Spices 101: What You Need to Know About Buying Spices

One might think that learning which spice to add to which dish is one of the first things you would be taught in Spices 101, but they would be wrong.

Learning to source and purchase fresh, quality products is paramount when learning to cook well with spices. Would you make a fruit salad with moldy fruit? Spread rancid butter on fresh baked bread? Of course not.  Likewise, you should aim to use the best spices and herbs possible, for reasons we will discuss below.

This is the second post in our Spices 101 series. In my first post, I debunked common spice myths and pointed out how proper selection and addition of good quality spices  to a dish can elevate the flavor of a dish with little effort and minimal cost. Next week we will talk about how proper storage is important for preserving your newly acquired quality spices, followed by how to grind whole spices and finally,  learn what spices to stock your pantry with.

For now, let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly facts about buying spices.

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Rules for Buying Spices

This post could have been titled “Throw away your spices and start over” and as harsh as that may sound, it’s not far off in describing how I feel about the state of most spice cabinets I see.

Here are my purchasing tips for stocking your pantries and spicing up your life – through food.

Stay Far Away from Typical Grocery Store Spices

Products on the shelves of your average grocery chain my have been there for a year or more, and they probably sat in a warehouse up to a year before that. Since the average shelf life of ground spices maxes out around six months, chances are you’re buying stale spices.

Also, these spices are generally very poor quality and may contain nasty contaminants, which we’ll look at in a minute.

Purchase Whole Spices

  • Purchase whole spices and grind them yourself to retain maximum potency and ensure a fuller flavor.
  • Whole spices will stay fresher, longer. Since ground spices have such a short shelf life, chances are every ground spice in your cabinet right now is past it’s prime.
  • You know what you are getting with whole spices. Ground spices may have other ingredients such as salt, rice or flour mixed in and FDA regulations do not require suppliers to list these add-ins as ingredients. Also, ground spices are not required to be free of contaminants.

Buy the Best Possible Spices You Can Afford

Cheap spices are cheap for a reason. The health regulations for ground spices are lax, with the ASTA (American Spice Trade Association) cleanliness specifications stating that “…it is not possible to grow, harvest, and process crops that are totally free of natural defects”. *What, so let’s just grind them in and sell them? Pretty much.

What are these ‘defects’? Well if you really want to know, a few of them are mold, exctreta (yep, that’s poo), dead insects, rat hairs, wire, string and a list of other ‘foreign matter’.

What percentage of this foreign matter may be in your pre-ground spices? It’s shocking, but up to 20% for some is still considered “acceptable”. The average is much less, but still…. Ick.

So what can you do to source better spices?

  1. Go to Ethnic Markets. Often ethnic markets have good quality whole spices at affordable prices. They are selling spices that are used regularly and are re-stocked much faster than an average grocery store where spices may sit for much longer. Of course ethnic markets can sell poor quality spices as well, but talk to the staff. Smell the spices and buy a small amount to try at home to see if you like them.
  2. Source a local spice merchant. These spices shops nearly always guarantee quality and freshness. The best part? You can usually chat with the staff about how to incorporate their products into your cooking. Some may even have recipe cards to hand out.
  3. Source Quality Spices Online. If you cannot locally source whole spices, consider purchasing online from a reliable company. There are many options out there. Here are my recommendations:

Avoid gourmet shops selling regular spices at inflated prices. It happens plenty. If you’ve been to your local ethnic market and/or specialty spice merchant and experienced the real thing, you can usually just use your eyes and nose to identify the frauds.  Most spices are incredibly pungent, and should never smell musty.

Buy Small Amounts of Spices at a Time

Spices are not the ingredients to be buying bulk for your home kitchen because they do go stale. Unless you are a very active cook and are heavy-handed with the spices, I wouldn’t recommend buying bulk spices.

Remember, if you’re buying good quality spices, you won’t need to use as much for cooking as they will be much more potent than standard grocery store fare. A little goes a long way.

Final thought: When You Can, Grow your Own

The best solution for sourcing dried herbs is to grow your own! Or buy from a friend or family member who has a garden. Hang bundles of fresh herbs upside down to dry, then fill mason jars with their fragrant leaves. Stored properly (which we’ll talk about next week) these herbs will last all winter.

