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Student budget: how buy small amounts of spices, etc?

I'm a new cook, and its frustrating reading recipes that ask for 3 different spices using only 1/2 tsp of a each spice. I am on a student budget and its not practical for me to buy all these spices to only use 1/2 tsp! Any recommendations?

Also, I have encountered this with other things. For example, I plan on making coleslaw and the recipe calls for 2 tbs of apple cider. To buy a whole thing of cider for 2 tbs seems ridiculous- I could eat out for the price of spices!

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  1. Well, you do plan on making some of this stuff more than once, I presume, which means if you store your spices properly they'll be good for awhile and you can use them until they are gone.

    I order my spices from Penzey's - you can choose what size you get. Just store what you don't use right away in a cool, dark, dry place.


    Are you sure your coleslaw recipe isn't calling for apple cider vinegar, rather than apple cider? Vinegar can also last a long time if properly stored. If it really is just calling for apple cider and you don't want to buy any, just use a different recipe, or substitute something else (like said vinegar).

    If there's a recipe I want to make that calls for a small amount of something perishable, I'll usually make something else that calls for the same ingredient within a few days so I can finish that ingredient off. That may not be doable for a college student if you are only feeding yourself, so try thinking about what you can substitute for that ingredient, or just try something else that sounds good and doesn't need something you can't use quickly.

    1. You can buy spices in small amounts at stores like Whole Foods. Be careful though, some of the prices are startling. I discovered that when I bought one vanilla bean. At the time they were about $150/lb, so even one bean was costly. Also, check out "ethnic" markets. For example, you can get a half pound of black mustard seeds at an Indian market for the price of less than an ounce in the high end kind you get in a jar. Finally, sometimes you have to spend some to experiment with new recipes, but once you find your favorites, you can count on using up the spices, so think of your costs as front-end investments that can be amortized over time.

      1. Are there any food co-ops near you? Most co-ops have bulk spice sections where you can just scoop a tiny bit of whatever you need into a small plastic bag and pay by the pound.

        1 Reply
        1. re: mcgeary

          I was going to suggest this too. When I was at university in Boston, I went to a good co-op in Brighton for spices, flour, etc. Maybe the OP can ask on his/her local board if there's such a shop nearby. Very convenient.

        2. There is a shop here in Montclair, NJ called Spice It Up. You can order from them online and you can buy as little as 1 oz. Most of the 1 oz spices are only $1.50 more or less. Here is the URL: http://www.spiceituponline.com/


          1. I'm not sure where you're located but in the Charlotte area we have the Home Economist- http://www.hemarket.com/retailer/stor...
            There's a ton of great info on their site.It's where I buy almost all of my dried herbs and spices as well as bulk grains and beans. GREAT prices. See if there might be this type of store near you.

            1. Try My Organic Market. They have bulk spices, and you can just portion out what you need. I've found this very helpful, especially when using spices I only come across once or twice a year. Less waste.

              1. Student with a serious budget here as well. My first suggestion for spices and dried herbs would be the Badia spices that I find at most grocery stores (here in Florida.) They are in the "ethnic" aisle, and you can buy most spices in small quantities for $.59 up to just over a buck for the more expensive ones. It's not a huge amount, but then I'm typically cooking for myself and maybe one other person, so I don't go through them that quickly. I can find cumin, cinnamon, annato, oregano, etc. pretty easily. If you don't have any luck at a major grocery chain, you should be able to find Badia or another Mexican brand of spices at a larger bodega. I will admit that the quality of some of these ingredients is not outstanding, but it's not too far below Spice Islands and the like.

                If you begin to use spices more often, try an Indian market. You can buy a very large bag of a spice (say 16 oz) for the same price as a tiny jar of McCormick (~$5). The turnaround is probably faster at an Indian store so you should find that what you buy is fresher.

                In my town, we don't have any specialty spice store that I know of, but what others mention above sounds great. I know at stores like Wild Oats you can buy spices/herbs in quantities of your chosing. The online stores are also a good option, and I've heard great things about the quality of Penzey's spices. Perhaps you even have one of their outlets in a town near you.

                2 Replies
                1. re: Agent Orange

                  Agree completely with these ideas. When I was in your boat I was also learning about cooking and found that some of the items I went to great lengths and expense to purchase turned out not to be to my taste or only useful in the blue moon sense. Spices, like anything else, have a shelf life. I'd be tempted to spend most on the regular players - good salt, good pepper, etc.

