Cheap Vegan: The 3 spices you need to get started

February 26, 2010

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:

Our collection of spices

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:

Spices for sale at the grocery store

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?

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

thedalyn February 27, 2010 at 8:03 pm

I'd put cumin on the three spices you have to have list, but that's because I cook more Mexican food than Italian.

Personally, I buy small quantities from the local spice store–if you have one, you must experience the goodness–and I only keep spices for a year. However, I buy my spices in whole form whenever possible and grind them in a coffee grinder as needed. This has two advantages: 1) you get the freshest flavor possible (I had no idea that coriander was so lemony until I started grinding as needed), and 2) they keep longer in seed form. Figuring this trick out changed my cooking.

jasondoucette February 27, 2010 at 8:17 pm

I've been meaning to try using a coffee grinder! The Vita-Mix can do it, but I find I need to put more than I need in to get it going…

thedalyn February 27, 2010 at 9:23 pm

Yeah, the vita-mix (which I also love) is too big. I got my coffee grinder at a thrift store for three bucks. I see them there all the time. I guess people just give up and go to Starbucks.

stephie137 February 27, 2010 at 10:46 pm

oregano, chili powder and cinnamon. cumin is a VERY close fourth.

PonderingWillow February 28, 2010 at 5:13 am

Whole spices are originally what I bought my coffee grinder for, but then I started grinding coffee beans every morning. Seeing as I don't want my coffee to taste like cumin I should really get another grinder…. (My mortar and pestle is just waaay two tedious for the cumin seeds now…) The grinders are super cheap new as well, as mine set me back 10 whole dollars.

If you mount a magnet strip on your kitchen wall and get a bunch of empty baby food containers off freecycle you have a pretty classy spice rack (once you take the labels off the jars).

Be consistent.

pew pew

Patabugen March 1, 2010 at 8:12 pm

Thyme is my #1, closly followed by Dill. Thyme is fansmasmic with either Mushrooms or anything else. Dill is great wth Cucumber (in a Salad with some soya yoghart).

But aside from those I rarely use much more than Black Pepper, I've not found anything which makes me like Tofu other than Cumin though… any suggestions?

Eco-Vegan Gal March 2, 2010 at 6:03 am

Thanks for posting this. Often when I make a recipe I realize I don't have the necessary spices, but then I forget the necessities I should buy when I'm at the store. Also, it is so cool that you can buy spices in bulk, because sometimes you just need a little.

Shadia March 2, 2010 at 8:46 am

Garlic powder. Cumin, and Mint. Oh and a bottle of lemon juice. This is because I am very of middle eastern foods.

Sfri March 4, 2010 at 12:03 am

Great article… I had no idea you could buy spices in bulk at a store, anyone know which ones? I've never seen this. If I had to pick 3 essentials, I'd say black pepper, garlic powder and onion powder. I seem to use those in everything even if I add something else. I am a garlic freak, and onion goes great with garlic. Not to say these would replace the real things, as I often add these in addition to fresh garlic and onion; the flavors are different, and I appreciate both.
I'm also getting into cumin, but not familiar with it enough to put it in the top 3.

angela_thrust March 5, 2010 at 4:41 pm

That settles it! This year I'll keep my eyes peeled for a used coffee grinder!

Lauren March 7, 2010 at 6:35 pm

Great posting – too many people use spices as an afterthought in cooking when they can be a healthy taste alternative and really boost the flavor of everything!

Wanted to let you all know about an easy spice rack for the kitchen cabinet that holds store-bought spices (or your own bottles filled with bulk spices)… it's call the SpiceStack and it makes organizing and using all your spices really easy!

marcylangworthy March 17, 2010 at 3:38 pm

Don't forget a high quality sea salt… in moderation of course! A little sea salt can really enhance the flavor of a dish. Cayenne pepper is my bestfriend, along with garlic powder (plus loads of fresh garlic) and gomasio adds a little something, something to asian dishes. But I definitely have to agree- black pepper is a must!

Happy Cooking!

Flip Flop August 5, 2011 at 6:48 pm

I’ve gone as far as taking a couple cloves of garlic that were starting to sprout and buzz them in the food processor. Put the processed garlic on a piece of parchment paper and slowly dry in in the oven on low, with the door open a crack once it gets going.

When they`re hard and all dry, run the cooled, dry garlic through your coffee grinders and sift it with a wire sieve. What falls through the sieve is your garlic powder, whats left can be run through the grinder again or used as granulated garlic.

Blows the packaged stuff out of the water. taste and smell the 2 side by side and the difference is immense.

Remember, spices are like coffee. As soon as you grind them, they start to go stale. Whole is the way to go, when possible. Put a dash of 5 or 6 whole spices in a pan on low and grind them when your house starts to smell amazing. I do all my rubs like this. Mustard seed, coriander seed, little piece of a cinnamon stick, some anise seed, cumin seed, a little celery seed, sometimes some fenugreek, a couple white peppercorns and some pink ones if you`re looking for some floral tones. 5 mins in a pan on low and a quick buzz in the grinder.

Freshly toasted and ground spices will blow your mind, and they`re way cheaper than what you get in a little jar at the grocery store (and this is coming from a guy that sells the little jars TOO to the grocery stores).

Look out!


Povertyman July 31, 2012 at 6:37 pm

This evening I go on the Vegan venture. My first dinner will be wholewheat linguini (Wall Mart brand) with dried and crumbled up tofu (pan fried), in a salsa/tomatoe puree sauce. How am I doing so far?

I saw the FOK documentary, but an extra factor is; I’m on a tight budget, and there seems to be an industry of special diets on high budget. I need as much help as I can get, thanks

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