There is growing interest in knowing where your dairy, meat and vegetables come from. Don’t you want to know where your spices come from as well?

About Aimee

Cooking has always been Aimée's preferred recreational activity, creative outlet, and source of relaxation. After nearly ten years in the professional cooking industry, she went from restaurant to RSS by trading her tongs and clogs for cookie cutters and a laptop, serving as editor here at Simple Bites. Her first book, Brown Eggs and Jam Jars - Family Recipes from the Kitchen of Simple Bites, was published in February 2015.

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  1. Great advice. The thought of reinvesting is scary lol but I guess doing a couple at a time is easy enough to do. It is scary to know the ick acceptable things that may be in our spices now.

    BTW great spice drawer!
    .-= [email protected]’s last blog: Cheap Ethnic Eatz 3rd Anniversary Dinner =-.

    • That’s a great approach, Evelyne. When you run out of a herb or spice, replace it with something a little better. You won’t regret it!

      • diamonds8876 says

        Hi I love your site… I am 38 years old and was recently diagnosed with policystic kidney disease. (Genetic kidney disease).. My nephrologist recommends a low sodium/ no sodium diet.. Having a hard time with that and thought I could learn to season my meals with natural spices so here I am.. I live in an apartment in Newyork and have no idea what I can grow inside. Any suggestions? Where can I buy seeds to grow if its even possible in an apartment? I cant find your post on how to store your own.. Thanks looking forward to hear from you. Thanks! Carol

  2. Mountain Rose Herbs is another good source. (http://www.mountainroseherbs.com/)

  3. Great Information! Thanks 🙂

    .-= Sandie Lee’s last blog: AWESOME GIVEAWAY!! =-.

  4. This is a great information. I buy my spices from a little shop in Toronto called The Spice Trader. Organic, fresh and wonderful. I have never really thought about going to an ethnic market though – great tip!
    .-= Jan (Family Bites)’s last blog: Bread Love =-.

  5. OK, EWWWWWW about grocery store spices! That is sickening!

    I like to go to Penzey’s Spices. Their products are very comparable to grocery store prices and the spices are so fresh!

    Another source for herbs is your local health food store. You can buy whatever amount you need and they are usually very reasonably priced.

    How do you recommend grinding your own spices?

    • Hi Tammy,

      Sounds like you’ve already sourced some great spices in Penzeys. Great tip about the health store, that is true.

      I use a small coffee grinder or a mortar & pestle for grinding my spices. We’ll cover storing & grinding spices in an upcoming post. Stay tuned.

  6. Great post! I need to find a spice shop in London. Any recommendations?
    .-= Pure Mothers’s last blog: Book Review: Free-Range Kids =-.

  7. There is a new spice supplier here in Calgary that has beautiful spices – although they’d never heard of Tonka Beans! But they suffer from high prices. Like almost everything else in this city.

    And I would have to say that it is thanks to you that I finally converted to grinding my own. Once you do that you never go back!
    .-= Cheryl Arkison’s last blog: Cardamom Ice Cream =-.

    • That’s great, Cheryl! I’m so glad I’ve converted another person. =) Let me know if you need some tonka and I’ll ship some out.

  8. I have much to learn about spices apparently. I’d have to agree with the lady up above; it sounds daunting to just toss out all of my spices (not that I have many; they’re such an expensive part of my meager grocery budget, I feel bad throwing them out if they aren’t used much). I’m really looking forward to drying and storing fresh herbs! This will really tie in with what I’m growing.

  9. Great tips, Aimee! I order all of our spices from Mountain Rose Herbs and think they have great quality and prices. I like to grind mine in a mortar and pestle, though I am looking into other avenues. I was shocked when I went to buy turmeric at the grocery store and found 2-3 Tablespoons for $5! I can pay that much at MRH for fresh ground and get an entire pound.
    .-= Shannon’s last blog: Wild Edibles: Garlic Mustard and Recipe for Green Lentils with Wild Garlic Mustard Pesto =-.

    • Shannon, I like the time that a coffee grinder saves some when I grind a lot of spices-say for a blend- but love my mortar and pestle for little stuff.

  10. Hannah Hudgin says

    Great tips, Aimee! Thanks for writing on this topic. I can’t wait to read the next one about storage. I grew some of my own herbs last year and fell in love with how great they tasted compared to store bought ones.

