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'Expensive' spices vs 'cheap' spices

  • Monica Feb 14, 2007 05:31 AM
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I am sure this topic was discussed before but I need to know if there is a difference between dry spices bought from a gourmet shop and spices bought from a local supermarket for like $.79(or two for dollar when they go on sale).
Insn't herb all the same after all? There is no such thing as high quality expensive fresh basil..at least I never noticed although my local gourmet shop charges 99 cents for a bunch of fresh herbs while some high end gourmet shops in Manhattan charges like $2.99 for a bunch.

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  1. There is definitely a difference between spices bought at the supermarket and spices bought at a specialty store. If you live in Manhattan, I suggest checking out Penzey's spices at Grand Central Station. They have sample jars of all their spices available for the smell test and you can buy small jars that hold as little as 1/4 c. so your spices won't go stale before you can use them. Once you get there, you will see how many varieties of black pepper and cinnamon there are and that alone should answer your question about why it's good to buy spices at a specialty store. Penzey's prices are quite reasonable and are often less than supermarket prices. Check www.penzeys.com for yourself. That said, however, I've seen plenty of upscale supermarkets package spices in cheap plastic bags and light and air are the enemy of spices, so you could pay a lot of money and wind up with a spice that is no longer potent.

    When it comes to fresh herbs, I've been pleased with the 79-cent bunches of mint and basil I've gotten at Asian markets and haven't noticed a quality difference between them and the ones that are sold for a lot more money at places like Whole Foods.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Velda Mae

      And I highly recommend the Cassia cinnamon... unbelievable. It is wonderfully fragrant.

      1. re: Velda Mae

        I think the best answer is ... "sometimes."

        Ethnic markets IMO have the best-quality spices as rock-bottom prices.

        Itty-bitty jars at supermarkets may have very good quality (McCormick, etc) but you're gonna pay way too much, unless it's something you use just a bit of fairly rarely.

        "Gourmet" shops - a big "maybe" - if it's sold as a premium variety, or extra-good grade, you might want to choose to buy there, but for the most part salt is salt and dried parsely is dried parsely.

        "Whole Food"-type stores - just hand over your wallet, but you won't be getting spices any better than you can get at the local grocery.

      2. And if you go to a local ethnic grocery (such as an Indian or Latin American), you can get whole or ground spices in large bags that are more flavourful and less stale than the supermarket variety for less money.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Blueicus

          The cumin at my local mediterranean market is so much better than at my local supermarket and of course a lot less. One of the reasons is that the inventory turn over is greater because cumin is such a staple spice for a lot of cultures. I get the impression that at regular supermarket spices like cumin sit and are not very fresh.

        2. I don't know about herbs, but the cinnamon I got from Penzy's is pure HEAVEN! I'll never get cinnamon from the grocery again. I got the Extra Fancy Vietnamese Cassia Cinnamon. And you know what? I got a huge bag of it, and I don't think it was any more expensive than McCormick's.

          Penzey's lets you order online too!

          2 Replies
          1. re: puppymomma

            The first time I bought cinnamon from Penzey's, I spent the entire next day pouncing on friends who'd come to visit and jamming bottles in their faces, demanding they smell the varieties and note the amazing difference between them and my old grocery store stuff.

            ...funny, nobody comes over the weekend after I go to Penzey's anymore. But I love my Penzey's spices.

            1. re: puppymomma

              There's a huge difference between Vietnamese Cassia cinnamon and the rest. The Vietnamese one is a lot more hot and spicy and flavorful. I purchased a whole bunch in Vietnam for a ridiculously cheap price (compared to American standards). But it took a long time before I found a reliable vendor. Every vendor I went to was trying to sell me the crappy stuff. I then found one place that actually sold me the real stuff. I was carrying my purchase around town when every Vietnamese person I encountered (hotel staff, tailors, servers at restaurants, people I've met on the street) asked to taste the cinnamon. They all nodded their head saying that I got the good stuff. So I guess it's really common for vendors to try to sell regular cinnamon as Vietnamese cinnamon. So if one is buying Vietnamese cinnamon, I would only do it from a reputable vendor like Penzeys.

