The romantic idea of hunting down exotic spices at faraway open-air markets in Marrakesh, Istanbul or Jerusalem, where a dizzying array of colourful, fragrant spices are piled to towering heights in giant traditional artisanal bowls has appeared in many travel snaps and Instagram feeds. Here's why the practicalities of spices mean that the best place to buy them is online.
Locals in Morocco, India or Israel buy huge quantities of spices on a weekly basis and use them abundantly in their cooking, so spice markets usually sell out of stock daily and spices are quickly replenished by the spice trader. Things are very different in western countries. Most consumers don’t realise that the spices they buy are often years old (yes you heard right), stale and flavourless by the time they reach their kitchens.
Spices are like coffee
Spices have far more in common with our morning cup of single origin long black than you'd think. Those pale powdery sachets of chemically enhanced, nasties laden cheap seasonings sold across Australian supermarkets and convenience stores are not real spices. Those are more akin to the 80’s instant coffee that our parents used to buy.
Over the past 15 years or so, we've learned to appreciate independent, freshly roasted and ethically sourced coffee served by specially trained, tattooed experts. We want to know if our coffee's origin is Ethiopian or Brazilian and we turn up our noses at anything less than a just-ground, aromatic, flavour-loaded brew. With spices, there is also a stark difference between the ultra-processed stuff and artisanal, quality spices that are ethically sourced and made by people who are passionate about their craft.
At Sprinkle, we think that flavouring organic, free range, farmer grown foods with multi-year old, nasties-laden supermarket seasoning products kind of defeats the point of trying to eat healthy. We also believe that it's important to know where your spices actually come from, who made them and when they were manufactured.
Do spices expire?
Spices are plant-based ingredients. They can be the seeds, leaves, stems, roots, flowers or bark of plants that commonly grow in tropical climates and are hand harvested by hard working farmers in developing countries. Spices and herbs naturally degrade with time, oxidation (i.e. air) and exposure to light and fluctuating temperature.
Expired spices, unlike dairy, don't carry grave health and safety consequences. You won't get sick from eating stale paprika. Instead, when spices expire they become muted, flavourless and largely ineffective. Their colour, flavour, texture and aroma deteriorates to the point that it is no longer effective as a source of flavouring. You might as well sprinkle sawdust over your food. Here are the 5 key factors that impact the freshness of spices:
- Oxygen - When spices come into contact with air (e.g. in self-scoop containers or when they're displayed at open air markets) they quickly start to lose their potency and flavour.
- Grinding - When whole spices are ground, they release the precious essential oils that contain their unique flavour and aroma. Grinding destabilises spices and rapidly accelerates the oxidation process at a cellular level.
- Light - Spices, like any other organic material, are photosensitive and quickly dry out and break down when exposed to light, losing much of their flavour, colour and aroma.
- Temperature & humidity variability - Spices should ideally be kept at approximately 21-23c and in a dry, dark environment. They expire far more rapidly when temperatures are too warm or too cold (e.g. if kept outside on a hot day, in a bright warm store or in a fridge). Moisture and temperature fluctuations are the enemy of spices.
- Time - Spices are at their optimal freshness immediately after they are harvested. Most whole spices retain their essential oils (responsible for each spice’s flavour and aroma) for up to 12 months. Once they are ground, spices instantly start degrading. Given spices’ long journey from seed to table, the longer they have spent on shelves and the more time has passed since they were ground and packaged, the worse they will taste.
How to buy fresh spices
It's tricky, but you can source fresh, fragrant, awesome spices. You just need to know where to look and what questions to ask of your spice seller:
- Check the colour, texture, smell and flavour before you buy
Spices should have really deep, vibrant colours. Turmeric should be radiant orange not a faded yellow. Black peppercorns should be black, not grey.
Texture wise, spices should be broadly uniform in shape and undamaged. If cinnamon quills, cardamom pods or star anise are in a bag with many broken bits and dust at the bottom, chances are they are not the best quality or they've been on the road for a while. Also, If a spice blend is extremely finely ground and powdery, it’s likely mass produced by huge grinders, mixed in with refined sugars and salts and artificially bulked up (ground peanut shells, soy or ground oats are commonly used in mass manufactured blends as they are cheaper than using actual spices). You want to see the real spices that form the blend such as coriander seed shells, cracked pepper, marjoram leaves or plump paprika granules.
