Frugal Flavour Hack: Bulk Spices

There are some things that are too good to ever give up in the name of being frugal, and I think it’s safe to say that “flavour” falls squarely within that camp. There’s more to life than eating bland rice or a bowl full of plain cooked vegetables, even if you do end up saving a bajillion dollars.

For a while, this gave me the carte blanche I needed to go nuts with my cooking experiments, and not in a good way. In the “Of course I spent $40 on short ribs for a stew” way. In the “Sure I needed this insert-useless-cooking-gadget” way. But there was one thing that came out of all of my cooking expeditions that turned out to be a hugely frugal way to create amazing food.

Bulk spices. Here’s how I figured it out.

I was at the grocery store, stocking up on ingredients for ribs for dinner (a recipe from The Canadian Craft Beer Cookbook, which, if you can find it at your local library, is supremely worth a read through!) I had gotten all of the other ingredients, and my grocery basket was at the I-wish-I-had-taken-a-cart phase of shopping. You know the phase. It’s happened to the best of us.

A leftover from my so-much-less-frugal grocery days. $6.59!

A leftover from my so-much-less-frugal grocery days. $6.59!

So I’m looking at what’s already a pretty hefty price tag, especially given the meat-focused main course, and I get to the spices. I needed cayenne powder, star anise, chili powder and kosher salt. Each small bottle of spices is a cool $5.99, and that’s over $20 just for spices. Well, spices and fancy salt.

Luckily, I was shopping with a friend who suggested I try Bulk Barn instead. For those of you outside of Canada, Bulk Barn is a bulk food store that sells everything from candy to quinoa in bulk bins, plus a few packaged items you’d be unlikely to find anywhere else. For those of you in Canada, if you’re anything like I am to this day was in university, you know it as a great place to get cheap candy to sneak into a movie theater.

I mean, in theory. Rules and whatnot.

Since there’s a Bulk Barn in the same plaza as our grocery store, I went right over to check out their spice options. Instead of the $20+ I was resigned to spending, I got the exact amount of spices I needed to complete the meal for under a dollar.

Needless to say, I’m a bulk spices convert. It took me a while to perfect my system, and there were a few frank conversations with The Boyfriend along the lines of “There are fifty tiny bags of unlabelled spices and you can’t even identify five of them” but eventually, I got it down.

My current system - glass jars, labelled with chalkboard marker.

My current system – glass jars, labelled with chalkboard marker.

Now, when I need spices, I turn to the spice cupboard, which is stocked with many, many plain glass jars (like these ones from Ikea, which will run you $3.99 for a 4-pack) full of spices bought at a hefty discount at Bulk Barn. I’ve only had to refill about five of them in the past year, and for spices I don’t use often – I’m looking at you, star anise for that one ribs recipe – I simply buy the amount I need for the recipe, no storage required.

Want to get started on your own bulk spice collection and save tens – or hundreds?! – of dollars every year? I thought you might, so here’s a brief rundown of the key steps. (The ones in italics are totally optional.)

  • Buy some spices at full grocery price and weep over your receipts.
  • End up with a bunch of spices that are past their peak flavour, because you’ve had that one stupid jar for years.
  • Finally figure out there’s a better way.
  • Gather some cheap glass jars – you can clean out old ones, find them at garage sales, ask friends if they have any stale spices they want to get rid of, or supplement your collection with new ones.
  • Find a bulk bin store in your area. For Canadians, Bulk Barn and Kardish are likely your two best bets, but if you know of others let me know!
  • Buy spices slowly, filling jars as you need them, and make sure to label everything.

And that’s that. Have you ever bought spices like this – or figured out another system that works for you?

Pro Bulk Barn Tip That I Learned While Writing This: their website has some stellar coupons. If you’re planning a trip, make sure to check them out.