            2. For those in the Chicago area, the Spice House is great (and cheaper than most other groceries).

              5 Replies
              1. re: rubinow

                I live in Boston and love the Spice House in Chicago. There's also one in Milwaukee. The folks who own it are relatives of the folks who own Penzey's. The problem with mail ordering from The Spice House is that you can't order the tiny quantities you can from Penzey's. The folks there explained that it just doesn't make economic sense for them to ship small amounts, but I hate having things go to waste. When I visited a few years ago, The Spice House owner explained that they grind their spices in-house weekly whereas Penzey's has gotten so big they can't do that anymore. Nevertheless, I haven't had a problem with freshness at Penzey's. Also, I give them credit because they had a write-in campaign promising to open a store in the town that sent the most postcards and they stayed true to their word, despite the high cost of Boston real estate.

                1. re: rubinow

                  I love the Spice House. Everyone is so hung up on Penzey's, but I love the spice house so much better. I love how you can see everything in those big jars and they weight it out for you. I was in Chicago last week and I spent lots of money at The spice House. but, look at everything I got!!

                   
                  1. re: Calipoutine

                    It's not a matter of being "hung up" on Penzey's - I find their quality to be just fine. Their packaging is no different than what you have shown in your picture - and going to a Penzey's store, you can also see everything in large jars and you're able to perform the sniff test to see if you'll like it or not. I prefer that Penzey's sells in much smaller containers - both in-store and via mail order.

                    1. re: LindaWhit

                      Penzey's doesnt custom scoop the product for you. You dont see the spices being blended and containers being filled. To each her own.

                      1. re: Calipoutine

                        No they don't. But your earlier post was talking about the big jars so you can see/sniff - no different than Penzey's stores. But as Velda Mae said above, Penzey's is bigger, so they can no longer grind in-house weekly. Their freshness in flavor doesn't seem to have suffered, however. Ends up being personal preference. Penzey's is close to me with their Boston store, so I don't have to pay for shipping costs.

                2. Another think to keep in mind about supermarket spices is to ask yourself how long they stay on the shelf before being purchased. The spices go on sale probably right before their next delivery in order to empty out the shelving. Ethnic grocery stores are selling the spices that are used heavily, and therefore replaced frequently

                  1. I reserve the grocery store purchases for the spices I don't use that often or don't really care for - you know the things that are integral to a recipe/flavor as a whole, but you're not going to reach for by choice? Anything else I either grow (basil, thyme, rosemary, etc) or buy in bulk as needed from a good vendor.

                    I have a ton of nicely labeled McCormick bottles - my non-cooking BIL does some contract database work for them and brings home tons of stuff. I use as needed, re-gift to shelters, and reuse the bottles. They are useful for something!

                    1. If you are buying a bulky spice like dried basil (though who would use dried basil?) a spice shop that sells by weight might give you a better deal than a supermarket that sells it in little jars.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: Brian S

                        i agree-- i frequently use my local co-ops as "the poor man's penzey's" buying incredibly fresh & frequently organic herbs & spices (and teas, sea salts, etc.) by the oz. is really convenient and you can easily make your own blends and rubs by weight etc. it's cheaper than the regular ol' grocery store too, you're not wasting your money on the spice jar! fresh herbs & spices make a big difference in cooking and the stuff in supermarkets can sit on the shelves for a year or more. . . after sitting in the warehouse for a year or more. . .

                        1. re: Brian S

                          I used to use dried basil, then I discovered I could keep a few anemic plant alive indoors. My kitchen window get morning sun. Before that I dried (or froze) the proceeds of my basil crop every year. Now I'm much happier!

                        2. In in nyc, so I can get non-supermarket spices fairly easily. I'd be fussy about things like curry, coriander, etc., spices where the differences can be dramatic. On the other hand, I'd not stress overly much about spices like cinnamon, which, while there may be differences, won't be as dramatic.

                          1. Penzey's and Spice House are not expensive. And YES there is a huge difference.

                            1. One should be careful about the difference between gourmet stores and spice stores. "gourmet" stores often just have the same stuff as the grocery store, but in fancy packages, and usually ground.

                              Also, I'd trust the quality of a whole spice from the grocery store over a ground one from even a place as nice as penzey's.

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: amkirkland

                                "Also, I'd trust the quality of a whole spice from the grocery store over a ground one from even a place as nice as penzey's."

                                Wow. I disagree entirely. You have no idea how long whole spices have sat on the shelf at the store -- just as you have no idea how long ground spices have. Whereas not only do you know what you are getting at Penzey's if you've shopped there -- they guarantee it.

                                I can't imagine any situation where, given a choice, I'd buy something at the supermarket instead of Penzey's/Spice House or specialty spice retailer of similar repute.

