Herbs and spices have always presented a challenge for me for two reasons:
- They are expensive. It’s hard at times to justify spending five or even 8 dollars on a small bottle of any ingredient.
- They are difficult to store and organize. Lots of little bottles don’t lend themselves to any sort of reasonable organizing scheme that doesn’t also take up a lot of space in my cabinets or pantry.
And, if these two issues aren’t enough, to a person, every chef I’ve ever talked to or taken a cooking class from has said that spices go bad quickly because oxygen degrades their flavor. In the last couple of years though I’ve solved my herb and spice challenges using two tactics:
- I buy my spices in bulk.
- I store my spices in small square tins.
These two approaches combined help me spend less on herbs and spices, keep them fresh, and store them in a reasonably sized space. My hope is that my trial and error in developing this system might be helpful to anyone still trying to overcome the same challenges I’ve face. If you have a great system for storing herbs and spices, I’d love to hear about it in the comments – I’m always looking for new ideas.
Buying Spices in Bulk
I buy spices in bulk for three reasons:
- I can buy as much (or as little) as I need. If I only need a few teaspoons of a spice I don’t regularly use, I can buy just that much and not let the rest go to waste in my pantry. I can also buy seasonal spices like pumpkin pie spice or poultry seasoning only at the time of year I need them. I’m also more likely to experiment with a new spice if I don’t have to spend a ton of money to try it.
- Like other bulk foods, spices tend to be less expensive because there is less packaging involved. Ounce-for-ounce, bulk spices are less expensive than their pre-packaged spice aisle equivalents.
- I can completely replenish my entire spice collection every three months for less than $25 so I always have fresh spices on hand. Because I paid so little for my spices in the first place, it doesn’t bother me to toss ¼ of a 89 cent bag of chili powder.
My local Central Market has an extensive bulk spice department with Whole Foods coming in a close second. If you don’t have access to a good bulk spice collection, there are several online spice retailers including:
I buy many of my spices whole and grind them when I need them. Whole spices last longer because their outer shell protects them from oxygen, and an inexpensive coffee grinder makes grinding them easy. If you’ve never had freshly ground nutmeg you’re really missing out on the true nutmeg flavor. The same is true for freshly ground pepper.
Spice Storage Made Easy
I struggled for years with the best way to store spices. I’ve looked at every spice storage system imaginable, but the problem is I like to keep a healthy collection of spices on hand – typically between 30 and 40 different varieties. Many spice bottle organizers are great for 12 or even 20 bottles, but once you get past a couple of dozen spices, they simply take up too much space. Also, because I buy in bulk, my spices come in little plastic bags instead of bottles which makes them even more difficult to corral. After some experimentation I landed on square food safe tin containers in two sizes: 4 oz. and 8 oz. I like these for a few reasons:
- Square containers make the most of available storage space. Round containers always create unused empty space when you set them side-by-side.
- The clear lid makes it easy to see how much of any spice I have left.
- The lids fit tightly to keep as much air out as possible.
- They are inexpensive. A 4 oz. container is $.72 and an 8 oz. container is $.91. It cost me less than $30 to set up my entire system, even with my rather large collection.
A collection of tins will fit nicely in a drawer or even in a small basket on a shelf. My tins will even fit in an existing spice rack that’s already installed in a pantry. I was a little short on storage space, so I recycled a wide and shallow plastic storage box I purchased a few years ago. It’s translucent to help filter out the light – another enemy of spices right there with oxygen and heat – and it fits neatly in a cabinet within easy reach.
I do organize my spices alphabetically to make them easier to find.
I use a two-tiered approach that utilizes mostly 4 oz. tins with a few 8 oz. tins for the spices I use most regularly.
Finally, I use my Brother P-touch to make labels for the tins so anyone in the family can easily find a tin. If I decide I don’t need to store a particular spice any longer, I remove the label, wash the tin, and set it aside for future use.
Finding Your System
My approach to spice storage is based on the number of spices I regularly keep on hand, easy access to bulk spices, and my kitchen’s storage space. As you think about how best to store your spices, you’ll need to consider similar issues. If you can only get spices in bottles, then dark, air-tight bottles that block the light may be your highest priority. If you only keep a dozen or so spices on hand, a pretty counter-top storage rack may be just right for you. No one system is right for everyone, but hopefully the ideas I’ve shared here will jump start your spice organizing fun.
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