Buying from the bulk department

By | Wednesday, March 23, 2011 2 comments

I replace my herbs and spices on a regular basis. The whole point of herbs and spices is that they're full of volatile flavonoids. If they weren't volatile we wouldn't be able to smell them or taste them as strongly as we do. Their volatility (ability to be easily vaporized) is both their strength and their Achilles' heel – these flavors which we prize breakdown quickly. Unfortunately, herbs and spices have a second drawback: they tend to be expensive.

A couple of years ago I was at my local Whole Foods (then the one in Berkeley, California,) replacing my collection of aged spices. Along with my other grocery items I had a jumble of little glass bottles of spices in my cart. Heading towards the produce department I noticed the display of bulk herbs that I had never paid attention to before. I had often bought cereal, grains, and dried fruit from Whole Foods' bulk bins, but somehow the herb department had slipped my notice (possibly because at the time it was located in cosmetics and medicines, with culinary and medicinal herbs intermingled – in Berkeley it has since been relocated to the same place as the other bulk foods.)

This particular day, having noticed the bulk herbs and spices for the first time, I decided to compare what I had in my cart to what was being sold in bulk. I was stunned at the price differential. I knew that the bulk grains and fruits were cheaper than their prepackaged counterparts, but the difference in cost for herbs and spices was astounding. I filled baggies with all the products I needed, then returned those little glass bottles to the shelves where they belong. At home, rather than throwing away the old bottles and replacing them with new, I poured out the old contents, refilling the bottles with the fresh, vibrant, herbs and spices I had bought in bulk.

Recently, I was at Berkeley Bowl (a local natural grocery store.) In their bulk department I noticed a bin of large grain sea salt. I was out of sel gros and had it on my shopping list. The price at Berkeley Bowl for sea salt in the bulk department was $.80 a pound. The price for my usual brand was $4.99 for a 1.5 pound canister. So now I am buying my salt in bulk too.

There are two other great benefits to buying in bulk; first, you can buy much smaller amounts of those spices you use infrequently. I’ve never made it through a bottle of cloves before I considered them too old to use. Now I buy half an ounce at a time, so they’re always super-fresh and there is no waste. Also, I am no longer disposing of all those bottles. Sure, they don’t amount to much in the grand scheme of things, but every bit helps.

When I tell people about this they are almost universally as surprised as I was. So I figured I would pass on the tip – just remember, if you're shopping at Whole Foods in Oakland or Berkeley, or at Berkeley Bowl, leave some for me ;-)

For illustration, the following are some of the prices for a few bulk spices and for salt from the Oakland Whole Foods, and their corresponding prices for those products in packages. Note that sometimes there is not a perfect comparison, as in many cases the packaged product is available under different brands at different prices. These numbers are solely for illustration, prices in your area and for your favorite brands will certainly be different. For convenience I have converted all weights to ounces. [Check out the vanilla for the truly crazy price difference.]

 $   1.75
 $   6.23
2.49/0.40oz bottle
 $   1.10
 $   3.33
4.99/1.5oz bottle
Ground cinnamon
 $   0.62
 $   3.33
4.99/1.5oz bottle
Black peppercorns (Tellicherry)
 $   0.80
 $   3.33
4.99/1.5oz bottle
 $   0.81
 $   2.36
6.99/2.96oz can
Madagascar vanilla
 $   9.37
 $ 35.94
5.99/1 bean in a bottle, ~6 bean to 1 oz
Sea salt (gros)
 $   0.05
 $   0.21
4.99/1.5lb package

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  1. I used to live in Fort Worth and bought all of my spices from the Central Market bulk department. They were so much cheaper and fresher. Now that I'm in Oklahoma City, I really miss Central Market, particularly for the bulk section.

  2. WOW, I'm going to start checking out the bulk section for spices. What a bundle you saved! Thanks for the info.
    I like the post about your dog:) Canine pals are the best!