                                1. re: C. Hamster

                                  your point is well taken, and it probably depends a lot on the spice, but my experiences with most whole spices from the grocery store has been good. i.e. I have some McCormick's cloves I've had for quite a while that are still great. My nutmeg that I've had for years literally is still wonderful and potent, whereas any ground nutmeg I've ever had wasn't even good fresh from the store.

                                  1. re: amkirkland

                                    Funny, I have a jar of cloves that belonged to my grandmother (she died in the early 70s) and a big jar of whole nutmeg that I bought in the 80s. They both seem fine to me, I guess I could buy some new but obviously 30 years from now I'd still have it!!

                              2. i was a spice wh-- uh, hound, way before i even knew the difference between grocery store brands and others. when i discovered penzeys/pendery's i was hooked. i also second the idea of checking out your local ethnic market. you can get awesome 'home made' blends of spices from your local indian, latin american, asian etc stores.

                                i also highly suggest people try to grow their own herbs (ones like basil, rosemary, parsley, thyme, mints, lemongrass, oregano, marjoram -- all of these and many more are ridiculously easy to grow at home)

                                1. although not a spice, a good example of different quality levels is garlic. there is authentic granulated garlic and then there is laboratory made garlic essence with yellow food coloring mixed with salt and other substances, chances being the latter example is what you will find at your local pizza joint.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: byrd

                                    There's a farmer just south of Tulsa named Darrell Merrill who, more or less as a hobby, grows FOUR HUNDRED varieties of garlic.

                                  2. I may have missed this, but I do not recall anyone mentioning the irradiation factor. Some people believe that spices that have been irradiated are not as desirable as those that have not been irradiated. The brand label should identify the treatment, or lack thereof, regarding irradiation.

                                    There are many different versions of curry powder, and if one has time and the inclinationl, and the expertise, making one's own curry mixture is the best option. The taste blend is totally subjective, and what one person refers to as the best might not be so for another person. For example, some years ago, the "Spike Brand", "Spice Garden" made a curry powder that I have not seen on the shelves in my local "health food" stores in years. I loved the taste of that blend. In looking at the ingredient label, it seems like the addition of celery seed might be the component that distinguishes this blend from others I have had. I have had fresher tasting curry powders (I've stored this "Spice Garden" blend for many years!), but the other blends don't have the "mellowness" or "sweet" quality (from the celery seed and clove combination?) as this. I really do believe that curry powders are a very personal thing regarding how much of each spice one finds desirable to be added to the mixture. This blend listed twelve ingredients.

                                    I have seen bottles of herbs in my local traditional supermarket identified as "freeze dried" herbs. I believe that these are imported from Germany. The herbs inside the small bottle look beautiful. The label says that they can be used as one would use fresh herbs. They are quite expensive, but look like they store well and are in a different class from some of the herbs that are displayed at stores. Some stores sell herbs in small self-contained packages already chopped up.

                                    I prefer to buy my cilantro fresh at a traditional supermarket, but the fresh ones displayed look like they are a few days past optimum freshness whereas the cilantro prepackaged looks to be of desired freshness, albeit at a price that's 3x the other version. I do prefer to buy organic parsley and cilantro if I can. There's just something about those fragile greens that seem to lend themselves to being better off not being sprayed. My local supermarket offers the organic version at under $1 per bunch.

                                    2 Replies
                                    1. re: FelafelBoy

                                      The freeze-dried herb product I referred to in my previous post is one made by the company "Lighthouse", and comes from Germany. I saw it in another supermarket by the produce section. The basil was priced at about $3.75 for a small bottle, the size that most commercial spices and herbs are packed in. The price per pound, just for the record, was listed on the display as being $228. These freeze dried herbs rehydrate in the presence of moisture. I'd love to see the cilantro come out like real cilantro and not the compromised taste of dried cilantro.

                                      1. re: FelafelBoy

                                        i frequently use jarred freeze dried dill-- it is practical for winter fish and veggie dishes and tastes almost as good. haven't seen the other types in my area yet but i'll keep and eye out. by the way, organic herbs are not irradiated, for those who are concerned-- many imported herbs are irradiated as a matter of course, though.

