How To

Stretching the Scents (and Cents!) Out of Your Spices

Before you try your hand at cinnamon-infused whipped cream for the pumpkin pie or turkey stuffing laden with dried oregano, basil and pepper flakes, it might be time to go through your spice rack.

Most packaged dried herbs and spices start to lose their potency just six months after you open the jar. Home cooks tend to keep them much longer, even after they’ve ceased to taste like anything. (Frugal Foodie, too — a recent inspection revealed some spice blends that she remembers buying while in college. In 2003.)

The best way to get your money’s worth is to actually use what you’ve got. The chefs we talked to say it doesn’t pay to be stingy or overly cautious when cooking with spices. Experiment! Nutmeg works just as well in lasagna as it does in pie, for example, and chili powder can spice up chocolate desserts as it does spicy entrees.

You can also cut your costs on newly purchased dried herbs and spices, and maybe salvage some of those lingering in your cabinet. Here’s how:

Freeze excess

If you buy a big container of a particular spice or dried herb, use it to refill a smaller container, says garden coach Buena Tomalino, author of “What About Herbs?” “Then the larger container can be stored in a dark cool area or repackaged and stored in the freezer,” she says. It’ll keep longer that way; long enough that you can refill the smaller container a number of times.

Browse the supermarket

“I typically go to the Goya aisle,” says Joanie Jacobsen of BabyBoomerWay.com. “The spices there run $1 to $3 cheaper than those of more familiar brands in the baking aisle,” she says.

…Or avoid it altogether

“Ethnic food markets often have better deals,” says Isra Hashmi of The Frugalette. She also buys spices for roughly half-price at her local food co-op. Frugal Foodie uses her travels as an excuse to bring back cheap local spices as souvenirs. A recent haul included a gallon-size bag of bay leaves for $1, and a half-pound of whole nutmeg for $2.

Grow your own

“Even if you have a black thumb, a $3 basil plant is still cheaper than buying a bunch of basil at the supermarket. And you’ll get a better yield too,” says Hashimi. “Cut herbs back to the last four leaves, and that will stimulate growth and provide more leaves for harvesting,” says Tomalino. Use whatever you can fresh — just triple the dried amount a recipe calls for — and home-dry the rest in a dehydrator.

Pick whole spices

They’re much cheaper, and last significantly longer than those that have already been ground up. Buy an inexpensive mortar and pestle and/or spice grinder to make the whole spices recipe-ready.

Visit the bulk bins

There, you can purchase spices and dried herbs by the ounce. “Not only is it astonishingly cheaper, but you can buy small amounts and actually use them up in two to six months before they lose a significant portion of their aroma and flavor,” says Carol Peterman, owner of TableFare.com, which sells a line of spice storage containers. By her estimates, bulk cinnamon sells for $1 an ounce, compared with $3.47 per ounce for a container at the grocery store.

Heat ‘em up

You might be able to salvage some older spices from your cabinet by toasting them. A friend of Frugal Foodie’s taught her this trick: just heat spices in a pan — no oil or anything else — for a minute or two, shifting them so they don’t burn. They’ll release a fresh burst of flavor. (This obviously works better for spices that haven’t been ground up or powdered.)

Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie http://www.twitter.com/mintfoodie.