  11. What about spices at an organic market? I recently bought ground ginger and cinnamon at “Planet Organic” and they smelled fabulous compared to my local grocery store. Do you think they’d still carry most of the same concerns?

    • It really depends on the market, Kika. You’re on the right track by smelling them, though. Your nose plays an important role in deciphering the freshness of the spices.
      Talk to to owners & staff, ask questions.
      The turnover of spices may be slow, and that would be a cause for concern about freshness, but the spices would probably be better quality than a grocery store.

  12. Great post! I’m really looking forward to your post about drying and preserving herbs. I’m going to have a little herb garden this year and I’ll definitely want and need to preserve the extras.

    I have begun to buy spices “in bulk” from our local co-op. The spices are from nearby farms and so I think they are much fresher. And by ‘bulk’ I mean that I take my own used-up container or jar, and mark the tare weight, and use a tiny scoop to refill it. These have been much fresher and bolder in flavor than the grocery store versions.

    I think spices should not be skimped on, especially as I try to cook healthy food. The flavor doesn’t have to (and at my house, doesn’t usually) come from butter, cheese and thick creams and fats. I use lots of flavor from the spice cupboard! So I don’t like to be cheap about it, although I confess to having purchased a couple of store-brand versions…that I’ll be throwing away because it’s like eating sawdust…but I can use the containers to get refills.
    .-= Nikki Moore’s last blog: Growing up and needing new stuff (and orange furry monsters) =-.

    • You co-op sounds excellent, Nikki. I like how you can buy just how much you need.

      And cooking with spices should certainly be approached with abandon, you’re right about that!

      Best of luck with your herb garden. What are you growing this year? I always use oregano, rosemary, thyme, basil & parsley in copious amounts.

      • Nikki Moore says

        Not totally sure what I’m growing yet. It will be my first try at a garden (just a bunch of containers on out apartment patio) and I’ll be getting started plants soon. Basil, oregano, rosemary, mint, and thyme for sure…also hoping for lemongrass and sage. We’ll see how well they do! Looking forward to your next spice post!
        .-= Nikki Moore’s last blog: Growing up and needing new stuff (and orange furry monsters) =-.

  13. I buy my spices “in bulk” just as Nikki does from above. I store them in those tightly closed magnetic tins with a clear top-so I know when its time to refill!
    .-= Melissa’s last blog: Buttermilk Poundcake =-.

  14. Great post. As a college student living on my own for the first time, I have discovered a love for cooking. I am definitely a fan of experimenting with different spices in my food to get that fuller, more satisfying flavor.

    I want to experiment with growing my own spices now that its spring. What would you recommend that a busy college student attempt to grow?

    • Hi Heather,
      Almost all herbs are easy to grow — some a little TOO easy! Herbs like mint and oregano love to take over, so if you have limited space, keep those ones in a planter.

      Grow what you love to cook with! Basil, parsley and thyme have a wide variety of uses. Rosemary is lovely too and can be brought indoors and wintered.

  15. Love this series. I never thought about the source of our spices. I’m always tempted to buy the larger size jar to get a better deal, but I had to laugh the other day when I looked at a spice jar and noticed it’s a generic grocery band from a store that doesn’t exist in this state. Forget the six month rule, we moved here 4 yeas ago – oops! Guess we didn’t need to but that one in bulk.

  16. Every year my Mom gives me dried spices in mason jars as part of her Christmas gifts to me and my brothers. It is something that I really love and treasure, and although it seems small, I look forward to it every year. I guess it just means a lot more when I know my mom grew them and dried them and jared them for me.

    • That is truly special Stacey — and a great homemade gift idea for all those DIY-ers!

      My mom recently sent me a jar of dried mint that she grew, and the smell was incredibly transporting. I know exactly how you feel about your herbs from your mother!

  17. Another great online source that ships to all of North America is The Spice House, based in Chicago. They hand-grind spices every week, and if you buy ground spices there, you really know what you’re getting.
    .-= Lydia (Soup Chick)’s last blog: Seven soups every Saturday: fresh pea soup recipes =-.

