As I said in the last segment, cooking at home is (usually) much cheaper than eating takeout or convenience food, but the startup costs can be a little scary: stocking up on the individual ingredients that recipes assume everybody “just has” can be an expensive proposition.
In this part of our cheap vegan series, I want to help with that by talking about spices. Spice racks are cheap. Filling them might not be. If you’re not careful, you can spend $3 to $5 per spice, and that can add up when your spice rack becomes a spice drawer becomes a spice shelf:
Yeah, it’s worse than condiments, isn’t it? Sometimes I count them just to make myself feel crazy. We’re up to around 50.
Still, when you consider that just a few hundred years ago fortunes were made by chartering risky boat trips to far off lands to secure new flavours, we live in a pretty awesome world, and the price of spice is pretty low in comparison to the old days. You don’t even need a boat! Still, I think we can save a bit more.
There are two big ways to save money here, and today we’ll cover how and what to buy when you’re stocking your spices.
How to buy spice
To some of you this will be as obvious as “garbage goes in the garbage can,” but when you’re first starting out, it’s not always even obvious that, say, garam masala is found in the spice section and not at the, I don’t know, make up counter, for instance.
When you go to your local grocery store, you’ll see a spice section that looks like this:
See those pretty little tins and bottles? They run around $3 to $5 each. It’s not hard to pick out a week’s worth of recipes that use 15 different spices (hint: pick recipes for spices that you actually have!), so that’s, say, $60 just to get some flavour into your meals, which probably kills out any savings you might have been expecting from the whole cooking thing. Sure, the spices will last more than a week, but this is one of those mental block things that keeps people from even starting.
You’ve got two alternatives:
Most stores also sell spice in plastic pouches, some of which even have little zip lock closures at the top now, which is pretty gour-frigging-met, if you ask me. These packs average a buck or so each, saving you around 75% without leaving that grocery aisle.
The next choice, which I prefer, is to buy in bulk, where you can measure the cost of spices with nickels and dimes. Now, when you do this, pay attention to the bin you’re buying from – sometimes the spices don’t sell very fast, and you’ll even see two different colours from when new stock was poured on top of old stuff. Buy from small bins (the stock will rotate faster) from a busy bulk section (if your grocery store doesn’t have one, your health or bulk foods store will, though I guess that’s obvious from the name “bulk foods store.”)
When buying in bulk, avoid buying in bulk: yes, bulk without bulk: small quantities will last a long time. When you get home, you can keep them in the little baggies, transfer them to that spice rack you got as a gift, or put them in little jars (either from the dollar store or reused from other grocery purchases: we use artichoke heart jars a lot for this.)
Lastly, no matter how you buy your spices, mark the date of purchase on the container somewhere. My palate isn’t so advanced as to be able to notice a six month age difference in spices, but ideally you want to balance freshness with the convenience of having enough on hand. It’ll also give you a better idea of how much of each spice you actually use.
What spices to buy
Even with the bulk trick, it’s a good idea to not spend money until you have to, and with spices, there’s a learning curve to deal with, especially if you’re “winging it” without a recipe.
Don’t get me wrong; a quarter teaspoon of something something in addition to the other 6 spices in your dish will make a subtle difference, but I don’t know that it’s a make it or break it kind of thing, particularly when you’re still learning how to broil, steam, and saute.
I talked about this with Angela last night and we came up with this “desert island” list of spices:
Ground black pepper. I swear, my first four years of vegan cooking relied almost entirely on a big (massive!) jar of ground pepper. It was my curry, my turmeric, my cayenne, and my chipotle all in one. Did you know they sell lemon pepper? Did you know that adding ground pepper and lemon juice (from the bottle, natch) is pretty much the same thing and you can vary the balance between the two as you like it? It’s not fancy, but there’s a reason you find black pepper on the table of just about every restaurant.
Sage. And if you’re feeling splurgy, rosemary, but I said this would be a list of three spices, so call it extra credit. There’s no nice way to put this: they add the flavour we remember from KFC to a meal.
Oregano. Alternate: “italian seasoning,” which will blend in some other stuff. Technically this isn’t even a spice, being a herb and all, but we work with the vocabulary of the average chef, and there you go. This fills in the non-spicy, non-savoury category for things like pasta.
Later on, I’d add cumin, cayenne, basil, thyme, garlic and onion powder, and other good stuff to the mix, but you’re going to develop your own list of preferences based on the recipes you decide to work with.
Oh, and as a bonus, remember that you can cheat a bit by buying pre-seasoned foods, which are often the same price as the “natural” stuff. I’m talking about pasta sauce, herbed tofu, and other stuff like that.
What about you? What’s your desert island spice list, assuming, you know, there’s a full kitchen and a grocery store on the island that stocks everything but spice?