that feasting could take a big bite out of your budget.
Now’s a good time for some common-sense ways to save money, and your spice rack is a great place to start.
Spices are an essential part of holiday cooking, but they can be so expensive. Herbs, too. With all your other holiday costs, why spend a ton of money on them? You can beat high costs with just a little organization and planning.
Read through our tips before you start baking and cooking for Diwali, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year’s Eve or whatever holiday you’re celebrating.
- First Steps: Plan Before You Shop
- 1. Buy Bulk Spices
- 2. Shave Costs With Whole Spices
- 3. Make Your Own Spice Mixes
- 4. Try Dollar and Discount Stores
- 5. Save Money (and Shop the World) at Immigrant Grocery Stores
- 6. Don’t Overlook Spice Stores
- 7. Buy Fresh at Farmers Markets
- 8. Shop the Bargains at Online Spice Stores
- 9. Look for Off-Brand Spices
- 10. Try Herb and Spice Substitutions
First, let’s review some smart-shopper basics that will help you save money when you buy spices and herbs.
Understand the Shelf Life of Herbs and Spices
Herbs and spices come from plants, but from different parts. Herbs are the leaves of a plant. Common herbs are basil, oregano, and thyme. Spices come from the roots, stems, berries, and other parts. Cinnamon is bark. Nutmeg is a seed. Though fresh garlic and onions are considered vegetables, once powdered, they are spices.
This means that they all last for different amounts of time.
Loose herb leaves will last longer than powdered herbs. Whole spices, like cloves, cardamom pods, and chili peppers, will hold on to their flavor longer than ground spices. Conversely, fresh herbs and spices, like basil and ginger root, should be used quickly or frozen.
Know Just What You’ll Need — and How Much of It
You can definitely save money on spices. The first step is to see if you have everything you need for your holiday meals and treats.
Glance over your list of recipes. For instance, Thanksgiving recipes often call for sage, thyme, nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger. Is it in our cupboard already or do you need to shop? Then ask yourself some questions.
- How much will you use? Maybe Grandma’s stuffing recipe calls for fennel seeds and this is the only time of year you ever use it. Don’t buy a whole container of anything you just need a pinch of. Instead, this is perfect for a store that sells bulk spices.
- What do you already have? Costly panic buying at the last minute can be avoided with a little planning. It is well worth your time to pull out all your spices and see what is still good.
- Don’t forget the leftovers! Plan on making turkey tacos? You can mix up your own taco seasoning with chili powder, onion and garlic powder, red pepper flakes and oregano.
- Are spice blends an option? Spice blends can save money if there are a lot of exotic ingredients in them that, individually, you only use a few times a year. And if it’s something you will use often, you might save money making your own herb or spice blend.
How To Tell If Your Herbs and Spices Are Still Good
It is the simplest test in the world: Just smell them.
You can sniff the jar, but to be really sure take a pinch out and rub it between your fingers. Does the color look good or faded? If there is a nice strong smell or flavor, then it’s a keeper. When you can’t tell what it is by smell and need to look at the label, time to toss it.
While you might read that certain spices only last six months or a certain amount of time, that isn’t exactly true. A lot of factors can influence the strength and shelf life of your spices. Time certainly is one, but the way spices are stored is another.
How To Protect Your Spice and Herb Investment
With a little care, you can make sure your spice mixes or jars of dried herbs last a while.
You can visit a great discussion on The Penny Hoarder community page for more tips about saving on spices.
- Storing. Keep your spices and dried herbs in glass or metal jars stored in cabinets or drawers, away from light. Make sure there is a lid (not just a shaker top) on the jar.
- Freezing. You can freeze herbs, but be very careful about freezing spices. Once you open a jar or bag of frozen spices, humidity gets into it and it should not go back in the freezer.
- Labeling. When you buy herbs and spices, write the date on each so you can keep track of their age.
- Organizing. Does cleaning out your spice cabinet turn up three little bottles of cream of tartar? Those little stubby bottles are easy to lose track of. A well-organized person might keep a list of all the spices they have. But a trick used in restaurants is just as helpful in the kitchen: group them by use. The three common category groupings are for savory foods; for either savory or sweet; for sweets. Grouping them this way makes what you need easier to find, and helps prevent double buying.
10 Clever Ways To Save Money on Spices
Consumer Reports studied herbs and spices and determined that cheap can taste just as good as pricey. So why spend too much? Now that you know what you need, let’s figure out some ways to save money when you buy spices.
Buying bulk spices makes it sound like you’re buying a lot, but it can be exactly the opposite.
Bulk buying allows you to get whatever amount you want rather than a predetermined amount that might be far too much for your recipe. You might need just two tablespoons of Cajun seasoning for your New Year’s Day Hoppin’ John (lucky black eyed peas). You can get a $4 bottle for a little over an ounce at the grocery store or spend less than a dollar thanks to bulk bins.
Be aware, though, that some bulk stores have a minimum order, often $2. Bulk sections in health food stores like Whole Foods usually don’t have that minimum.
And when you are buying bulk herbs and spices, look for stores that store them in glass jars, not plastic bins.