                                    2. As a final measure of quality, be sure to mark your spice containers, especially the ground ones, with the date of purchase or the date you open the package. Ground spices have a short shelf life. I avoid using ground spices that are older than 6 months since they will have lost so much of their flavor. This means I usually buy ground spices in small quantities, or better yet, buy them whole. Grinding spices yourself means so much more flavor and intensity. Home cooks should be as serious about their spices as they are about all the other ingredients that go into a dish.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: SpiceMogul

                                        Amen to that, Spice! Whenever I can I purchase them whole, dry roast and grind them in my mortar and pestle or spice grinder. I am so serious about spices that I make all my own blends, mixes, rubs, etc. and at latest count had 87 spices in my cupboard. Spices intrigue me more than almost anything and I go to great lengths to get the best (and I live in rural northern Canada). Fortunately I bring spices back from European travels.

                                      2. Seems like most all the dry sprices and herbs at my local markets are all around $6 -$8 or so. Is that cheap?????

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: Midlife

                                          For how much? By the pound, that's cheap. If you're talking about a typical jar (generally somewhere in the range of .3 to 2.5 ounces), it seems expensive. It also depends on the spice, of course. Saffron, vanilla beans, star anise, and some other spices will set you back more than dried herbs (for example).

                                        2. I got spoiled about spices as a kid. My grandfather owned a spice import and processing factory in Brooklyn, so we always had a huge assortment of good quality spice available all the time. one of the great memories I have is walking with him on the factory floor, inspecting the different whole spices as they were on their way to the grinders. What fabulous scents. After he sold the company, and I started trying different spices from grocery stores and higher end places, I discovered that you are much better off paying more for fresh stuff from high end stores like Penzeys or ethnic markets. I would take one exception to the info above, properly dried herbs like basil, thyme, oregano and marjoram are just fine if kept in a cool area, adn are used within 4-6 months of picking/drying. In a tomato sauce, I think that they can give a deeper flavor than fresh herbs, and definitely produce better results when used together with fresh ones than the fresh herbs by themselves.

                                          3 Replies
                                          1. re: chazzerking

                                            I used to be a chef, and the first time I walked into a Penzy's it was, well, amazing. I wondered around in Olfactory Heaven. I imagine other spice stores are similar. If for no other reason, you owe yourself a trip! Then get back to us!

                                            1. re: Richard 16

                                              One caveat to buying those bulk pound or two bags of spices in ethnic food stores/grocery's. Many foreign producers do not clean their spices as rigorously as the major U.S. spice companies do. This means that mud, small, twigs, other seeds (mostly from weeds that were in the fields) insects and even the occascional rodent dropping are not all uncommonly found. What and how much varies from spice to spice and packer to packer (I've generally found that coriander seed requires the most careful checking.) Therefore if you are in the habit of simply sprinkling your spices directly from the bag into you food, you really have to get into the habit of spreading out the spice on a flat surface and picking it over before you actually use it, as most cooks outside this country are taught to do. On the brighter side some of the "weed" seeds you can find make nice garden wildflowers if kept under rigorous supervison (they did start thier lives as filed weeds after all)

                                              1. re: jumpingmonk

                                                Ya'll are going to love this. Don’t read if you have a strong “ick” factor.

                                                No prepared herb or spice is required to be free of contaminants. As jumpingmonk posts insect parts, stems & twigs not related to the product, rodent hairs, etc. The FDA specifies maximums for various contaminants and does not require these to be free of many of them.

                                                http://www.intracen.org/mds/spices_cl... Got to page ten and beyond.

                                                The FDA is underfunded and understaffed. Are the foreign manufacturers of the spices and herbs often found at ethnic stores more prone to higher percentages of contanminents? Who knows? We do know, however, that all of them - even domestically prepared herbs and spices -- are unlikely to be contaminant free.

                                                All the more reason to grow or dry your own, buy fresh, or get fresh from a friend. (I have tons of green shiso. Anybody want some?)

                                          2. I would say...it varies? I can get Szeged Hungarian paprika for cheap at my local supermarket.

                                            I get Vietnamese black pepper in large quantities from Kalustyans.

                                            I grow my own basil, rosemary and thyme.

                                            I buy most of the rest from Penzey's. :)

                                            1. I'm no expert but I've played around with spices and herbs for years. I've ground my own, toasted my cumin seeds, roasted sesame seeds, ground it with a mortar and and a grinder. My brother has been bugging for years to try Penzey's so earlier this summer I stopped by one of their stores and purchased a few. All I can say is WOW, taste wise switching to Penzey's spices has elevated my cooking to another level. Flavors are crisp and defined, I've cooked seriously for 25 years, and the dishes I've cooked since I switched in June of this years are the best I've ever made. The only thing I can reference it back to is food started getting much better about the time I switched over to Penzey's products. It's totally un-scientific but it's the only way I can explain it.