How to Kick Ass and Take Names in the Spice Aisle

Spice 7

There are a few standard ways to acquire spices. The usual involves buying a new spice now or then when you need it for some new recipe. Or perhaps acquiring a “set of spices” with a built in organizer system. These obviously work, but are prone to being expensive, disorganized, or subject to artificial limits. Obviously, a more optimal solution exists. We set out to create a better, backwards compatible, scalable spice organization system so that you don’t feel silly adding another 20 or 30 or 40 items to your palette.


Assorted sizes


Step 1: Get your own jars

The default method of acquiring spices at the supermarket leaves you with a collection like this. Short, tall, skinny, fat, easy to read, hard to read. The wraparound labels provide plenty of room for branding, but don’t let you see how much is left. Many are significantly overpriced. Some have necks that don’t fit measuring spoons. Some have badly designed shaker caps, or worse, a choice between shake and scoop. And sometimes they’re just plain ugly. A unified set of bottles that are worth buying on their own merits can go a long way toward fixing these problems and save you money while doing so.

Jars

This 16 jar set from Amazon is appealing on several levels. The jars are that familiar spice jar size and will fit in a variety of standard spice shelves. They come with (optional) shaker inserts in a couple of hole sizes, and sturdy screw on lids. The jars are very plain, with no label to obscure the spices. They are a convenient shape for using a measuring spoon. The white caps are easy to write on with a permanent marker. An example is shown up above in comparison to some of the other standard jars–it’s the empty one in the middle.

Another option are 1/2 pint mason jars, which also provide a handy place on the lid for labeling. They’re a little larger, so they take up more room, but they’re always available for expanding your collection. If you don’t use many spices, but use them in quantity, this is definitely the way to go.

Switching to your own jars is an easy first step because you don’t necessarily have to buy anything besides the jars. Your old spices will fit and it will encourage you to refill them rather than buy another mismatched jar. It will also make it easier to add new spices as you go–there’s no artificial limit on your set size.

Oooh...pretty

Step 2: Make your own labels

One of those issues that we mentioned is that commercial labels tend to obscure the contents. When you make your own, you can do it right. Where to put the label depends on how you use your jars. If you keep them in your kitchen drawer, then writing on the lids with a permanent marker is clear and quick and cheap. If you put them on your shelf, it’s helpful to write on a white label.

To take it up a notch, thermal label printers are readily available and make it easy to print up a whole heap of easy to read, reasonably durable labels. Avery now sells polyester laser printable labels with extra sticky adhesive for the ultimate in permanence. The ones shown are paper thermal labels.

If you do print your own sheets of labels, one thing to consider would be printing extra labels for things you hope to acquire someday. That’s also one of the biggest reasons to consider your own labels: you won’t be tempted to stick with a predetermined set.

bulk

Step 3: If it seems expensive, it probably is

One time at a Safeway, we saw a little jar of clove powder for 21 dollars. That seemed pretty silly since we had just purchased a pound of the stuff for 3 dollars the week before. So, if you look at the spice section, and it feels like extortion, there really are alternatives.

Now the clove powder is an extreme example, but here’s a giant 2 dollar bag of red chili flakes from our local Indian market, about a factor of 8 cheaper by weight and a couple dollars cheaper in absolute terms than the same thing at our supermarket. You’ll find similar price differences on most mainstream “American” spices available from a variety of sources, including Indian and asian markets, as well as restaurant supply outlets or buying clubs like Costco. (Hint: you may need to do some language research.)
Some items, like saffron, are more expensive than others. But even then, you might be surprised how much your dollar gets at a good middle eastern grocery.

You may not have a local Indian, and middle eastern, and asian market, but you definitely do online.

packets

Step 4: A shelf and a drawer

It’s not necessary to have your whole stock of spice on display. For that stuff you use lots of, or bought a pound of–just because it was cheaper–keep a backup stash in a drawer or cupboard. Store the excess in larger jars or zipper bags until you’re ready to refill.

After

Step 5: Organize and display

The 1970′s remodel on this kitchen included a little spice shelf above the stove, which is handy for the most commonly used spices. Tiered spice shelves like these are a nice way of being able to see more of your stash (we don’t have a particular one to recommend, but it seems like there are a lot out there).

Spice 10

How to actually organize your spices is a tricky question. If you have enough to require the dewey decimal system, you’re welcome to use it. For most people, organizing by type of spice (Indian, Italian, Thai) or by Brownian motion is sufficient, and your biggest question is shelf or drawer.

