Whole or Ground?

I’m not gonna lie to you… I really struggled with this post. I typed the whole thing and had to walk away, sleep on it, and read it the next day. There are things I want to communicate to you but I want to make sure I’m able to do it objectively and not with my food snob goggles on. So here goes.

I hope you know by now that I won’t recommend you spend ridiculous amounts of money on things you really don’t need if there’s a reasonable alternative. That’s because I won’t spend ridiculous amounts of money on things when there’s a reasonable alternative. I also won’t encourage you to spend more time cooking than necessary. “Ain’t nobody got time for that.”

That being said, it’s better to buy your spices whole than to buy them ground. I know that’s not realistic for everyone so let me explain why and you can do what you want with the information.

First, the shelf life of spices is longer when you buy them whole. Spices don’t go bad but they will lose their strength over time and that happens much quicker with ground spices than with whole. It’s all about how much air is penetrating the surface; there’s more surface area on ground spices therefore more air circulates around it. If you know your spices are weaker and you’re okay with that, go with it. Just don’t throw your spices out every six months, no matter what the guys on TV tell you. That’s absurd and a ridiculous waste of money.

Second, you don’t know exactly what you’re getting with ground spices. I heard a report on the news recently about commercially produced paprika; a lab tested some samples and found large amounts of a substance that’s definitely not ground chile pepper. I’ve googled every key word I can imagine and I can’t find anything about it online so who knows if it’s true. But the thing is, it very well could be true and it would be consistent with what I’ve learned about the food industry. Manufacturers are notorious for adding fillers to their food products to increase profits. And they don’t have to put the filler on the food label because they can claim it as a “proprietary ingredient“. They can’t put fillers in whole nutmeg so the only way to be sure you’re really getting all the nutmeg you’re paying for is to buy it whole.

Some spices are impossible to buy whole and so you have to buy it ground. Especially spices that are pepper-based like paprika, chile powder, and cayenne pepper. You could always dry and grind the peppers yourself but even I wouldn’t go that far. Instead, I look for sources I trust, which means I avoid Walmart and discount stores like the plague. I’ve ordered spices from Penzey’s and I’ve always had good experiences with them. I like that they describe each spice on their web page so I know exactly what I’m getting. There are plenty of other online retailers and local stores that have great selections so find what you like. Native Roots (formerly in Norman, now in OKC) has a spice counter where you can buy just the amount of each spice you need instead of buying a large jar. They’ll even help you mix spices to get just what you want.

If you go the whole spice route, there are plenty of tools to help you grind them. There are spice mills, electric grinders, and if you really want to go old school, you could always use a pestle & mortar. Unless I’m forgetting another, all spices except nutmeg will grind will in any of the above equipment. For nutmeg, you just need a fine grater, like a Microplane.

Lesser Known Spice Facts

It’s Allspice, Not All Spices
Contrary to popular belief, allspice is not a combination of other spices like cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. It’s a dried berry from a tree that originates in Jamaica and consequently, it’s a key element in Jamaican cooking (which is unbelievably delicious and one of my favorites cuisines in the world).

Capers Are A Spice
It’s true. They come from a small bush found throughout the Mediterranean basin. They’re not good fresh but their flavor develops after curing in strongly salted white vinegar. Capers are delicious with fish and game and will keep for a long time in the fridge in its original brine (don’t add vinegar to it or it will spoil).

Chili vs Chile
American “chili powder” is not the same as “chile powder”. Chili powder is a combination of oregano, cumin, garlic, and other flavorings commonly used in American chili… and in what Americans interpret as Mexican food. Chile powder is ground from a variety of dried chile peppers. It can range anywhere from mild to extremely hot depending on who makes it so pay attention when shopping and reading recipes.

Beware of Spice Mixes…

…and not for the reasons you may have heard. I’ve seen a post pinned quite a bit recently that’s all about making your own spice mixes because the pre-mixed stuff is full of random ingredients. Since we already learned that any powdered mix can contain ingredients it shouldn’t, you’re not avoiding bad stuff by mixing it yourself unless you grind your own spices. Here are the reasons I don’t stock spice mixes:

  • I’ve been to Jamaica and packaged jerk mixes taste absolutely nothing like jerk. I’m not saying they’re not tasty but if I want jerk, I want jerk. Like the kind we ate at amazing roadside stands. I can’t get that from the pre-mixed stuff but I can make it myself after reading the Jamaican Grandmothers’ cookbook I stumbled upon in Negril!
  • Real Cajun and Creole cooks make better food with their own spices than anything found in a grocery store. And it takes only a few ingredients most people already have in their cabinets. Why buy another random spice mix if I already have all the ingredients in my cabinet?
  • I would prefer to add my own amounts of oregano, basil, thyme, rosemary, etc., than to use an Italian Mix and let McCormick decide how much I should add of each. 
If you’re wondering what spices I stock, you can check out what I keep in the pantry here
On a separate note, I was asked to participate in a charity event last night at my culinary alma mater and I had a blast! The event was a cooking competition for young, aspiring chefs. The kids were grouped with culinary students and they had to prepare an entrée and a dessert from a mystery basket. I didn’t know what to expect but I was thoroughly impressed with all the dishes. I met some cool chefs who organized the event and reconnected with some I haven’t seen in a while who were judging. I think everyone involved had a really great time and I look forward to doing it again!

(pardon the terrible camera phone quality)