  18. Sarah Marie says

    What a great article! Thanks, I will definitely use this when shopping for spices

  19. Hi,

    I really love your images of spices and would like to use one or two for a magazine article on the Spice Trade. You would be credited in the magazine.

    Please let me know asap if you are interested.


  20. Kathleen K says

    I enjoyed your article! When we began eating healthy several years ago, I learned about using organic spices. Unfortunately, nonorganic spices may be irradiated, and I assume they are unless the company specifically says they aren’t. Mountain Rose offers bulk discounts on their spices and teas if you purchase in whole pound increments. I try to get together with some friends twice a year and we place a bulk order together, which gets us a discount, plus we save on shipping.

  21. I often wondered why the food in Sri Lanka (where I was born) tasted so much better even though I used the same spices here in the US. Then I discovered many of these spices at the supermarket, especially the powders were nothing more than rubble. Made to meet a price point on the supermarket shelf. In Sri Lanka spices are ground and mixed daily in the home kitchen for cooking and I can tell you the taste sensation that process creates is out of this world. And ethnic stores are a really good source, but lately even they are being infiltrated by mass market brands, so look closely for real authentic ethnic store brands. I found those with foreign lettering is a good indication of quality (by no means foolproof) since ethnic buyers will not tolerate shoddy quality.

  22. Excellent, helpful article. thank you.

    How are the spices Trader Joes sell? What about the spices at my local co-op? Does organic equal better quality?

  23. Great advice. I’m already replacing my spices with better spices as each bottle ends. I order most from Penzeys and some (the ones that aren’t available through Penzeys) from ethnic markets.

    A question about buying in bulk: How much do you recommend to buy at a time? Also, do you have information on freezing spices? I’ve decided to order from 1/2 lb to 1 lb, depending on price and how much I use. I put some in a jar for the kitchen and the rest in the freezer. I read somewhere that helps keep them fresh.

    • You can try to guess your annual usage and buy that amount. Spices can last for years but the best flavor is within the first year of good storage conditions. Freezer is good, but be aware of removing spices from the freezer – the temperature difference instantly creates condensation inside your jar so your spices will get all moist and go bad instantly! Particularly if they’re powders. Unless you really know what you’re doing (using vacuum sealed bags etc) I suggest just buy enough for 1 years worth, store in a cool temp (10-18 degrees), and restock every year.

  24. Highly recommend RawSpiceBar for buying very authentic Indian spices and spice blends online. They offer a huge variety of regional variations created by top chefs and also have a spice of the month club and spice box which lets you try them all! The site is http://www.rawspicebar.com

  25. Hi Aimee, I buy spices online from MySpiceSage. Are you familiar with them and do you recommend them? Thanks for your series on spices. They are very helpful!!

  26. Hi Aimee!

    Such good facts about the flaws of supermarkets and tips for buying whole and grinding fresh!

    At Regency spices we also encourage our customers to do the same, as well as avoid spending exorbitant prices on tiny bottled ingredients! We sell in a range of sizes, including a $1 sample size!

    I’d love if you could add us to your recommended list. Please let me know if you want to try any of our spices and I can send some over to you 🙂

    Again, great article!


  27. Thanks for a great overview! I really love buying spices online and am always looking for new sources! Recently stumbled across http://www.rawspicebar.com as well- really love their high quality spices and worth checking out!

  28. Dan varghese says

    Thanks for the article. But when I think of buying some spices whole or blend, I prefer to choose organic spices which comes from its origin. Recently while I was travelling, I met a non-profit firm from India named Tanisi Global in an expo http://www.tanisiglobal.com/ that carries whole lots of premium qualities of spices and blends. Starting from different variety of spices & oil seeds in a very cost effective prices with good aroma. Highly recommend to purchase from these kind of sources….

  29. which suppliers would you recommend for someone starting a small spice shop who ship worldwide?

  30. Another great source for a local Wisconsin company is: http://www.psseasoning.com They are a family owned and operated company- same family for 4 generations. Their spices, seasonings are QUALITY sourced from trusted farmers!

  31. I’m trying to go zero waste, so I bought some thyme from the bulk herb section. It smelled faintly of mold when I got it home, but I told myself I was crazy. Then I added it to a big pot of soup (with very expensive ingredients mind you!) and sure enough, mold. The whole soup tasted faintly of mold. I had to throw the whole thing out.

