The Topic: Getting the biggest bang for your buck when cooking with herbs and spices with Editorial Assistant Joni Sweet
The Dish: With Thanksgiving right around the corner, I (like many) have cooking on the mind. I can’t wait to heat up my kitchen and fill my apartment with seasonal aromas and that pleasant sizzle of my favorite dishes on the stove top. Trying out new spices and herbs is one of the most enticing parts of cooking—unfortunately, it’s often one of the most expensive parts as well. But between regularly whipping up exciting dishes like Korean bibimbap or Brazilian feijoada, I’ve learned a thing or two about keeping seasoning costs low.
Bigger is Better
First, adopt my favorite three-word principle: buy in bulk. Last year, Indian food was the name of the game for my kitchen, and I couldn’t believe the price of saffron—just a few vivid threads rivals the cost of my college education. On a whim, I decided to check out the bulk section of the grocery store and I found a whole box of American saffron (which works just as well) for less than $10. So began my love affair with buying in bulk. If you’re buying international spices, check your favorite grocery store’s ethnic aisles, where you’ll likely find huge bags of turmeric, cloves, chili powder, and more, for a lot less than the tiny jarred versions in the spice sections. Or, head to cultural neighborhood stores for a similar experience—independent mom-and-pop shops tend to stock an even greater variety of herbs and spices for all your cooking needs.
No, not do-it-yourself—in this case, dry-it-yourself! The best time to find cheap herbs is when they’re in season, so ask vendors at your local farmers’ market when you can expect to see your favorites. Once you’ve found the tasty treasures, use what you can that week—nothing beats the scent and flavor of fresh herbs. Then, dry the rest before they rot. The National Center for Home Food Preservation has created a great guide on how to dry herbs using materials you probably already have. Using a microwave, dehydrator, or even a paper bag will help preserve your herbs for the rest of the year. I bought a hearty stem of sage, my favorite herb, and dried it by hanging it upside-down for two weeks. Now I can incorporate this earthy herb into my meals for the rest of the year, without the cost of buying a jar of the dried stuff.
Growing-it-yourself doesn’t require much of a green thumb, or a stuffed wallet. In the springtime, plant seeds in a window box and wait for the magic to begin—basil and mint require minimal care, grow like crazy in the right conditions, and will save you a lot compared with buying packs at the grocery store with just a few leaves at a time. Fear not if you missed planting season, as many grocery and gardening stores stock potted herbs during most of the year. The prices for potted basil are not much higher than the cost of packs of the fresh leaves, so why not put your money towards something that will keep growing the green stuff? In addition to providing fresh herbs year-round, potted herbs also add a touch of green to your kitchen, which is essential during the upcoming grey months.
Learn to Substitute
Amateur cooks tend to focus on every individual ingredient of a recipe, whereas the pros know what to use to make the final dish delicious, regardless of what the recipe may call for. Instead of buying every last spice on a huge ingredients list (and racking up a hefty grocery bill), reconsider what’s already in your kitchen. This guide to substitutions is a great place to start for using herb alternatives, such as parsley instead of cilantro, or substituting basil in place of mint. The Cook’s Thesaurus also has a handy guide for international spice substitutions. Bet you didn’t know you could use nutmeg instead of mace or allspice in place of clove! One final tip: If you don’t have a particular herb or spice that a recipe calls for, just leave it out—once you taste your home-cooked dish, you’ll forget that you omitted the coriander seeds (and your guests won’t even know!).
Cooking spicy, flavorful dishes doesn’t have to be expensive—by learning where to find the best prices, how to grow and preserve fresh herbs, and what works when substituting, using spices and herbs is as savvy as it is delicious.