As I was leaving yoga the other day, a guy behind me called out, "Hey, Lynn, where do you get your spices?" No, this wasn't some weird pickup line. Most everyone in the class knows I write cookbooks for a living, so it's a legitimate question I get often, and one that I can always answer without missing a beat.
While most of us buy our herbs fresh from the farmers' market or supermarket, or better yet, grow our own, when it comes to spices, with the exception of a few (such as paprika and some peppercorns), they don't grow here. Most spices come from the dried bark or fruit of tropical plants.
Now, most of us have a shelf or cabinet in our kitchen stocked with jars of spices we've collected through holiday cookie-baking bonanzas, experimental forays into Indian cooking, and the like. But if they are more than a few years old, you might as well toss them. Ground spices, which begin to release their essential oils immediately, lose most of their umph after a year or two. Whole spices may last a few years longer. Dried herbs should be used with a year.
You may be thinking, "But that jar of cinnamon that I bought back in 1995 still seems fine!" And it probably is fine, meaning that unlike other foods, old spices aren't harmful. But I can guarantee you that that old cinnamon doesn't taste anything close to what the freshly ground spice does. And if the point of using spice is to add flavor, why wouldn't you want to get the most flavor you can?
If you're serious about getting the best and most true flavor from your spices, you'll want to start fresh. And that means finding the right purveyor and identifying exactly what you need. Here are some spice-purchasing rules I've gleaned over years:
1. Rapid turnover rate. When shopping for spices, seek out a purveyor with a rapid turnover rate, whether this is the owner of your local market or an online source. Rapid turnover means the spices don't have time to sit on the shelf and lose flavor and color.
2. Great quality. The purveyor should know the source of the spices; select those grown with a minimum of chemical intervention and processing; and source products from the best locations, such as vanilla from Madagascar, Turkish bay leaves, Sri Lankan cinnamon. You get the idea.
3. Sells whole spices. I always buy spices whole then grind them myself with a spice grinder, Japanese suribachi, or electric coffee mill just before use. It's sort of like buying whole coffee beans. You get much more flavor when you've liberated a spice's essentials oils just before sprinkling it into your food.
4. Reasonable prices. Have you ever noticed that sometimes the prices commanded by even small jars of spices in the grocery store seem inordinately high? Good value for the dollar is generally not the rule of thumb in the world of in-demand herbs and spices. Look for a vendor who does a large volume of business and who can afford to offer products at reasonable prices. Good online vendors may save on the overhead expenses involved in marketing, shipping, and stocking product with a third party, and will hopefully pass some of those savings on to you.
5. Buy only what you need. One of the problems with buying spices in jars is that you usually end up with way more than you need. If your recipe only calls for a teaspoon of star anise, and you don't often use this spice, an entire jar is going to be hanging around for a while. I recommend getting realistic amounts of those spices you use often and smaller amounts of less common spices. You can save on space by keeping them in the plastic bags in the freezer.
My two favorite online spice and herb purveyors are Penzeys.com and Wholespice.com. Both companies offer lots of good information about spices and dried herbs on their websites, high quality, carefully sourced product and reasonable prices.
Now, spice it up!