                  Anyway, if there's a 99 Cent Store or the like in your area, they often have Badia-quality jarred spice selections that aren't half bad and the prices can't be beat. Not Penzey's by a mile, but might be more workable for you.

                  1. re: Agent Orange

                    Yep, Badia is a good alternative because they sell small packets of spices for a reasonable price...the only down side to purchasing the small packets is resealing. But the larger plastic containers are usually pretty inexpensive also.

                  2. http://www.sfherb.com/ is very reasonable (especially if you live in SF, where you can pick it up instead of having it shipped). Quality is okay but definitely not stellar. That said, it's very cheap. A co-op which sells bulk spices is also a good bet.

                    1. Seriously, this is what I did: every September and January, when the student loan checks came in, the very FIRST thing I did was go to the supermarket and stock up on spices and condiments. I learned very quickly that you can make anything taste like food if you doctor it up enough.

                      Also, look for an Indian market near you. You can buy huge amounts of spices for less than two dollars each, and the quality is at least equivalent to the McDormick or Durkee you'd buy at the supermarket.

                      1. the trick to spices is finding a places that sells them in bulk. not only will you be able to buy small quantities, but you are not paying for the cost of packaging and you typically get better spices that way as well.

                        places to look: whole foods has mostly scaled back this part of the store for the bigger profits associated with spices in a jar, but some might still have bulk. not where i live though. local health food and food coop type places typically do, and are worth checking out. alternately, many kinds of ethnic grocers will stock spices in bulk, and typically have a wide selection. indian stores are good, as are most anything middle eastern, and other spots (asian, african, etc) you might get lucky.

                        the only catch with the ethnic markets is that while they will have a selection, they might not have everything you want. typically they will stock stuff for recipes from their culture, but might not have, say, herbes de provence.

                        one of the best parts about learning to cook is learning to improvise and work with what you have. depending on your recipe, it is often possible to substitute or leave out entirely a spice or other ingredient that you may not have on hand. similarly, a recipe that calls for 2 tbs of apple cider is just nuts. i can only assume that it is intended to read "apple cider vinegar" which would be appropriate. if not, if it really refers to apple cider, i would guess you could leave it out entirely without hurting the dish.

                        1. one other source for spices i didn't see mentioned above are green grocers. both of the green/organic grocers in my town have bulk spices.

                          as a new cook, you may also find that high-quality spice blends will work for you (think penzey's, etc). for instance, a good quality curry powder will set you back less than buying fenugreek, tumeric, cumin, etc individually. i suspect as you grow as a cook, you'll want the control separate spices allow, but for now, spice blends might allow you to experiment and find the things you like to cook without making big investments in cuisine-specific spices.

                          ethnic markets tend to be cheaper for the spices/ingredients native to that cuisine. for instance, on saturday, i bought a 750ml bottle of oyster sauce from my local asian grocer for the same amount a bottle 1/4 the size costs at the regular grocery store.

                          as for things like the apple cider; if it's something you won't use in short order, freeze it in ice cube trays/small containers. you'll still have the upfront cost, but it will be on hand for future needs. and if, as someone above suggested, it might have been apple cider vinegar that you need, again, my local coops and green grocers have bulk supplies for honey, balsamic & apple cider vinegars, various olive oils, peanut butter & other liquids.

                          one last suggestion, to minimize costs, focus on learning about & cooking a single cuisine (thai, italian, etc.) or cuisine from a common area (mediterranean, pan-asian). that way there will be many common ingredients to share the cost over mutliple dishes.

                          1. Some hispanic markets have cellophane packets with small amounts of spices, for a dollar or two. I've also had good luck with the spice selection at the dollar store. Penzeys can't be beat, but even their smallest size is about a 1/2 cup glass bottle.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: jeanmarieok

                              You can get smaller sizes than that. I've got a whole bunch of their 1.6 oz. jars, which hold about 3-4 tablespoons total.

                            2. Lots of excellent suggestions on purchasing small quantities of spices. The only suggestion I have to add is to buy your spices in their whole form and grind them as needed in a cheap coffee grinder. Whole spices maintain their potency on the shelf much longer than their pre-ground counterparts.