Whole spices that you grind as needed can be more economical. They last longer, too, and freshly ground spices in a dish really blooms the flavor.
Is it hard to grind your own spices? Not at all, but it helps to have the right equipment.
A handy nutmeg grater costs $4. Cinnamon sticks can be ground up in a blade coffee grinder ($6.88). (Dry roast them in a pan on the stove for a couple of minutes over medium heat and let them cool off before grinding to get better results. Some sites also recommend adding a little granulated sugar to provide extra friction.)
And there’s always the old-fashioned mortar and pestle, which can be your best friend for grinding spices and working out your upper arms.
Planning to make big batches of pumpkin-spice desserts? You’ll need pumpkin pie spice mix. Organizing an Italian or Mexican feast? The herb and spice mixes they use are easy to create.
This can save you money if you have a decent herb and spice collection or if you plan ahead when you shop. After all, a pumpkin pie spice mix is made up of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves. The grocery store sells the McCormick’s version for $4.73 (2 ounces). Making it at home costs less than a third of that.
A bonus: Hand-mixed spice and herb blends make great gifts.
Dollar stores and discount department stores are great places to find spices.
Since you can’t open the containers before you buy, make sure the color of the herbs and spices looks good. Retailers like Aldi’s, Target and Wegmans sell spices at prices a little lower than you’ll likely find at your local grocery store. These are great places for stocking up on spices that you use regularly.
One thing you want to be careful about is sizing when you shop for bottled spices. Maybe a 10-ounce bottle of garlic powder for $4.50 looks like a steal, but Aldi’s sells a 2.62-ounce bottle for $.95, or 80% less.
And these aren’t always the best places for less common spices. For that, hit up the immigrant stores.
Many Indians will be celebrating Diwali at the beginning of November, and their recipes call for the same cardamom and cinnamon used in traditional Hanukkah desserts. If you’re making a delicious spice rub for your Kwanzaa meal, you can pick up your curry, chili powder, coriander and fennel at the same place. And the Hungarian kolaches cookies my family devours at Christmas have almost the same ingredients as nankhatai, an Indian cookie for Diwali.
A store specializing in foods for immigrant cultures – whether Indian or German, Italian or African — might be the best place to pick up the right herbs and spices for your dishes.
Your local Latin market will have a wider selection of chiles than any grocery store, and they will be fresh, canned, jarred, or dry. The ingredients for many popular Day of the Dead dishes like calabaza en tacha, a candied pumpkin treat, are similar to Christmas dishes in Northern Europe — cinnamon, cloves and anise stars.
You have to be strict with yourself when shopping in the immigrant stores — the prices are usually very low and everything is tempting. More tips on shopping at local markets specializing in global ingredients.
You might think that spice stores are definitely NOT the place to save money on spices. That probably is true for common herbs and spices.
On the plus side: They have whole versions of ground spices like allspice, which is a better value. They’re ideal for finding hard-to-find specialty spices. You’ll get advice about what you need.
Many of these stores guarantee that there are no hidden additives like MSG. And, like all small businesses, they offer extras to attract and keep customers.
“We do run specials at VSpicery,” says Kym Page Jenkins about her family spice store in Tampa, Florida. “We generate coupon codes for internet-only deals. We also discount as the order volume increases.”
Depending on your state’s rules, herbs and spices can be found at farmers markets. Fresh herbs are very common, and you can dry them easily in your oven. Spices like turmeric and ginger, which are roots, and are often sold fresh at markets, too.
Just like brick-and-mortar specialty spice stores, it is easy to be leery of prices when shopping for spices online. Just adding the cost of shipping can bring spice prices to ridiculous amounts. But online retailers know that and have become responsive to cost cutters.
When you sign up with Penzeys you get an email with lots of deals for dollar spices, and they keep coming. One recent email offered an ounce of steak seasoning rubs for $2 and trial bags of spice blends and more for $1.95-$3.49.
Of course, there is always Amazon. By choosing the deal of the day, I found a highly rated 10-pack of whole Madagascar vanilla beans for $12.74. Overall the prices aren’t all that great, but if you are a Prime member shipping is free and you can find deals.
Just because you haven’t heard of the brand doesn’t mean it‘s not worth a try. On example is Badia Spices, a popular Florida brand that people in Seattle might never have heard of. Compare their flavors and prices with McCormick, Schilling and Spice Islands, and Badia comes out ahead.
Sometimes you can’t find the spices listed for the traditional Three Kings Bread, or you’re just too busy to run to the store. Substitute!
There are many easy substitutions to make instead of panic-buying a big jar of something.
Don’t have any chervil sitting around the house? You can use parsley or tarragon. Ran out of cinnamon? Use nutmeg or allspice (but only a quarter of the stated amount). Thyme, oregano, and basil can often substitute for each other.
There’s enough going on during the holidays that can build up stress. Having the right spices for your holiday cooking can save you time and money.
The Penny Hoarder contributor JoEllen Schilke writes on lifestyle and culture topics. She is the former owner of a coffee shop in St.Petersburg, Florida, and has hosted an arts show on WMNF community radio for nearly 30 years.