I grew up in a household with a lot of spices in the spice cabinet, eating some of the blandest food you could ever find it your misfortune to eat. I used to joke that our family (European-ancestry, white, Catholic people from the Great Plains) didn’t spice our food, we blessed it. As in, whoever was cooking would take a spice jar out of the cabinet, hold it over the food, and make the sign of the cross.
Without opening the jar.
There were reasons for this. For all that we lived in farm country, we also lived in a food desert, where the food selection was more or less limited to iceberg lettuce, bland sliced black olives in a can, and whatever you grew or raised yourself. Not many people could afford to invest in good, fresh spices back then, so a cabinet full of spices was a sort of status item, to be admired more than used.
Looking back now, it seems weird.
Until…I open my spice cabinet.
Right now, I’m reading SALT FAT ACID HEAT by Samin Nosrat. It’s excellent, and I recommend it. What she says is simple, but easy to forget. For example, one of the points she keeps bringing up is that good cooks taste food as it cooks.
I find myself making dishes asking myself, “Did I taste this yet? Nope. Is it salty enough? Nope. I could add a little lemon juice here, couldn’t I?” And my cooking turns out a little better—consistently.
And all of that is great, but…
Let’s talk about my spice cabinet.
Frankly, it is full of cute jars of spices that I don’t use.
Here are the recommendations that I guiltily have not been following:
- Ground spices: replace once a year.
- Whole spices: two to five years.
If I had to throw out everything that didn’t meet these standards, what I would have left is:
- A giant box of cumin
- Red pepper flakes
- Dill (two small jars, because I have ADD)Peppercorns
- Cocoa powder
- S&B curry powder (I know, not the most authentic thing ever but I got hooked on it in college)
- Chipotle powder
- Szechuan peppercorns
- Chinese five-spice powder
- Smoked paprika
- Bavarian seasoning from Penzey’s.
Technically, I’d have to throw out my nutmegs, because I had them when I moved to this house a little over five years ago, but I use them all the time. A little goes a long way with those suckers.
Spices that should be gone:
- Chives (I use the ones in my garden)
- Cinnamon—regular and Ceylon
- A lot of spice mixes that I only vaguely remember
- White pepper
- Dried garlic and dried onion
- Sesame seeds (I put these in the one-year-or-less category)
- Pumpkin pie spice
- Ground mustard
- Garlic bread powder
- “BBQ Seasoning”
- Powdered cloves
And let’s not get into the gritty and embarrassing details about condiments. At least I did a massive condiments purge this past February. Salad dressing should not be five years old.
I tossed out a few spices, decided I wasn’t strong enough to do the rest, and did a mental experiment with my spices, herbs, and condiments instead:
If the house burned down and I had to start all over again, what would I replace?
I went through several iterations and got it down to the absolute minimum:
- Fine sea salt ($2.40 for 24 oz)
- Black peppercorns, whole ($2 for 1 oz, with attached grinder)
- Extra-virgin olive oil (California Olive Ranch, $11, a splurge because I like that brand)
- Red wine vinegar ($2.30 for 16 oz)
- Red pepper flakes ($2.60 for 1.5 oz)
- Fresh garlic ($.80 for a head of garlic)
Total: $21.10. Prices were what I looked up at Target, because if my house burned down and I had to get all the things, I’d go to Target first. This morning, I tossed out at least that much in expired spices.
The other thing that struck me is how often I’ll turn to fresh herbs when I can get them. I planted a boatload of basil this summer, and have been happily eating salads made of nothing but basil and some balsamic dressing. I invested in some cloth grow bags and dirt that wasn’t mostly gravel (I currently live in a very rocky development in Colorado), and have been nagging myself about the cost, because I grew up cheap in the Great Plains and have trouble allowing myself to have nice things.
But, again, if I run the math, what I spent on grow bags, dirt, and seeds is less than the value of the spices that I threw out this morning.
So here’s the plan:
- Gradually toss the herbs and spices that are out of date, as I can stand to do so.
- Toss expired condiments and the rest of the old spices in February (I spring clean in February).
- Splurge on good, but not frou-frou, olive oil.
- Plant a window garden for this fall and winter (mostly basil and chives).
- Replace whatever I tossed but want to use again with a very small amount. No buying the big jar of spices because “it’s cheaper per ounce.”
- When I run out of something, replace it with the good stuff.
- Stop buying every spice mix I pass like it’s gonna cure my cooking blues. It won’t.
I should end up saving money, having better spices that I use more often, and not having to go through Operation Heartbreak again, a.k.a., cleaning out the spice cabinet.
This brings me to one final point of spice cabinet shame: the chai box.
Maybe you don’t have one. A chai box is a cookie tin that has all the whole, unground spices that you need to make chai: cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, star anise, allspice, whole cloves. Peppercorns and nutmegs get used too often to stay inside the box for long, but those count, too. At the bottom of a chai box, you can often find one or more vanilla beans that have been sitting there for at least a decade, waiting for a special occasion that never comes.
Everything in that box is at least five years old. But, dear reader, I cannot make myself throw it out. I have sworn to make chai concentrate all fall and winter long, so I can use everything up and buy new spices.
My recipe for chai concentrate:
- Half a long cinnamon stick
- Six cups of water—begin bringing to a boil
In a mortar and pestle, smash up:
- 10-12 cardamom pods
- 10-12 peppercorns
- 4-5 whole cloves
- 2 star anise
- A piece of ginger (peel and all) about the size of your thumb.
- Maybe some orange peel.
Add to water with 1/4c sugar. This is an excellent excuse to use up your dried out brown sugar that’s hard to measure. Just eyeball a chunk and drop it in.
Bring to a boil and simmer for fifteen minutes with a lid on. Then turn off the heat, add 1/4c loose leaf tea leaves, and steep for five minutes, no longer. Strain the concentrate through a fine-mesh strainer. You don’t want to use ground spices for this, by the way, because they slip through the filter and can upset your stomach.
Mix half and half concentrate with warm milk, smug in the knowledge that you knew there was a reason you bought all this stuff.
Just stop buying tea bags, by the way. They’re expensive and wasteful, and cover up the fact that you’re overpaying for cheap-ass tea.
I used Stash English Breakfast to make chai last time, and that turned out really well. Cost per cup: $14.51 per pound of tea, or $.08/cup—the equivalent of a small 20-bag box of tea at $1.60, with higher-quality tea.
(Need to figure out how much bulk tea costs per cup? Try the tea calculator here: https://ineedcoffee.com/calculating-the-cost-per-cup-of-tea/)
I’m not going to calculate my chai spice cost, because they’re FIVE YEARS OLD I just need to focus on using them up!
Originally, I wrote the above post in September 2020 for my newsletter. You may be pleased to note that I have disposed of most of my out-of-date spices. I kept the Cardamom and Ceylon cinnamon, and ended up replacing the box of cocoa.
I have been faithfully making brewed chai mix every week, but have doubled the amount of water. Now I can pour it straight out of a pitcher and drink it cold with half and half, or nuke it in the microwave. I finally just decided that I liked half and half better than milk (or cream, for that matter) in my tea, and no outdated fear of fat was going to harsh my teatime!