I bought bulk spices in the dark days before I discovered the magic of online spice shopping. Bulk spices seem like a good idea. You get exactly the quantity you need. You see and smell the spices as you scoop. You trust the source, since bulk spices are generally sold at health food stores and food co-ops.
If your choices are supermarket spices in plastic bottles or bulk spices from the health food store, then bulk spices are the better choice. Fortunately, the internet gives us an even better option. Buying spices online is smart because the selection is vast and the spices are fresher.
The food industrial complex is amazing, but it has not been good for spices. To maximize profits, international spice behemoths take their time delivering spices to you. They harvest, store, transport, store, process, store, package, store, transport, and store again before delivering spices to your supermarket. Spice companies have become logistics companies, and we taste the difference.
Bulk spices are a good alternative to stale supermarket spices, especially if done right. Sadly, not every spice seller does it right. This matters with pungent ground spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and ground pepper. Properly stored in their whole form, cinnamon bark, nutmegs, and peppercorns can last for years. But the minute those spices are cracked and ground, volatile oils are released and the clock is ticking on flavor.
Storage is also a problem. How long has that spice been sitting in that dusty glass jar? Hard to know. Before it was dumped into the jar, how long did it languish in a loosely closed sack in the back store room? Hard to know. Ask somebody at the store and see if you get answers to these questions: When was the cinnamon ground? Where was it ground? Who ground it? When did it get here? How long has it been in that jar?
If you do buy bulk spices, be cautious about quantity. Just because the cheap plastic bag holds a full cup does not mean you need a full cup. Buy ground spices frequently in small quantities. It is fine to load up on whole spices like peppercorns, but go easy on the ground cinnamon.
There are no easy answers to questions about spice freshness. Cinnamon ground six months ago will smell and taste like cinnamon. Peppercorns ground a year ago are an acceptable topping for steak — if you and the steak are stranded on a desert island. The ground nutmeg your mom bought during the first Reagan administration is not going to make you sick. But each of those spices delivers only a fraction of optimal flavor. To get the best flavor, you want spices ground within the past month.
We obsess about freshness at The Spice House. We blend and grind every day, so I can take home something fresh every evening. The internet gives you the same access. The spice you order today was ground within the past week or two — if not the past day or two.
I do have fond memories of scooping spices with my hippie parents at the food co-op in Silver Spring, Maryland. But that was the late 1970s, and we’ve come a long way since then.
Charlie Mayer is CEO of The Spice House and a somewhat capable home cook.