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Shout out to Ruth Lafler for inexpensive spice tip

A long while ago in a thread about eating inexpensively, Ruth gave the great tip about buying spices from the Mexican section of the supermarket. A bag of cinnamon runs about 70 cents.

Today I needed some Bay Leaves for a crab stock. I don't cook that much. The thought of spending $3.59 (on sale) for a bottle of bay leaves where at most I would just a few leaves with the bottle going bad long before I used another ... passed.

Yeah, I could drive down to the local spice store that sells bulk and buy two leaves, but the thought of negotiating that ... pass.

Then I remembered Ruth's tip ... a huge bag of hoya de laurel ... 69 cents. My area has a large Latino population so the turnover is rapid. I can smell the bay leaves sitting on the counter ,... they are that fresh and fragrant.

Anyway, with a lot of people baking in the next few days,... and the lousy economy ... just wanted to remind people that tha Mexican section of the supermarket is a good place to buy spices on the cheap.

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  1. I could be wrong - but I have noticed that the spices I have purchased from the mexican spice area have been mostly devoid of punch or taste. I don't know if they are old or what, but. hot pepper flakes should be hot, oregano should be... oreganoey especially when crumbled.

    Also, for their pastes and mixes (like adobo) - I am really careful. I look at the ingredient list. They always seem to be loaded with preservatives and MSG.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Sal Vanilla

      I don't buy pastes or mixes. It would depend. Some of the big gringo supermarkets have a Mexican selection that is like Chinese ... that is Chung King or El Paso. That type of market I wouldn't buy the Mexican spices either. Turnover is pretty key for spices.

      The Mexican spices are not in the same class as Penzy's, but my experience is that they are the equal or better than the supermarket spices like Spice Island, Durkee, etc. The thing with the brand name spices is they have gotten so expensive that they don't turn over quickly with the exception of often used spices like cinnamon.

    2. I use the mexican cinnamon sticks all of the time. While the quality might not be as good as some other brands, at least where I shop, these spices are turning over FAST so they are fresh. I think it's worth a try, in a pinch. You might be pleasantly surprised.

      1. I'm with SalV on the oregano and chili-flake, but for bay leaf, cinnamon and dried whole chilies, you can't beat the bags. (Milpas (sp) is the brand my market carries. Also good for whole vanilla beans- $2.99 for three pods. Adam

        1 Reply
        1. re: adamshoe

          The oregano found in the Latin section is not the same plant as the Mediterranian oregano. As the nursery person explained to me the Mexican plant is a tall bush. However, I do prefer the Mexican oregano because it is less "sweet". Heaven forgive me, I use it in Italian dishes,also.
          If you find the herbs and spices tasteless, perhaps there are not enough Latins patronizing that store thus the turnover is as slow as the others.

        2. Another approach is to go to a "health foods" type store that has herbs/spices in bulk, and just buy the tiny quantities you need. They tend to be very cheap in bulk, and buying small amounts makes them extremely cheap.

          1 Reply
          1. re: johnb

            I would agree with buying in bulk whole heartedly. I had to re-stock my entire spice cabinet and I was able to get quite a bit-20 or so different spices-(about half of a typical spice jar each) for $12.00!

          2. Or, if you live in the Bay Area, just pick some off a (bay laurel) tree--they're quite common. Good tip though

            1 Reply
            1. re: xanadude

              Good point x-man. I live in the Laurel District of Oakland, CA, so named for it's abundance of said trees. Nothin' like a fresh Bayleaf as opposed to a dry one. Anytime I go for a walk up in the hills, there's tons of bay leaves there for the taking. Adam

            2. my experience with that stuff has been mixed...but i've had more bad experiences than good ones. [the best have been the whole dried peppers]. i think it's the packaging...the spices - especially ground - deteriorate even more quickly in those flimsy plastic bags than they do in sealed glass jars. if i really needed something & that was my only option i'd go for it, but it definitely wouldn't be my first choice.

              1 Reply
              1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                I am unfamiliar with most of the brands mentioned. I needing spices not often used, I have found buying seeds if possible, and using a mortar and pestle to grind when I need them to be a great way to save money and spices. Larger amounts may be ground in a grinder. Just thinking of the aroma of fresh ground cumin is making me hungry. My kids love helping when the mortar and pestle come out! They even make their own "mixes" and we experiment on nights we have ground beef.

                I save the tiny little jars from samples of jam to store spice seeds.

              2. I use the ground cumin, the ground oregano and the cinnamon sticks from the Mojave brand spices and they're just fine.