Update:
A few commenters have expressed their worry about the lifetime of spices in clear jars, especially in the heat of a kitchen or in sunlight. The best approach is to fill up your spice jars with an amount that you’ll actually use in a couple of months, and keep the “drawer supply” of each spice– a necessary part of this method –sealed in a cool and dry container in a dark drawer.

EmailFacebookTwitterGoogle+tumblrPinterestRedditStumbleUpon

54 thoughts on “How to Kick Ass and Take Names in the Spice Aisle

  1. I reuse old marmalade jars. The family get through tonnes of it, they’re hexagonal so they fit together, and they’re big enough to take a sensible amount of spice. If you buy your spiced in chinese supermarkets and other asian stores you can get 500g at a time, not the fiddly little mounts supermarkets sell.

  2. I recommend never putting spices directly over the stove. There is heat, there is steam and there are tiny fat particles. All three will lessen the quality of the spices over time. Plus those fat particles will stick to the glass and usually especially well to the labels and lids.
    I am definitely a drawer guy. This also keeps light away from the spices. Afterall I paid some money for my little collection. No need to waste it. ;)

    • Definitely agree with the above commenter: you want to store spices away from moisture (from steam or otherwise) and direct sunlight. Drawers or cabinets are the best options in my book.

      Love the article; been looking to standardize my spice storage.

      • add to above: avoid transparent glass – it reduces the "spice" of the spice

  3. Go to the post office and get one of the moving information packs. When we just moved ours had a 10% off coupon for Lowes but one or the other of the big hardware stores is very likely to have a coupon in there. I spent a lot of money there that day ;) But got one of those things that turns the useless skinny cabinet on either side of your stove into a 3 drawer pull out wonder of a storage compartment. Not as much on display, but all right there and not subject to greaseification above the stove. Also not that hard to install if it weren’t for the electrical outlet I had to move in the process. I think I’m in for a box of those bottles too, that looks nice.

  4. Dont forget that most spices need to be used within a couple of months of opening them…

  5. Great article, full of useful ideas – but that’s not why I’m commenting. I just had to say I absolutely love "Brownian motion" as a description of a sorting method. So perfect! I’ll be using that one in the future.

  6. I use jars identical to those that I found at Bed, Bath & Beyond. I live in a small apartment, so to save space in my kitchen, I tacked on a cheap sheet of metal to the bottom of my cabinets and glued magnets to the tops of all the jars to let my spices hang from the cabinet. I also am cheap and don’t own a printer and hate my handwriting, so I use a cheap label printer to label them.

    • A modification to this is to drill shaker holes or cut a hole big enough for a measuring spoon in the jar top and discard any shaker hole inserts. The lip on the edge of most spice jar tops will seal it against the steel plate quite well with the neodymium magnets I use. You might also add a layer of vinyl contact paper to the steel plate. Dresses it up and adds a little pliability to give a better seal. Just be sure it’s flat enough.

      Now you have jars where as soon as you pull them off the mounting plate you can shake out the spices. Put them back and they’re sealed. Handy when you’re in the middle of stir frying or something, you want to add some more spice and don’t want to lay down your spatula so you can fumble around with greasy hands trying to unscrew the lid.

  7. I wish I could shill http://www.MySpiceSage.com for profit, but they don’t have an affiliate program. However, I have used them lately to round out my extensive spice array. I have about 60 spices and keep adding more. The cool thing about them is that you get a free 1oz portion of just about anything when you place an order. It’s a good way to sample something if you don’t actually want to shell out the money. Although they are pretty cheap on prices for the quantities. Also, check the Woot Deals site. There is frequently promo codes for free saffron and vanilla beans to name a few.

    Hope this helps your readers. The site is truly a gem for spice junkies.

    • On the topic of price and alternatives, for some reason the spices in the international section of most chain food stores are cheaper than those in the baking aisle.

  8. It seems very neat way to organise the spice.
    However, from my own experience, simplicity needs to be at proper place.
    Keeping the way the all the spice bottles are are more efficient if you have, say, more than 5 kinds, that’s the beginning of pain.
    The differences of spice jars make user distinguish one from other from just a glance,
    you don’t even need to read any single character labelled on your spice jar, which makes it really a lot faster to use.

