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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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). 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.