                              1. hi cook411. what kind of spices are you looking for, exactly? in nyc and a lot of other cities i've lived, you can pick up (fairly large) containers of many common spices (rosemary, ginger powder, garlic powder, cinammon, oregeno, etc..) for less than a dollar (often 79 cents) at your local CVS / Duane Reade / other drugstore. sizes may not be as small as you like, but the prices are reasonable.

                                if you're on a budget, you can also do your own take on recipes and omit or substitute expensive, hard to find ingredients. don't want to buy apple cider? use a wee bit of brown sugar. or if it's apple cider vinegar the recipe asking for, use inexpensive white vinegar. try using recipes as a base that you can modify depending on what you have on hand.

                                finally, you might be interested in teaming up with a group of people to cook / buy certain ingredients. buy communal spices and make bigger (more cost effective) batches of everything to divvy up. that gives you a little more variety in your food, as well.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: cimui

                                  Yeah, when I was in college (over 15 years ago), I got a lot of my spices at Duane Reade -- except it was 99 cents back then!

                                  I also remembered that at Sobey's (a Canadian supermarket chain), they sold spices bulk spices by weight. I wonder if other supermarkets can do that.

                                2. More mainstream stores are starting to add bulk spices as well, at prices well below Whole Foods. You can often find them in the organic sections that are popping up everywhere.

                                  1. Since you say you're on a student budget, I'll assume you're a student. I thought it might be interesting to try and start your own kind of spice co-op on campus. It could be kind of a cooking club as well. You could set forth different recipes and create a spice "kit" for them. You could set up a student website with recipes and offer the spice kits for the recipes. You could buy them in bulk and portion them out. It could work if you promote it the right way.

                                    1. Cook411,
                                      The Spice House in Milwaukee and Chicago is the place to go. They're on-line and ship quickly. I would take them over Penzy's any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: RI Swampyankee

                                        FWIW, The Spice House is the original store opened by Bill Penzey Sr. in the 50's and is now run by his daughter Patti Erd and her husband Tom. Penzey's was founded in 1986 by Bill Penzey Jr. as a mail order only business but now operates storefronts as well. Appaerntly there is some friction between the siblings since Penzey's opened a shop in close proximity to one of The Spice House locations.

                                      2. Actually, I am no longer on a student budget, but a "can't-afford-to-live-in-the-bay-area" budget and living alone with very little storage space, so I can empathize with your problems. I think all of these things have been mentioned already, but I buy most of my spices either bulk or at an ethnic food store. This allows me to buy 2 tablespoons worth of cumin, etc. etc. at a time.

                                        -For obscure spices, I either omit or substitute until I learn that there is not substitute. For example, a stew that I now make regularly called for smoked paprika. I initially just substituted regular paprika, but then one day I discovered that smoked paprika makes it taste entirely different. So then I bought it. I now put it in many more things.

                                        -Some stuff like vinegar-- I started out with just one kind: balsamic. Then as I found myself making more and more recipes that call for apple cider vinegar, I finally caved in and bought some. I also caved in and bought champagne vinegar (just b/c it was like $2 at TJs), so that is now 3 types of vinegar, but this is a gradual accumulation over the past 6 or 7 years. I think it's fine to interchange vinegars. Chili is another one of these spices that I have two kinds, and just use it for everything.

                                        -For spices I buy in bulk quantities, a group of us single, like-to-cook types that live in the vicinity have a sort of informal "coop" where we share herbs. There is about 4 of us, so that's convenient. Like I've traded some of my tamarind for, say, fermented black beans, etc.

                                        -Also, if space allows you, for most of the Italian herbs (parsley, basil, oregano, thyme, etc.), I just keep a herb pot, which prevents having to buy a $2 bunch for just a tablespoon of basil or a teaspoon of the dried stuff and tastes better. I don't ever need to buy rosemary, b/c it is ubiquitous where I live. I can walk within a 200 feet radius from my apt. and find an unlimited supply of rosemary bushes.

                                        But yeah, the spice thing gets a bit out of hand, even for someone who is long out of college. As someone mentioned, if you think you're going to make something a lot, then it's probably worth buying the spices a few at a time. Also, some spices you will try and you will like so much that you won't want to substitute (in my case, this happened with the smoked paprika and fennel).

                                        1. If your supermarket has an "ethnic" or latin aisle, look for spices there. They tend be half the price and just as good of quality.