Are $$$ Spices Worth It?

As I’ve learned from working on a “Taste Test” column for years, there is much variation amongst products and, often, I can taste a brand’s specific mark, whether it be a lot of sweetener and harsh spices in a tomato soup or a very airy texture in an ice cream. But, what about spices? Is every bottle of, say, cinnamon, the same? Does it matter which small glass bottle you bring home from the store?

To find out, I tasted five popular spices (cinnamon, ground black pepper, red chile flakes, cumin, and chili powder) from six national brands. As usual, I tried the products straight (yes, plain and off a spoon – tough job!). With the crushed red chile flakes, doing so was pretty intolerable–I ended up breaking into my kids’ supply of milk to quiet the heat! However, the cinnamon was delicious and sweet, with undertones of orange and wood.

Here are my results: The bargain basement-priced spices (which shall remain nameless) were subpar. The chile flakes were extremely dry, shriveled, and almost devoid of color. The ground spices lacked much flavor. The chile powder tasted of just one spice: coriander, and was way too tame for my taste.

Meanwhile, the remaining spices–priced from moderate to a bit on the expensive side–were virtually the same, in a good way¬† (especially the ground black pepper and chile flakes, where it was difficult to discern differences due to their heat). The spices all had a lot of flavor and the chile flakes were bright red and yellow and moister and plumper in appearance.

Sure, the cinnamon varied in taste (I’m guessing due to different varieties of the spice being used); however, this variation didn’t translate to some tasting much better than others. (But, for the record, I most loved the J.R. Watkins, Badia, and McCormick cinnamon and Simply Organic and Spice Islands cumin.) And each chile powder was unique, since chile powder–like curry powder–is a spice blend or a recipe. I definitely preferred some brands’ recipes (Badia, J. R. Watkins, Spice Islands) more than others.

All in all, what I took away from this is, there’s no need to buy more than the mid-level brand of spices when using spices for cooking. That said, I would gravitate towards certain brands for spice blends due to their superior recipes.

If you’re going to be sprinkling spices (such as special salts) onto a dish after cooking, that’s a different story. That is a case when you might want to spend a few extra dollars. If you want to splurge, go for that $25 truffled salt if you’re looking to upgrade your popcorn! After all, since these spices’ characters won’t be subdued from cooking, their qualities will ring out loud and clear.

While we’re on the subject, in general, don’t keep spices for more than a year, or they will lose aroma, flavor, and color. Keep them away from light and heat, both of which (along with time) cause them to degrade. To truly maximize their flavor, if you have the time and inclination, buy them whole and grind them fresh in a spice grinder. Then, toast them in a dry pan. If using dried herbs (which I generally limit to long-cooked sauces and stews), crumble them with your fingers before adding them to dishes.

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