For the most part thus far, I have relied on a few spices already in my cabinet. I have found that the key to getting spices at a reasonable price is to buy in large quantities. Most chain grocery stores only sell small jars of spices. These jars are typically in the ballpark of 2-3 ounces and generally cost anywhere from $2-$5 and sometimes more. Buying spices this way is very ineffective and wastes money.
I have found that you can find a fantastic array of spices in much larger containers, even bags, if you go to a local ethnic supermarket (such as A Grocery Warehouse). The curry pictured above is from one such market, and it was priced at $5. The jar hold 16 ounces of curry powder, enough to last you quite awhile. In cases where the spices come in bags, like the photo below:
I recommend putting the spices into mason jars. You shouldn't run into any problems with spoilage of spices unless you leave them unsealed. In that case bugs might find them, but as long as you store your spices in tightly sealed containers, buying in bulk is the best way to go. You can find empty mason jars at any hardware store. I consider it a worthy investment for storage.
Even with these frugal, bulk purchase tactics, building a good spice collection can be expensive up front. I have experienced this first hand. I brought very little with me to California, and the spices I'd collected while in college definitely didn't make the cut. I'm still trying to buy furniture and finding that hard enough to set money aside for. As much as I love to cook, I have not been financially able to invest in a lot of spices. My cabinet is pretty bare.
I have, however, found that a few good spices bought in bulk aren't too pricey and really go a long way. I live on the following:
- Curry - You can create a good Indian dish with just curry, garlic, onion, and maybe some ginger root. Recipes often call for everything from cumin to mustard seeds, but I've found these spices are less versatile and are usually expensive. Curry is a great investment. I use my jar all the time, and I still have 15.5 ounces left it seems.
- Miso Paste - This can be purchased an most Asian super markets, and even some mainstream chain grocers. I bought my 26.4 oz. container of Miso paste for $4.99. This stuff is really great. The only problem is the high sodium content, but I find that you don't need to use too much. Miso is made from soybeans. I typically dissolve a little bit in water and then seam veggies in that broth. Spinach, broccoli, or bell peppers are really fantastically flavorful with just a little water and Miso. You can also dissolve the paste in water to make your own Miso broth for Miso Soup. Its way cheaper than buying instant Miso Soup packets. I add frozen peas (which are cheap) to the broth and it is an awesome, light soup.
- Ground Black Pepper - the cheapest way I have found to use this spice is to invest in a pepper grinder (around $5 at Target) and buy the peppercorns whole. This is much healthier than salt and adds a great, once again, versatile spiciness that can be added to all sorts of dishes. I love more specialty peppers too, but they are often too specific in flavor and their specialization makes them less economical because they are not useful on a daily basis.
- Trader Joe's Lemon Pepper Grinder - Ok, I rarely point out a single, name-brand product as my salvation, but this is an exception. The lemon pepper, alas, comes in a 2.2 oz. grinder and costs $2.99 if I remember correctly. (I bought mine awhile ago.) It is one of the few spices I would buy in a small quantity. The grinder contains a bit of sea salt, black peppercorns, and dried lemon rind, and it really enhances everything from potatoes to avocado and apple burritos. I think I might try to make my own in the future. With three simple ingredients, it wouldn't be that hard. Again, that $2.99 is certainly accounting for convenience.
- Fresh fruit juice - I find that lemons, limes, key limes, and even oranges can be pretty cheap, especially here in California. When these citrus fruits are cheap and in season, I recommend using their juice to flavor things - including tap water! I have combined orange juice with curry powder, key lime juice with Miso, and made great mint and lemon tap water pitchers with fresh fruit juice.