    • That’s a good point! I have about 40 or 50 commonly used spices and another few dozen less often used. There is no way I can keep them organized in the frenzy of cooking. Sometimes we need fennel seeds, sometimes anise seed, sometimes black kokum. In fact, the only thing that makes it possible to search our spice shelves and drawers is that the spices come in different sized and shaped containers. Most are in plastic or glass bottles, tall or short, round or square; some are in tins, some are in plastic bags of varying dimensions. I don’t know how many times the oregano, Mexican or regular, has gone missing when we buy a different brand, and can’t recognize the container on sight.

      If we are going to automate and re-organize our spice drawer, we need higher tech than proposed in this blog entry. How about a spice filing robot, perhaps with a keypad for summoning spices from the vasty deeps? I’d be willing to go for uniform packaging if it meant some machine could keep track of each item and provide it on demand.

  9. Moreover, (I forgot at the previous post). Original jar makes you aware of the age of content inside it. you can suspect that the spice inside it maybe too old to use. Although you can labelled the date/time you bought on your own unified jars, but you need to do it in rewritable ways or you need to tore out the written label and paste it again when you bought new spice to replace the old.

    • I use a white "china marker" to label and add the date when I harvest and dry my own herbs as well as those I buy from the grocer. Works great, and is easily rubbed off with a cloth when I need to update it. My jars are 1/2 pint mason style jars for stuff like Dill, Parsley, and Cumin, and ancient Postum jars I got from an aunt for my lesser used spices like Whole Clove and Mustard Seed.

  10. Heat + light + small particle size + age all add up to stale spices.

    People don’t realize that they are stale because sometimes they’ve never tasted anything except the ground nutmeg that’s been sitting in a clear jar at the supermarket for weeks. But spices are like coffee — they’re packed with aromatic volatile compounds, many of which are destroyed quickly after grinding, and more slowly while sitting in a jar over a stove.

    The pictures are pretty but I have to agree with the other posters. I don’t store spices this way. Dark pharmacy glass or airtight metal tins, small enough to fit 3 months worth of a whole spice.

      • Nutmeg takes time to expell from the body, so if you eat it daily, it will build up and you can start having weird effects. I used to make a nightly smoothly with nutmeg and couldn’t figure out why I was feeling so weird. It was not a pleasant feeling at all, sort of like paranoia, mental insanity. I don’t know why this is not more widely cautioned, I guess most people don’t eat quantities of it on a regular basis.

  11. With glass jars, you can write the date you last filled the jar on the bottom using a dry-erase marker.

  12. This is great — now I just need to find a good set of bleachers to hold the jars, like in the picture.

  13. Oh, don’t go for the cheap saffron, it’s not saffron, that’s why it’s so cheap. Usually it’s mixed in with stamen from cheaper flowers that has been died yellow.

  14. 1. Those little rectangular styrene (I think) boxes are cheap, and they’re the right size for this.

    2. You don’t actually need labels.

    • No, you don’t need labels. But if you have many similar looking powders– e.g., cumin and coriander –it can save you a whole lot of time opening jars. Strictly speaking, you don’t *need* spices at all. Mighty optional, this is.


      Windell H. Oskay
      drwho(at)evilmadscientist.com
      http://www.evilmadscientist.com/

      • Hey, they’re your spices; obviously, if labels make your life easier, you should use them.

        I’m just saying that, for some people (me, for example), fiddling with labels and printers and adhesives and what-have-you and placing them on little containers is vastly more of a hassle than simply noting the differences in what the spices look like. Clearly, however, if you buy most of your spices already ground, this is harder to do.

        (It’s also an aesthetic choice: the spices themselves are kind of pretty, and more so if not obscured by a label.)

  15. May I recommend placing the labels a bit higher on the jars? Perhaps just under the lid?

    The reason is your tiered shelf barely shows the labels of items not in the front row. If the labels were slightly higher, they would be less obscured by the jars in front of them.

  16. If you can get them, Marmite jars are great for storing spices – they are dark brown glass, so they cut out the problem of the spices becoming stale due to light exposure. However, I live in the UK and actually like Marmite – I recognise that this isn’t an option for everyone.

  17. One suggestion for those who don’t like the clear glass: Spray the bottles (outside only!) with two coats of black stove paint. It’s nearly indestructible, won’t chip, and is completely opaque. We’ve done some comparisons vs. leaving the glass clear and it extends the life of the spices by months, and is cheap. It takes a little bit of work to paint them — to avoid spraying the lids, I usually put a bit of plastic film over the opening and hold it in place with a rubber band, and then spray the bottle. But it’s worth it, and you only have to do it once per bottle.

    Drawback: You can’t see from the outside how much is left.

