Grinding or buying herbs and spices? Mortar & Pestle or McCormick?
So I had this recipe that called for a melange of pepper. I went out and bought a McCormick pepper mixture with a built-in grinder. It's been 3 months and I've not used it since. I'm looking at it and realizing that it's mostly a mixture of black, white, and red pepper, all of which I have in dried powder form.
So THEN I'm wondering which herbs and spices I would be better off having whole and grinding them as I need them. They would stay fresher and I could get a coarser grind if I wanted. Which ones would be better whole versus dried from the store? What about herbs...which ones do you think are worth trying to grow indoors? I'd rather have an M&P over a spice grinder for ease of cleaning, but am I setting myself up for a sore arm that way? Lastly, would I need to store a larger volume of whole spices to get the same amount of already-ground ones?
"I'd rather have an M&P over a spice grinder for ease of cleaning, but am I setting myself up for a sore arm that way?"
I have both. When the recipe only call for a very small amount, then mortar and pestle are better. Easier to setup, easier to clean and even easier to control the coarseness/fineness of the spices On the other hand, an electric spice grinder can be very useful when a larger amount of spices are called for or when very finely ground spices are needed.
As for your question about "store a larger volume of whole spices to get the same amount of ground spices." That depends. On one hand, whole spices take up larger volume than ground spices, so 1 tablespoon of whole peppercorn will yield much less than 1 tablespoon of ground peppercorn. On the other hand, whole spices stay fresher and more potent than ground spices, so you will rarely need to toss them away.
I buy dried herbs and spices, pre-ground except for things I don't use as often - cumin seeds for one. I recently went from a tiny M&P to a 5" granite and what a difference! I love this thing. Being heavy and having a rough interior makes all the difference - and although you'd think the opposite is actually less tiring. So I've started to use it for coarser grinds on things like pepper. Very easy to clean as well.
I've never had much success with herbs inside, but I do grow a few of the most used ones in the summer - parsley, basil, rosemary and chives - maybe tarragon (great for making vinegar).
I'd say that generally, having whole or semi-whole herbs and spices and grinding them (and as much) as you need makes for better dishes. And fresh herbs are generally superior to dry. By semi-whole, I mean e.g., that I prefer to buy dry Greek oregano leaves over the dried whole stems, but that is a matter of storage and convenience.
Growing indoors? How much light, room and time do you have? I keep planters on the back porch with rosemary, winter savory, bay, sage, thyme, basil, Greek oregano, lemon thyme, and parsley. I will plant some chives, cilantro and garlic this Spring as well. While these are all do-able on a windowsill, if you use very much, you will have to supplement anyway unless you pick just 1 or 2.
Re: Grinder v. M&P... On a rec from another CH poster, I went to an Asian market 6 months ago and bought a granite M&P, which I love. Before, when I need spices, I found I didn't want to drag the grinder out uncoil and plug it in, and fight the cord, try to clean it without washing, etc., so I just bought pre-ground. But my M&P sits right next to the spice drawer and the stove, and it's actually faster for me overall (Hint: If a recipe calls for a number of things at a single step, you can add them all to the M&P and grind once.) Easier to see the fineness of the grind, too. Unless you're arthritic or have carpal tunnel or somesuch, I wouldn't worry too much about soreness (But buy a bigger one so you can grasp the pestle with your whole hand--the smaller ones *will* make you sore).
Yes, generally you have to have a larger volume of whole to get the equivalent of preground. But why would you want the same amount? Most good cooks who buy preground end up tossing a large volume anyway when they rotate.
One last factor I'll toss in the mortar for you. If you live or work in a city or town where there is a dedicated bulk spice store, you will probably find that you can buy your herbs and spices in VERY small quantities, about the size you will need for your recipe(s). And not for a lot of money, compared with paying full retail for Spice Islands, Schilling, or McCormick's in the supermarket containers. If you have such access, and can shift your thinking about herbs and spices to a grocery list item rather than a pantry item, then there's no reason to have either the M&P or the grinder. What you don't use, you can save, of course, for use in a pinch.
Hope this helps.
Hard to generalize since it's not clear how much and what kinds of spices you use most. I'm lucky enough to have easy access to fairly inexpensive bulk spices. I usually refresh my 'fridged dried spices 2-4 times a year and buy in small quantities to keep things fresh. Things get ground as they're needed.