Spices and dried herbs are a great way to add variety and big flavor to your food. But, pound for pound, they are expensive. You don't need much for each recipe but they are often sold in jars that provide enough for the average family for the next 4 years, by which time the herbs taste like dust.
Today, a few suggestions on how to economically stock your pantry with dried herbs and spices.
Find a store that sells dried herbs and spices in bulk. You only have to buy a little itty-bitty bag of whatever you need. You can often buy just enough for one recipe (particularly useful if you don't know what that spice tastes like). You won't have spices and herb lying around forever, waiting to be used up. You are a savvy shopper who knows to buy just a little bit. Many supermarket chains are starting to carry spices and dried herbs in bulk. Both Kroeger's and Safeway in my area have bulk spice departments. Whole Foods and health food stores usually carry them in bulk too.
If you have never tried a herb or spice before, try to buy the bare minimum, not a whole jar. If you don't like tarragon, what are you going to do with the rest? Herbs and spices are about big flavors, so it's not like you can use it and cover up the basic flavor. You are just going to throw it away. So, think small.
Think about the kind of food you like to eat and purchase things that you know you'll use. Tempted by glossy pictures of recipes, it's easy to select recipes that force you to buy a bunch of spices, adding big bucks to your food bill. We are all for being adventurous eaters, but it makes sense to focus on the types of food you like first and then slowly accumulate the more unusual things. Unless you expect to do a lot of East Indian cooking, don't go out and buy a whole jar of cardamom. This is also good advice when it comes to stocking your condiment pantry. Condiments are often expensive so pick recipes that use the same ones until you feel like you can justify buying new ones. You'd be surprised how far you can get with Dijon mustard!
Don't buy things that you don't like. That may seem obvious, but sometimes you don't know what you don't like about a cuisine. You just know you don't like it. Here is a list of some ingredients typical to a few cuisines and some descriptors of their flavor to help you out.
- Cumin: earthy and smokey
- Chili Powder: a blend of cumin, oregano, and dried ground chiles
- Fresh Jalapenos: very green and hot
- Fresh Serranos: less green but very hot
- Chipotle chiles: smokey and very spicy
- Other Dried Chiles: various heat levels, generally a little sweet
- Cilantro: strongly herbal and to many, it tastes like soap
- Basil: complex with licorice, grass, spice
- Rosemary: piney
- Oregano: a little grassy, a little spicy. It's the distinctive herb in pizza sauce but it's also used in Mexican cooking quite a bit.
- Thyme: piney and grassy
- Tarragon: licorice
- Lavender: very floral and can get soapy if you use too much
- Marjoram: similar to oregano but sweeter and spicier
- Shallots: like onions but a little milder and sweeter
- Sage: a little floral, a little medicinal
- Coriander: bright and citrusy. It tastes nothing like cilantro, the leaves of the same plant.
- Cumin: earthy and smokey
- Cardamom: powerful, sweet and smokey, hints of citrus
- Turmeric: very earthy and bitter. It's the spice that gives curry powder its yellow color.
- Curry Powder: a blend of spices where the turmeric can be dominant. Brands vary so try to sniff before you buy to get one that appeals to you. If it smells mostly of turmeric, it's going to taste that way too.
- Black Mustard Seeds: hot, sharp, and peppery like arugula
- 5 Spice Powder: a blend but the star anise, which tastes like licorice, is usually dominant
- Chiles: Chinese chiles are small and extremely hot
- White Pepper: the same seed as black pepper but its flavor is very different. Hot like black pepper but with a funky odor and flavor.
- Chinese Mustard: very pungent yellow mustard. This stuff will clear your sinuses like horseradish or wasabi.