When it comes to a spice cabinet, I'd rather have fresh, well organized spices than a tumbling tower of top-shelf stuff so old I can't remember when I bought it. No matter how good a spice is, it doesn't do you any good unless you use it, and in most cases good spices don't cost much. Visit the right online shop or specialty grocery and you can usually find higher quality spices—and more fresh, too—for less than what you pay at your local supermarket.
But some spices are pricey no matter how you get them. Saffron, of course, is the most expensive food in the world, which is why it's often sold in dime bag sizes at dime bag prices. Vanilla beans also don't come cheap, though it's worth questioning if you really need them for a certain recipe. Beyond those obvious examples, when else is a pricy spice really worth a splurge purchase? Will it make a noticeable difference in your cooking? These eight spices make the case for spending some extra cash, and where you can find them.
When it comes to pricy spices, cardamom is usually up there right after saffron and vanilla, and with good reason. Harvesting the pods by hand is remarkably labor-intensive, and the spice's creamy-floral-bitter-menthol character brings an unmistakable fragrance to everything from rice pilaf to cookies to tea and curry blends, which means it's in high demand the world over. Few spices dance between sweet and savory so well, and whether you're tossing cardamom into biryani, ice cream, or a cocktail, you'll never doubt where the brilliant complexity is coming from.
It's not uncommon to pay eight to 12 dollars for a couple ounces of the stuff at your supermarket. But the ground cardamom often sold there goes stale quickly and is easy to adulterate with cheaper filler. So yes, do shell out for cardamom, but shop wisely. Buy whole cardamom pods for maximum freshness and versatility (the seeds and shells have different and complementary flavors). The Spice House sells cardamom for about half the price of what you'll find at supermarkets, and much fresher. And every Indian grocery will stock cardamom, from eight-ounce packages to veritable pillowcase quantities. It'll be one of the priciest spices in the store, but still a fraction of what you'd pay elsewhere.
Grains of Paradise
During the Middle Ages, these red-hued kernels were used as substitutes for black pepper, which at the time was still wildly expensive in Europe. A few centuries of colonialism later, the ever-popular black pepper went from royal luxury to everyday staple, and the African Melegueta pepper fell into obscurity.
That is until recently, as more and more cooks realize grains of paradise's potential as a far more interesting and nuanced alternative to black pepper. Where the black spice can be all camphor and pungent, grains of paradise show a balance of woodsy and citrusy flavors that give way to warm notes of cinnamon and cardamom, with way less harshness than black pepper. You can use it anywhere you'd use pepper, but I find it brings exceptional balance—more than black pepper would—to simple vinaigrettes, pepper-crusted beef, and spice cakes. While a few specialty stores sell it, you mostly see grains of paradise online.
While we're on the subject of black pepper, ask yourself, when's the last time you bought some for your pepper mill? When you smell the pepper in your kitchen, does it make your nostrils flare with sweet, spicy notes of mustard, jasmine, or pine? When you crack peppercorns over your roasted vegetables, do you look forward to chomping down on a kernel?
If not, it may be time to chuck your pepper stash and seek out a fresh upgrade, because really good pepper is one of those flavor boosts you'll taste almost every time you cook. When I subjected the Serious Eats staff to a blind pepper tasting, they were floored by the spice's variety and complexity. Some peppers are hot and pungent while others are more sweet and mild, and aromatics can range into floral territory.
Lior Lev Sercarz, the mastermind behind boutique spice company La Boite, recommends seeking out dark peppercorns with uniform color, which tend to indicate higher grades and fresher harvests. He sells a pricy but lovely pepper blend to keep around for special occasions; you can also look for names like moody Tellicherry, bright and spicy Lampong, and floral Kampot—all respected origins that don't guarantee excellent pepper, but give you a better shot.
Curry powder as we know it has more to do with the British fascination with Indian cuisine rather than Indian cooking itself, where spices are blended and ground on the spot for different dishes rather than corralled into one universal yellow powder. But sometimes you just need that familiar sweet, earthy, and pungent taste, and when you do, make vadouvan your fancy curry powder.
