Those little spice jars will get you.
The out-of-season raspberries are outrageous. You register sticker shock when you see the the price for a pound of halibut or a standing rib roast. But ounce for ounce, pound for pound, nothing rivals herbs and spices when it comes to the audacity of pricing.
If you’re looking for the pricing logic of supply and demand, you need to look elsewhere. Spice pricing is imperfect, illogical, and idiosyncratic, driven more by sales format than product costs or competition.
One company completely dominates the market.
McCormick is the number one brand with about 50% of the U.S. market. It’s also number two, with its lower-priced Spice Classics brand. Together, they add up to more than $3 billion in annual sales.
There are alternatives right there in the supermarket.
You’ll often find the same herbs and spices in 3 separate store locations. Comparison shopping can be a bit of a supermarket odyssey, but the savings can be significant.
Head over to the ethnic food section and you’ll often find the same spices in less familiar packaging at significantly lower prices. Even better is the bulk section. Brand marketing and packaging can account for more than 70% of the cost of some packaged spices. Packaging also adds to shipping costs and creates waste. The savings are stunning:
There is a typical knee-jerk response to bulk spices: They wont be fresh. The flavors will be faded.
Nonsense. The market turnover is most likely quicker for bulk spices than for those in jars, and the shelf life is longer than you think. Stored in an airtight container, in a cool, dry place, spices can retain their potency for years: generally 4 or more years for whole spices; 2 to 3 years for ground spices; and 1 to 3 years for leafy herbs.
Even better—skip the supermarket and buy online.
Dollar a Day Gourmet sells all of its spices for 98¢ per ounce. At that price you’re not getting saffron; the selection is limited to the basics like basil, oregano, cumin, and bay leaves, but the quality is good and the price is right.
Penzey’s is not the cheapest, but the selection is broad and the quality is excellent.
At Foodzie the artisan food market, you’ll find rare, regional, and sustainably produced herbs and spices.
Spice Sherpa can help with spice selection, storage, and pairings. At this time of year, the blog is a good resource for seasonal and gift suggestions.
The Herb+ phone app has a photo gallery that can help you identify herbs and spices, as well as detailed information about culinary and medicinal uses.