Spices should have a strong, pungent aroma. Give them a sniff and look for powerful natural smells. If the smell is muted, spices aren’t fresh. Simple as that.
Finally, spices should have a distinct flavour, otherwise there's no point using them.to enhance food. They can be sour (like sumac), sweet (like cinnamon), bitter (like turmeric), grassy (like thyme or rosemary), fruity (like nutmeg, aleppo pepper or paprika) or savoury (like cumin and caraway seeds). If spices don’t have a bold taste or a spice blend tastes mainly salty, it’s a red flag. Such spices are either old stock or poor quality.
- Go for relatively small quantities of spices that you intend to use soon
Quality spices are a still a rare commodity nowadays. To avoid wastage and bulk bags becoming stale and flavourless at the back of your pantry, stick to buying smaller quantities such as 50-100g at a time (or the quantity you need for a specific recipe or that you're confident you'll use in the next 3-4 weeks). Do you ever really need 500g of turmeric? Probably not. Also, spice blends are a great way to be more economical with spices and avoid wastage as you can simply buy the blend you need rather than 100g of 8 different spices which is too much to make one blend and will end up gathering dust in your cupboard till the next time you make a dish.
- Buy whole spices and only grind the quantity you need before use
Whole spices (like peppercorns, star anise, allspice, cloves, cinnamon) can last up to 12 months or more. Ground spices will likely retain their freshness for up to 3-6 months (depending on the spice) from the time of grinding if properly stored in an air tight glass container that's kept in a cool, dark place away from direct sunlight. If you use spices a lot, you should absolutely invest in whole spices, toast or roast them before you grind and grind in a mortar and pestle or good coffee grinder just before you use them. Just make sure that you have a dedicated spice grinder and don't use your actual coffee grinder for this task as spices can leave a residual aroma that will impact your coffee's flavour.
- Buy properly packaged spices
If you can, avoid spices sold in open air markets or in bulk out of self scoop containers. Aside from the obvious hygiene issues (the plastic covers used over self scoop bins are known as "sneeze guards" for a reason!), those spices won’t be fresh because those bins aren't properly sealed and regularly expose the spices to oxygen, light and temperature fluctuations (not to mention potential bacteria, bugs, dust etc). The same goes for those giant spice towers you see in open-air markets overseas. Stick with properly packaged spices made by a reputable manufacturer, ideally bottled in glass jars and properly sealed.
- Look for a batch number and Best Before date
Quality spices should be traceable to a specific batch number (which records when the batch was made and what whole spices went into it) and have a "Best Before" date that is not more than 6 months from the date on which the batches were ground and bottled. Salts can last up to 2 years or more (if stored properly). A network of stores and self-scoop containers generally means long storage times and mixed product batches (so old is often mixed in with new). If there’s no batch number and a "Best Before" date on the label, ask your retailer how they manage their batches and how they determine something is old and stale or lost its potency.
- Ask where your spices come from
When you buy supermarket-grade spices, you simply have no idea where those spices come from. Spices are commonly cultivated at small farms in developing countries. The biggest spice exporters nowadays are India, Sri Lanka, Egypt, China, Tanzania and Indonesia. However, spices (such as chillis) can originate from Mexico, Syria or Turkey. It can be hard to trace spices back to the origin because harvests are often bulked up by local exporters in the exporting country who on-sell huge quantities of spices from different farms (or even different countries) to a large importer, who in turn distributes those spices to a multitude of retailers and factories in Australia (or the importing country).
However, a reputable seller should be able to tell you where each of their spices come from (because they would ask their own suppliers to provide this information or they may import their own spices directly from the source). Determining the country of origin is important because it's often an indicator of quality - Israeli paprika, French thyme, Tanzanian nutmeg, Mexican chilli or Indian cardamom (specifically from Kerala) are considered the best. In recent years, cheaper cardamom grown in Sri Lanka has become available, for example, but it's said to be of inferior quality compared to the Indian variety. Cinnamon grown in Indonesia is often better quality and more flavourful than the Chinese or Vietnamese variety.