    I love the idea of zero waste, bringing my own containers, and buying only what I need from the bulk section, but if the trade off is ruining whole meals (did I mention the expense?) with rancid ingredients, then no thank you.

    • Btw, this is not the first time this has happened. My mom brought home a bag of walnuts from the bulk section, and they were rancid as all git. She called the store where she got them from and let them know, yet when she went back a week later, they’d done nothing about it. They were still selling the rancid walnuts.

      My mom again brought it to the attention of the store manager and another customer overheard and chimed in to validate my mother’s complaint–she agreed they were indeed very, very rancid. The manager seemed to take her seriously that time, but who knows if they actually threw out the bad walnuts.

  32. Great article. As a chef I can attest that not all spices are th esame.

    there are so many different crops and sources that you really have to trust the brand you are buying.

    You have penzey’s which is a great company which you can trust them.

    I have recently found a spice company that I am nuts over their quality , check out primaspices.com, they are a family owned company and they only source the freshest and best spices. I was blown away by their black pepper.

  33. here is the link.


  34. I. Hernandez says

    Aimee thank you for the article – I am thinking of starting my own little online spice store but finding honest affordable bulk suppliers/warehouses is hard, any recommendations?

  35. I think ground spices can be all right – it works for tumeric and things like that just as well although with whole ones you can do your cooking from scratch with them which is the fun part. Whether or not ground ones keep the flavor or not is not for me to speak, I know many that do although the advantage of the whole spices is that with ground spices they can always get other additives in more easily like salt, sugars and preservatives that they would probably not get in the whole stuff. Thats something I can say about that one there – though it depends on the spice aswell

  36. Really nice article. Thank you a lot.

  37. Good work Aimee, appreciate that.

  38. Thanks for your personal marvelous posting! I seriously enjoyed
    reading it, you may be a great author.I will remember to
    bookmark your blog and will eventually come back down the road.
    I want to encourage you to continue your great work, have a nice afternoon!

  39. Shriram Yashwant Katre says

    Dear Sir / Madam,

    We introduce ourself as a service provider in Spices items from Pune City, Maharashtra State, India. Our company name is ‘Katre Spices & Foods Pvt. Ltd.’ registered under the Companies Act & ready to give you best services. These spices are totally made typically in a Kolhapuri Style. We are dealing more than 30 products. We accept all type of Bulk & Small orders in Spices.

    Please find attached herewith scanned copy of our Introduction Letter, Company Registration & Food License Certificates. We are open to discuss with you or ready to establish our strong business relationship.

    We await your valuable order.

    Thanks & Regards.
    For Katre Spices & Foods Pvt. Ltd.

    Shriram Katre
    Joint MD – Overseas Operation

  40. Spices Wagon says

    Really awesome article about spices business. We are supplying farm fresh spices all over India. 80% of the products are from our own farm. please check our website for more information

    E-mail : [email protected]

  41. Santiago says

    This is one of the most accurate posts about spices I’ve ever read. Spices are quite a good thing to have in your pantry, but you need to understand how to use and buy them.
    as a piece of advice, I personally recommend Burmaspice.com; not only the quality is outstanding, but they have more than 200 products … it’s just amazing.

  42. Awesome article thanks, now going to invest in some good quality spices.
    Do you have all the spice 101 articles in one spot. I couldn’t seem to find a area where they all were?

  43. evlynne householder says

    I’ve been buying quality spices for years but am disheartened to see the large containers of spices on TV shows like CHOPPED, I can purchase bulk spices like that at my local gourmet warehouse. Are they better than the supermarket? I don’t have room for large containers regular spice jars are cumbersome enough. I get my spices from The Spice House (the brother of Penzey’s Spices).

  44. Heyy all!
    You also can buy spices from the best and quality masalas brand at awesome price.

  45. I’ve acquired so much more info than what I’d presumed was relevant to my initial concern of “stale vs fresh” seasonings, & I’m SO glad that this was shared! Yet another way for me to sustainably source my kitchen stock while also tacking back the spending power of my hard-earned coin’ts from these monopoloid crooks. Much gratitude for your time spent researching to such a tee *chefs kiss* which aids novices like me. Peace!

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