Vadouvan is really just curry powder with a French lilt. There's no single recipe, but beyond the curry staples of turmeric, black pepper, and cumin, vadouvan typically incorporates shallots and/or onions for caramelized sweetness and a pleasantly savory stink that takes curry powder into truly memorable territory. It costs more than conventional curry powder, but the flavor rewards more than pay off. I'm a big fan of the recipe from New York's Kalustyans for its touch of fennel seed.
When it comes to amazing spices rendered totally bland by cultural disinterest, cinnamon takes the cake. As with black pepper, cinnamon's a spice we use all the time but rarely think about. Would the chalky stuff we dust on cocoa today impress the Roman traders who sold it for more than the price of gold?
Legit quality cinnamon is deeply earthy, woodsy, spicy, and naturally sweet, with fragrant oils reminiscent of a just-peeled orange. It makes a powerful upgrade to pie filling, cookies, and hot chocolate, and you can use far less of it to bring noticeably sweet and spicy flavors up to your nose.
To simplify things a bit, there are two cinnamon varieties to look out for: Cinnamomum cassia, a Chinese version that has the brusque, robustly spicy flavor you taste in Big Red chewing gum and Hot Tamales candy, and Cinnamomum verum, a tree native to Sri Lanka but now also grown elsewhere, that's more gentle, vanilla- and orange-forward, and reedy in character. Cassia takes especially well to Chinese cooking and American baking recipes where you want cinnamon to punch you in the gut; C. verum is more of a team player, particularly where other sweet spices are concerned. While Mexican groceries tend to sell decent quality C. verum (most American groceries sell cassia), the best grades of both varieties are usually sold online. For a real special treat, pick up La Boite's smoked C. verum, which is nothing short of a pastry gamechanger.
'Fresh' Dried Chilies
Like any dried fruit, dried chilies don't improve with age, and even though dried chilies will keep for years, they're at their best when "fresh"—that is, pliant, moist, and intensely aromatic. These whole chilies retain their flavor so much better than ground versions, and they let you make your own chili paste, a more flavorful alternative to any chili powder you'll find.
It's enough to make this hardened New Yorker wish he lived on the West Coast or in the Southwest during chili harvest season, where local dried chilies are much easier to come by. The whole dried chilies you'll find in markets around my city (and elsewhere in the country)—even good Hispanic groceries—tend to be brittle, chalky shadows of their former selves, with lots of heat but a diminished fragrance and sweetness. Instead, seek out chilies online. The Spice House carries a small but commendable line of Mexican chilies, and you'll find more variety on Amazon.
Anything nutmeg can do, mace can do better. Whether you're grating it into ricotta for ravioli, dusting it on spiced pecans, or folding it into apple crisp, nutmeg tastes practically one-note compared to mace's bouquet of nutmeg mixed with coriander and tinged with citrus, cinnamon, and raw sugar. Not only is mace a more complex spice, it's more of a team player, enhancing other spices for a more interesting overall taste, while nutmeg's tongue-tingling personality tends to dominate whatever room it walks into.
Oh, never heard of mace? That's because despite being sibling spices—mace is the blood-red webbing that wraps around the nutmeg nut at the center of the nutmeg fruit—nutmeg's long been the far more popular option. That makes mace hard to find and relatively pricier than nutmeg. But most well-stocked Indian groceries carry it, and you can also buy it online. So: no more excuse.
Always the bridesmaid, never the bride, subtle yet pleasingly earthy turmeric is usually appreciated more for its color than for its taste. To which I say: buy better turmeric. A rhyzome like ginger, dried turmeric, once ground, loses much of its flavor within weeks or months, and since grocery store turnover rates are pretty low, most of us rarely get the chance to buy fresh turmeric, which lends an incredible ruddy, sunny sweetness to curries, grains, and anything with coconut milk, as well as a balancing note to brighter, spicier flavors.
The good news is there are sources to get fresher turmeric online. Some Indian groceries and specialty spice shops also stock whole dried thumbs of the stuff for you to grind at your convenience. But for a real turmeric revelation, seek out the actually-fresh version, the raw rhyzome that you can grate on a microplane, just like ginger right into a pan or slice and boil into a refreshing herbal tea. Fresh turmeric root doesn't come cheap, but it freezes well, and you don't need much for a big impact that's about much more than a pretty yellow color.