Buying and Storing Dried Herbs and Spices

I had lunch with my friend Katy last week. She told me she spent the whole summer focusing on cooking. At one point she asked a chef friend for advice about what to have on hand in the kitchen, but didn't get useful advice in return.

I knew I could help.

We'll start with spices and dried herbs, then in future weeks cover pantry and vegetable staples. I've broken down fresh herbs, spices and dried herbs into groups based on how often you'd likely use them - at least related to the cooking advice and recipes you get from me.

The Spice Drawer

Buying Dried Herbs and Spices

But don't forget. the only shortcut to becoming a great home chef is to use fresh herbs. Here's my article about fresh herbs, The Only Shortcut to Becoming a Great Home Cook, if you want to review that advice. But, we do have off seasons, don't always have indoor potted versions, sometimes a plant dies or is devoured by caterpillars (parsley) and we need to rely on dried versions. Spices and seeds - well, they're mostly in dried form anyway, so they're the main subject of this discussion.
  • I try my hardest to NOT buy the major brands of dried herbs and spices such as McCormick's or Spice Island. The are often on grocery and warehouse shelves for years. Notice the pale colors. Notice how many look like crumbled sticks and twigs instead of dried leaves. No thanks.
  • Morton and Bassett provides high quality products and are distributed nationally. They're my go to choice, unless I have access to......
  • Bulk spice purveyors - some towns have a gourmet shop or even a dedicated spice shop.These are great sources if you have them. Many grocers now have bulk spices. They're a great value, and usually, but not always, as good or better than pre-packaged spices. You need to test and taste bulk spices, compare them to prepackaged and make your own decision which is best. There's a lot of variation. But bulk is often the best bet for quality and price.
  • Mail order - Penzey's out of Madison, Wisconsin has an enormous selection of high quality spices for sale online and through catalogs. They're good, but I don't tend to shop for a whole bunch of spices at one time, so I don't turn to them often. I wish I used more of their products though. They are good.

Storing Dried Herbs and Spices

Do not leave jars of spices and herbs in a kitchen with direct sunlight. The sun will accelerate the loss of taste and color of the herbs/spices. Store them in a pantry or kitchen drawer.

Here's how it worked out for me. I graduated from spice rack (college) to spice hanging basket (lame 1980's decor) to spice shelf which gave way to the full on spice drawer. Maybe the spice drawer came about because Morton and Bassett labels the top of their bottles. I also have an unnatural phobia of lazy Susan turntables, where kitchen spices are often stored.

In the next post, I'll provide my recommendations for your spice drawer / rack / shelf. But not your hanging basket. That was a bad idea even in the '80's.
  • Fresh Herbs You Ought to Grow and Use Regularly
  • Dried Versions of Herbs You Should Stock – just in case
  • Dried Spices and Herbs You Should Have On Hand At All Times
  • Spices and Dried Herbs for Advanced or Specialty Cooking
  • Spices You Should Never (or Rarely) Use
  • A Couple Other Staples in the Spice Drawer
Next week I'll run through pantry staples and standard vegetables to have on hand at all times. You might also want to review my prior recommendations of Kitchen Tools You Can't Live Without.

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