    • What about putting a small sticker towards the bottom of the jar before you paint them. Then remove it after painting to get a small window for the spice level.

      Maybe even a narrow stripe of tape (1/8 inch wide maybe) around the bottle so it wouldn’t matter which way it is facing. You’d then see when it was below the line or nearing it depending on where you place it. Or use a stripe up the side instead for a running level.

      Since the bulk of the jar is painted I would guess you would still get the extended shelf life for the spices.

    • What first came to mind when you were mentioning this was the spray high-heat black paint, as well as simply taking a Qtip and wiping a stripe off the jar after painting. (No back/front exists until you go to label them, so no worries about “painting the back”.)

      Also, you can leave the lids off entirely, and twist the jars upside down into a block of styrofoam. This makes spray painting a cinch, the necks will stay clean, the jars have a place to dry easily, and is a heckuva lot easier than painting each jar by hand.

      I also agree with some others – I have a son and hubby in cooking school at the moment.
      NEVER store spices where they will be exposed to heat or steam. Above the stove is a bad idea – that includes oils, esp olive oil. Heat spoils them faster. Leave the above-stove storage for things you only use a few times a year, like roasting pans.

      I love Alton Brown’s magnetic spice rack, but that is a little pricey.
      I do buy a lot of spices on line, because they are so much fresher than most of what is in the average grocery store (who knows how long ago some of that stuff was packaged?!). For exmaple, we are now all a fan of smoked paprika after buying a 1 oz try-me package online. We have no international foods stores near us, so online is it for us. Special note – once you have ground your own pepper, you’ll never want that canned tin of ground pepper again! : )

      • Our above-the-stove space is not actually an area that gets hot– it’s more forward of the vent than you can see from the photo.

        I think spices should be stored in easy reach– so that you actually use them often enough to justify the clear jars.


        Windell H. Oskay
        drwho(at)evilmadscientist.com
        http://www.evilmadscientist.com/

  18. Agreed, storing spices above or near the stove is anathema to a serious cook, unless you’re finishing the container contents every day. If I were starting all over, I’d probably buy something like these http://preview.tinyurl.com/2ugcyyz with the white lids, putting labels on the bottoms or sides and writing purchase dates on the lids. As it is, I have a large collection of brown glass jars left from years of vitamin purchases. I store them on their sides, which minimizes space (the shelves are about 3" apart) and minimizes light. Other good solutions include magnetic tins http://preview.tinyurl.com/3k2ne or using velcro a la Alton Brown on those same tins.

    • I vote for the magnetic containers. Mine are on the inside of a pantry door … out of the sun and out of the way but very convenient.

  19. This is great–I actually just started doing this in my own kitchen a week ago! I’ve been using corked bottles from a local craft store instead of regular spice jars instead, and they look great on the spice rack.

  20. I like square spice bottles, since they’re a little more space efficient.

  21. I’m in Germany, so my way might not be viable in other countries. However, perhaps it helps ;-)

    I buy brown glass bottles at my local apothecary. A chemical supply store will work as well. These bottles are meant (with three exclamation marks) to store sensitive things, so they’re just perfect for spices. Most bottles chemists use not olny have tight stoppers, they also look quite interesting. A kitchen that looks like a laboratory is usually a good conversation topic ;-)

    These glasses also work well for your very own vinegar or even bath-oil. Just make sure you keep the labels accurate.

    A word on saffron, however. Do not ever get the cheap stuff. If it comes as a powder, don’t waste money on it. Saffron should come as a fibre, 1.5 to 2 cm long.

    Vanilla goes a very long way if you store it in sugar or salt. A single pod can be used to "vanillate" about 300g storage medium, if you give it upwards of 2 weeks to permeate the medium.

    Herbs can be stored in oil. I keep basil in olive oil for salads, for example. The same goes for vinegar.

    • 1. Go to penzeys.com. All their spices are superb.
      2. Buy 1/2 c jars of your favorites.
      3. Buy rubbermaid slide-out drawers at your local Mart store. There are small stackable ones that fit the Penzeys jars perfectly.
      4. Buy a silver sharpie and write the name of the spice on top of the jar. Penzey’s jars have black plastic tops.
      5. Put drawers in a lower cabinet away from the stove, now all you have to do is slide open the drawer to read the tops of the jars! Perfect!

      • +1 on the Penzys. Cheap, available in bulk, plus spices and flavours you’ve never heard of.

