I recently answered a reader’s question about how to make simple Italian-style “red sauce” for pasta or lasagna. That question reminded me of the key role of herbs and spices in making great food. If you’re putting together a decently equipped pantry, you’ll need to buy herbs and spices. Here are three tips to help you make smart purchases.
To illustrate how to “shop smart”, I used dried basil leaves and fennel seeds because they are ingredients in my red sauce recipe. But these tips apply to all store-bought herbs and spices, and to other food purchases as well.
Don’t buy too much at one time
Like virtually all packaged and bottled items in the grocery store, herbs and spices come in many sizes. But unlike cereal or toilet paper, herbs and spices lose their zip after a while. So, if you are not going to use an herb or spice frequently, it makes sense to buy a smaller quantity. Even if the unit cost is higher, you’ll save when buying and using up a small amount (whether in a container or from a bulk bin) instead of saving pennies on a huge quantity and throwing out half of it after a year or two.
My local market has Frontier brand herbs & spices in bulk. They turn out to be a great deal.
Check my next post for tips on how to store herbs and spices and how long to keep them. Bottom line – in a tightly closed container that is refrigerated or stored at room temperature, herbs and spices should not spoil or pose a health risk, but they do lose their potency over time. So be realistic about how much of an herb or spice you are likely to use in the near future and buy accordingly.
Brands, hype and other factors that affect cost
I went to five stores and checked two online grocery services to comparison shop. The results for basil and fennel are in two incredibly wonky charts at the bottom of this post. You may have different stores in your area and prices may change, but I bet you would get similar results if you did this comparison in your area. Check out the variations in price on the same product. And check out the variation among products by the same company.
My comparison shopping expedition revealed a dizzying array of brands and sizes. Some brands seem to cost more because they are organic, but the quality difference between others is not apparent to me. One store (Whole Foods) even has two house brands of herbs and spices, with no label or sign indicating the difference. If you compare two brands of the same spice and one is more expensive than the other, is the higher price justified by a quality or other “real” difference in how they are produced, or is it just hype or a fancy label? Sometimes it is hard to tell, but you’re smart – keep your “hype radar” on high alert and you may save several dollars on a single jar.
And speaking of comparison shopping – Middle Eastern, Hispanic, Asian and other ethnic food stores often have great bargains on the herbs and spices used in the cooking of the type of food they specialize in. The products they sell may come in simple plastic bags, not fancy bottles with mainstream brand names, but the quality and freshness of the herbs and spices may be fantastic. Don’t overlook the possibilities these stores hold for great quality and bargain prices.
The prices and quality of these herbs and spices used in Middle Eastern cooking are great.
When you are comparing products for price, the unit price is key. The per ounce cost for basil ranged from an unbelievably low $0.56 per ounce for Frontier brand in bulk (no pre-packaged container) from my local market to over $16 per ounce for McCormick “Gourmet Collection” brand Mediterranean leaves and Whole Foods “Whole Pantry” brand. For fennel, the range was less dramatic, but still noticeable, from $0.75 for the Frontier brand bulk seeds to over $6 for McCormick “Gourmet Collection – Organic” seeds. If I were giving out booby prizes, this week I’d give out three:
- one to Giant and my local market for unit pricing herbs and spices by the pound instead of by the ounce (no one buys a pound of any herb for home consumption unless they are making sachets) – it’s ironic that the local market priced by the pound because it sold in bulk and its prices were the best of any I checked;
- a second to Trader Joe’s, even though I love the store, for failing to provide unit prices for its herbs and spices; and
- the third (and biggest booby prize of all) to the product makers and packagers whose “creativity” in sizes and containers will drive you crazy if you try to compare products.
Read labels carefully
Here are two jars of fennel seeds from the same company. Can you tell that one bottle contains 50% more (by weight)? Can you tell which bottle contains more fennel seeds?
I was fooled too. At first I thought these bottles contained the same amount of fennel seeds.
Those are trick questions. You can’t tell, unless you look at the incredibly small print on both jars and the print on one jar is hidden in this picture. The jars appear to the eye to be the same size, but they must be configured differently because the one on the right contains 50% more fennel seeds by weight.
Reading labels can save you money. There are also differences between products that you can find out by reading labels – like which are organic and possibly where the herb or spice is grown. If jars were clothes I would care about their looks and the ones that have nice shapes and pretty labels would beckon me to buy them. But they sit in my cupboard, so I stick to what the label says and what’s inside when I make my herb and spice purchasing decisions.
Next post – Keeping herbs and spices – where and how long?