Why some retailers sell stale spices
For most retailers and mass manufacturers, the freshness problem is all too hard and too expensive to fix. They are looking to maximise product shelf life and profitability. So, unfortunately, they put profits above quality and values and dupe consumers into buying significantly inferior products.
The untold truth is that most spice retailers sell white-labelled, mass-manufactured spices, processed in large factories in huge quantities. Their operational efficiencies mean that they need their spices to be transported across the country to multiple stores and have long shelf lives. To extend their shelf life and mask the fact they're stale, spices are often adulterated and enhanced with anti-caking agents, MSG, preservatives, sugar, salt and artificial colours and flavours.
Look at the label and you’ll be astonished to see that in many cases the actual spice percentage is ridiculously low (less than 30% at best) but the sugar, salt and nasties content can amount to more than 60% of the product. So what you're actually purchasing is a whole lot of nasties mixed in with a bit of spice. As you can see in the example below:
The sad reality is that many consumers, not just in Australia but the world over, have never really seen or tasted fresh spices and have no idea what they should taste like.
We cringe when we see spices sold in dusty, unloved plastic shakers. Many centuries ago spices used to be rare and valuable. They are magical, natural, plant based ingredients that should have vibrant colours, pungent aromas and strong flavours that elevate our foods and add insanely delicious flavour. Spices are naturally fragile and should be treated with the respect they deserve. Not cynically served up in a 90’s breakfast buffet style. You wouldn’t buy your coffee, quality chocolate or fine wines out of a communal bucket would you?
5 reasons why you should buy spices online from a specialist maker (like us!)
- Quality - Many bricks and mortar retailers have huge overheads - expensive stores, armies of staff, high utility bills, outsourced warehouse, transport and fulfilment costs etc. This means they often put must put profits above quality. When you buy food, it’s always best to get as close to the source as possible to guarantee freshness, quality and product integrity. At Sprinkle, we manufacture our products ourselves using traditional techniques and the finest ingredients sourced as far and wide. We blend weekly so quality, freshness and authenticity are our sole focus and what we do each and every day. To us, these are not buzzwords nor a marketing ploy. By being an online store without unnecessary overheads, we can pass on our cost savings to our customers. We don’t make compromises or take shortcuts that most other retailers can’t afford not to.
- Hygiene - By buying properly packaged spices online from a reputable manufacturer, rather than at open air markets and ‘all you can eat’ spice buffets, you avoid compromising on hygiene and freshness. Many retailers that supposedly promote “zero waste” by letting you scoop your own spices (and other cooking ingredients) from display containers must use sneeze guards - those pieces of glass you have to look through and reach under to get to spices/ingredients. Sneeze guards are designed to - you guessed it - protect the stuff inside the container from customers' sneezing, coughing, bacteria, hair and pretty much anything else like bugs, dirt, etc. from falling in. The other issue with display containers is that the deeper they are, the higher the chances that old stock is mixed with new when they are refilled, which means you have no way of knowing how fresh those spices are (and they’re exposed to oxidation, light and temperature fluctuations, which degrade them much faster than if they were properly sealed).
- Convenience - Shopping online for spices means you can shop 24/7 from the comfort of your own home and your spices will be delivered straight to your door. No more traffic, crowds, petrol costs, parking costs and time wasted at shopping malls. There must be better ways to spend your free time!
- Know-how - Buying spices from your local deli, homewares retailer or chain re-seller has its limits. Besides the freshness element, untrained retail staff are often unaware of where and how the spices are made. They won’t be able to tell you how best to use them nor educate you about their provenance. At Sprinkle, we ensure that our website and product pages contain all the information you’d like about the product’s history, origin, flavour profile, uses and recipes to ensure you can make the most out of your spices. We are makers not white-labellers or mere retailers. All the information is right here at your fingertips.
- Comparison and objective reviews - When you buy spices in the supermarket or a physical store, it’s not easy to see what real customers are saying, compare prices and features with other products on the market or easily filter products based on your personal needs and preferences. By shopping online on Sprinkle’s store, you get immediate access to transparent product information and recent customer reviews so you always know what you are buying, with clarity and detail that is simply unavailable in stores.
We hope you find this post informative and look forward to hearing your thoughts. Happy spicing!