Back in junior college when I was studying art, I had a painting teacher named Joe Draegert, who has gone on to have his own gallery and enjoy success as an artist. One day instead of us all working on our paintings, Joe said he would demonstrate how he painted a picture.
We sat in a semi-circle and observed as Joe set up an easel with a canvas. Before he started, he said, “Now… don’t bug me. When I’m done you can ask questions.” Then he laid out the blank palette – a simple pane of glass – and, one by one, opened up every tube of paint in his paintbox and squirted out a quarter-sized blob of paint on the clean palette. Then he picked up a brush and went to work. Within an hour and a half he had painted a complete picture, about 18″ X 24″, of a small brass mister (which were very popular back then in the 1970s, in the days when people had lots of house plants).
The first question asked went like this: “You put a glob of every color of paint out there. But some of them, you didn’t use at all. Paint is so expensive. Isn’t that wasteful?” Joe said, “If I hadn’t put them all out there, I wouldn’t have used them. They have to be available. If I had to go open a tube every time I needed a new color…”
I got what he was saying. Joe’s work involved blending every color to his eye. Although he had several brown paints in tubes, he didn’t use that when he needed brown; he blended it with red and blue and green and yellow until the brown was the brown he needed. If all the colors weren’t readily available, he wouldn’t go looking for them; he relied on his own practiced eye to make his own color with what was on the palette. When you’re involved in the process, you can’t take the time to paw through a box looking for the right paint tube.
It’s the same way with herbs and spices. Most basic cookbooks, when listing staples for the herb & spice shelf, only list a very few, and those mainly associated with European cookery. Thyme, basil, oregano, rosemary, tarragon, sage, marjoram, cinnamon, ginger… When I began living on my own and stocking my kitchen pantry, I assumed those cookbooks knew what they were talking about, so I only had very basic spices (and kept them so long they were as flavorful as dried-up leaves). But then I would come across appealing recipes that called for 1/2 teaspoon of savory or a teaspoon of garam masala or three star anise. When I went to the store, I’d be shocked at how much a small jar cost… and the recipe would never be made.
It took me a long time to wise up, but eventually I figured it out. Buy herbs and spices in small amounts in bulk, put them in small jars, and use them frequently. The supermarket I shop at has about 25 common herbs and spices in bulk at price so heavily discounted from Spice Islands or Schilling that you can hardly believe your eyes. Both of the local health food stores also stock bulk spices, again far cheaper than buying them already bottled. I also purchased some small matching plastic bottles with tops that could open up to admit a measuring spoon, or be used as a shaker; printed up some labels, and had my own herb & spice rack.
These are pictures of my own three spice racks. They used to be semi-sorted by frequency of use, but those lines have become so blurred that now I just remember where things are. A more organized person might put them in alphabetical order, but that person isn’t me.
This has immeasurably improved my cooking. I can experiment with spices freely now that they’re at the end of my arm rather than in the supermarket. It’s led to some happy discoveries, i.e. I recently added some Indian spices to the water I was simmering a beef tongue in, and it make an amazingly flavorful broth for soup. I’ve learned how to incorporate spices that were previously unfamiliar to me into everyday cooking.
When stocking herbs and spices, keep them in small amounts in small, tightly-closed containers and label them. If you purchased them in bulk in small plastic bags, transfer them as soon as possible into jars. I promise you, if plastic bags of thyme and basil sit around your pantry, in six months you won’t remember which is which and they’ll be completely tasteless and odorless. Replace herbs every few months, especially if stored near heat/steam/light. Oily seeds like sesame or poppy may go rancid, so if you aren’t going to use those soon, store them in the freezer. Whole spices like fennel, cloves, fenugreek, and cinnamon sticks will keep upwards of one year, but even they eventually will lose color, taste, and aroma. But if you cook freqently and incorporate herbs and spices, you should run out rather than have to throw them out.