                1. I don't remember the brand name of hand, but I LOVE the cinnamon from the "Mexican" section of the grocery store, it is light years better than the stuff from the regular spice aisle (it actually smells like cinnamon!) and at least as good as what I've had from the bulk jars at Whole Foods. Of course, but neighborhood is home to most of the (large) Latino community in my town, so the closest grocery store (a major regional chain) has a large and growing "Mexican" section with very high turnover. The only herbs/spices I've tried are cinnamon and bay leaves, but will probably try others as the need arises, it's much more convenient than driving to Whole Foods to buy spices in bulk.

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: mpjmph

                    The whole stick cinnamon in the Mexican packages is usually the thin bark true cinnamon. The flavor is more delicate than the thicker bark cassia (which is used for most American ground version).

                    As with other sources, whole spices in these cello packages will be better than ground.

                    Regarding oregano, there is an Mexican variety that is different from the common Mediterranean. Rick Bayless demonstrated the difference to his daughter on one of his shows. The Mexican variety has a stronger aroma, especially when crumbled.

                    Regarding the heat of ground pepper and pepper flakes, the Mexican section will have a greater range than the regular grocery aisle. You will find mild ones, and hotter ones. It helps to have some knowledge of the types.

                    You can also find whole dried ginger here. I don't know if Penzy's sells that or not. I grate it with a nutmeg grater. I have also ground it with a whirly coffee mill, though I cracked the plastic cap in the process.

                    1. re: mpjmph

                      Exactly. If you have to spend time and money to make a separate trip to a store that has bulk spices then you're not saving anything. That said, I went to my local bulk food store (much better selection and much cheaper than Whole Foods) and bought some wonderful Saigon cinnamon -- talk about smelling like cinnamon! I think Mexican cinnamon is cassia, not true cinnamon -- true cinnamon was orginally from Sri Lanka and is still grown almost exclusively in Asia. Cassia actually has a stronger aroma than true cinnamon (Saigon cinnamon is closer to cassia than true cinnamon).

                      1. re: Ruth Lafler

                        At least in whole quill form, the preferred cinnamon in Mexico (and rest of Latin America) is the thin bark true cinnamon. Via the Wiki article I found a FAO link that says:

                        "Cinnamon and cinnamon-tree flowers, whole (HS090610): Export of 111 642 t worth US$91 Mio in 2001. Main exporting countries are Sri Lanka, China and Indonesia; main importers are Mexico, USA/PR/USVI and India."
                        That statement does not clearly distinguish between cinnamon and cassia imports and exports, but I think most of the Mexican import is true cinnamon, possibly in bulk form that is cut down into the smaller quills for consumer use. Years ago I saw, in Ecuador, quills several feet long being used to brew the popular cinnamon tea (cinnamon and raw brown sugar).

                        1. re: paulj

                          Ah, but if it's Mexican cinnamon sold in the U.S. it's probably not cinnamon that's first been imported into Mexico. I guess it could be, but it seem unlikely.

                        2. re: Ruth Lafler

                          Saigon cinnamon is a variety of cassia. i think you're right that cinnamon that originates in Mexico is cassia, which is ironic since, as paulj points out, what's preferred in Mexican cooking is "true" cinnamon. (Canela translates from Spanish as cinnamon, but in Mexico, canela generally means true cinnamon, not the cassia we use here.)

                      2. whats wrong with the health food stores? the very best and freshest spices ive ever found,were from many different health food stores.........prices should fall between groc. stores and mex. prices-if large quantity is a problem,split with a friend or neighbor! As a former chef,i personally bought items with my own funds,to counteract the dismal .stale insipid lack of strength found from rest. suppliers bulk "junktanks" of dead seasonings! Happy cooking!

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: someoddity

                          There's nothing wrong with health food stores, but if, as rworange said, you just need a few leaves, it's a pain in the ass to make a special trip to a different store for them, especially if that's the only thing you'll buy there. I prefer to buy my spices in bulk at the natural foods store, but when I've run out of something and need it right now, it's nice to buy it where I can also buy my other groceries.

                        2. The other day I started making chili, first time in a long time. So long that I realized I didn't have chile powder. I ran down to the chinese grocer which had a wall of packaged Mexican spices. He only had chile de arbol, which I thought was funny. My neighborhood is too exotic! I ended up somehow making chili without chile powder.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: gourmandadventurer

                            I know this is odd, but chili is so great for using up spices past their prime. I hate throwing stuff out and don't cook enough to use up spices usually. However, chili will effectively use what heat and flavor is left without any stale flavor that might be apparant if that spice was featured. My next experiment is to use up some past-its-prime smoky Chinese tea to cook baked beans in. I want to see if the smokiness gets passed to the beans.