      • I came here to voice my opinion for PENZEY’S SPICES, and I am not leaving disappointed! http://www.penzeys.com; there is NO substitute! We got a Penzey’s in our city a few years ago, and after experimenting with both their “regular” and rarer, ‘high end’ spices and blends, I can honestly say that there is no comparison to regular store-bought spices. If you don’t have a local brick & mortar to visit, please use their catalog, and you won’t be disappointed! I have exclusively used Penzey’s for five years on now, and do not regret it one bit. Their Smoked Paprika alone is worth the price of admission. Speaking of price, while their stuff is more expensive and may sound hard on the wallet, the simple fact is that it keeps longer, and stretches longer, as the quality is so very high that you ultimately use less, especially with things like their cinnamons, turmeric, and basically any spice they have with a high essential oil content. You have never had bay leaf until you have crushed a Penzey’s bay leaf! It makes any soup taste awesome.

        No, I am not a shill or employee of Penzey’s, just an ‘evangelist’ of flavor :) I wouldn’t have $500 worth in my kitchen if it wasn’t true. (Just for the record, that’s damned near every spice they have, and I cook a LOT, so it pays for itself. I have a hard time spending less than $50 per visit, 4 times a year, not because of the price, but because I cook & use so very much. Their pickling spice is a staple of my home canning operation, and my pickled eggs & cucumbers have never tasted better.)

  22. I’m lucky enough to have three cabinets that are about 4 inches deep – big enough for a quart jar – in my kitchen. That’s where my spices live.
    I have them sorted by whether they’re for baking or cooking, with some exceptions – the seasoned salt and things like that that I use a lot are on the top shelf, where I can get them without having to bend down.

    I second the Indian/middle Eastern grocery suggestion; they also have some very tasty herb mixes: sabzi-o-kookoo is for things like omelets and frittatas, and za’atar is a sweet-sour mix that goes well with a lot of things (especially bread with butter). A four-ounce bag is large, and I keep those in the freezer, with just a jar full in the cupboard.

  23. Nice idea, but…"Megnuts?" Really?

    I guess it’s no sillier than my husband labeling my quart-sized container of Splenda as "Cocaine."

  24. By the way–if you’re in the NYC area, Aphrodisia (on Bleecker Street between 6th and 7th) has a great selection of bulk spices, and is quite inexpensive. (Unfortunately, although they have a website [http://www.aphrodisiaherbshoppe.com], they don’t actually use it, so doing business with them tends to require actually going to the shop.)

  25. It’s mentioned that these jars "are a convenient shape for using a measuring spoon." Can you tell me what size spoon? I’ve been using a collection of Island Spice jars that can fit a 1 tsp. Do these Adams jars fit larger?

  26. Sorry to drag up an old post, but wanted to throw out there that these particular lids are just the right size for that unused portion of your CD labels – the center circle. Between that and making a nice crisscross-style wooden holder, and you have a great wall-hanging spice rack using no counter space at all.

    • What we do is have a shallow drawer, (like a cutlery drawer) and put labels on the tops of the lids. Most frequently used ones at the front. Might not exactly be the best solution but really don’t have anywhere else to put them, bench space is too valuable in our small kitchen to give up to a tiered spice shelf and not got anywhere to put a rack either. Having all your spices in one place makes things much easier, I wouldn’t recommend having a rack and a shelf. We used to have something similar and spices would always end up in the ‘wrong’ place and I would spend ages (well a few minutes) looking through the rack where I thought it -should- be only to find that it was in the ‘other’ place. I suppose you could colour code with Jar Lids or something, jars with blue lids go here, jars with green lids go there. Though I think it’s best to see how many spices you have and then find somewhere that they will all fit together. I don’t do it though I probably should but dating your spices is probably a very good idea as well as they do ‘go off’, so to speak, the longer you keep them.

  27. Very organized. I have two cabinets filled with spices and it’s so messy. Both cabinets have two shelves! I’m counting stuff like vinegar and oil in there two, but the bulk of it is spices.

    You’re very right about going to the Indian grocery store for spices. Spices in the supermarket are so pricey (if you buy name brand like McCormick that is). For the same price or less I can get a big bag in the Indian store and just find some cheap spice jar to throw it in.

    Also try latin/mexican grocery stores. Some of the names might not be in English, but most of the time I can find stuff I need.

  28. Thanks sooo much for this! My spice cabinet is a disaster and I always have to take everything out to find the one I need. I am soooo excited to have found one uniform jar and get it all organized!! woohoo!

Comments are closed.