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Best tips for buying spices


Adding spices to foods can greatly enhance flavor and taste. Spices also increase visual presentation of many foods, intensify aroma, and lend excitement and gourmet appeal to otherwise ordinary meals. While selecting the right spices to use is vital, knowing important buying information is a crucial first step in great cooking and food preparation. 

Growing herbs and spices and harvesting them from one’s own garden or indoor space is a great way to get the freshest plants possible as well as know exactly where and how they’ve been grown. Unfortunately, however, not everyone has the space or desire to raise their own plants. In some cases, individuals may grow small amounts in limited indoor areas, but most will still need to purchase at least some, if not most, of their spices.

The following are practical tips that are important in buying spices:

Start with a plan before shopping and purchasing

Never buy spices without a plan or with only vague notions about what they will be used for. Know what meals and recipes you plan to add the spices to. Will you use them in soups a couple of nights a week? Will you use them in breads and other baked goods you make? How much will you need?

Purchasing spices without a plan encourages expired or stale spices to sit for long periods in containers on kitchen shelves or in the refrigerator. Shoppers buy them with the idea that they will be added to recipes and used at meals, but frequently have no idea of what or how much they really need.

Having a plan and sticking to it is the best way to buy spices without having to throw them out later. Additionally, it helps save valuable time, eliminate indecision, and cut wasteful spending.

Buy in a form that is certain to be used

The next best thing to growing one’s own spices is to purchase them whole somewhere else and cut off amounts at home as you need them. However, while freshness and purity of product can be very appealing, the use of a whole spice involves grinding it up, requiring supplies such as mortar and pestle or coffee grinder. While these are affordable and not difficult to use, not every individual has the time, desire or patience to grind up their spices.

If a busy lifestyle or lack of motivation keeps one from grinding spices, an individual can purchase spices already ground up. While there is some controversy over effectiveness of purchasing ground spices as compared to buying whole ones, well-respected spice expert, Lior Lev Sercarz, believes that “There’s nothing wrong with buying ground spices, adding, “A good-quality spice will last as long as a whole one.”

Spices should ideally be used within months after purchase. Since they generally lose their flavor and aroma after 10 months, it serves no purpose to buy them and keep them hanging around for longer periods, regardless of how fresh they were when purchased.

Buy from sources with knowledge and good product turnover

If you purchase from a source that doesn’t sell many spices and doesn’t know the products well, risks are higher for getting incomplete or inaccurate answers to questions. Risks are also higher that the product will not be handled and managed properly. Additionally, if you purchase from a source that only sells a very limited amount of spices, chances are good that you may purchase items that have been sitting on the shelves for months and have already lost their valuable potency.

Purchase from reputable sources that know their spices and sell ongoing amounts. Ethnic stores and farmers markets are often good sources and generally offer good prices as well. The Internet can also be a good source. However, in the case of a new or unfamiliar source, it is always wise to get a recommendation from a family member, friend, or someone whose judgment you trust, whenever possible. Additionally, you can check out the source with the Better Business Bureau, or through other appropriate consumer resources.

Buy in small quantities

Freshness and quality of spices is important every time you make a purchase. It is important to resist the temptation of buying in bulk or responding to any special sales that leave you buying more than you planned to.

Buy spices in the smallest size possible, especially any that won’t be used often. No sale is a bargain if the product ends up stale and not being used.

The flavor and nutrition in food can be dramatically enhanced with the addition of spices. To get maximum benefits from spices, shop as a smart consumer and take that important first step to great cooking and enhanced dining enjoyment.