Spices may be the number one overlooked item when prepping a kitchen to survive the apocalypse. The following article, which I wrote based upon my 15 years of chef experience and a lifetime quest for a self-sustaining lifestyle, includes reasons why you should stock up on spices, information about prepackaged spices, my technique for building a stockpile, the addition of seed-stock to your stockpile of heirloom seeds, how to store home-grown herbs/spices aswell as some techniques for using them.
One of the pillars of prepping for survival is to stockpile food. This is done in many ways including the purchase of bulk items, freeze-dried meals, MRE’s, and other foods with high caloric values and long shelf lives. This usually results in huge stockpiles of rice, beans, grains, and other foods with marginal flavor profiles. Seldom have I seen mention of the need to prep your spice chest. At best, most sites and books will tell you to lay up a healthy supply of salt, which is useful for many things besides enhancing the flavor of food, but rarely will you see instructions to lay up a healthy supply of pepper, chili powder, curry, or other “non-nutritional” food stores. Well folks, I am here today to tell you that supplying yourself with a stock of herbs and spices will not only make your survival more comfortable, it will help you survive longer, healthier, and provide you with another monetize-able trade good for your TEOTWAWKI savings account.
Let’s get the definitions out of the way:
Herbs – The flavorful leaves or stems of plants.
Spices – The flavorful seeds, roots, or bark of plants.
I want to point out first that keeping a stockpile of spices can help in your survival beyond making your food taste better. Most, if not all, common herbs and spices contain medicinal qualities that help stave off common ailments. Studies suggest that incorporating them into your diet can help protect against conditions such as heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, and even cancer. Morale is another reason why keeping some spices on hand is a good idea. It will be hard enough to keep up morale after the collapse of society without the addition of subsisting on the same bland food day after day.
Before we move on let’s talk a little bit about the packaging of herbs and spices. Spices and herbs are both susceptible to flavor loss among other types of spoilage. Protecting flavor loss is the number one goal of modern spice packaging and is accomplished in a number of ways. The biggest threat is moisture, after that is light, which means that most are packaged in air-tight resealable containers. The spice companies usually leave it up to the consumer to protect against light by keeping them in a dark cupboard.
You can expect an un-ground whole spice, such as black pepper, cumin, coriander, or cinnamon sticks, to maintain peak flavor for up to five years. Ground spices will hold peak flavor for an average of three years, and herbs generally hold for one or two years. Now, this is peak flavor that I’m talking about, so you can expect to retain some amount of flavor for well over the averages that I have listed. Open or damaged containers will, of course, not last as long, but based on my experience you can still find flavor in spices that have been sitting in an opened container for many, many years. I acquired a shelf of spices from my grandmothers house when she passed, many of them over a decade old, and all retained usable flavor.
When planning a system of spice purchases I find it useful to use the slow-and-steady method. Each and every week when I go to the store I buy an extra jar of spices. I try to rotate my purchases each week so that I keep a diverse stockpile. I usually look for the cheaper bulk items, like a 1# self-contained pepper mill– whole black pepper packaged in a disposable grinder, which is a potential trade item in and of itself, or other high quantity products. Since spices usually cost about $4-5 per small jar, it is pretty easy for most people to add an extra bottle each week or every other week. Once you get a stockpile built up, you can start rotating your oldest product into your kitchen and then replace whatever it is you took on the next trip to the market. Remember, with food, it is always FIFO (First In First Out). You must use the oldest first to keep from having to throw any food out.
I tend to stick with the whole spices but will also toss in a few ground spices to be sure I will always have some usable product without the need for an electric or manual spice grinder or mortar-and-pestle, which are both very important tools in homestead cuisine. I also like to stockpile spice blends, such as blackening, steak seasoning, lemon pepper, and Old Bay. My favorites are Old Bay and Chef Paul’s Blackened Redfish Magic. I’m an eastern NC boy, so I use a lot of Old Bay. It goes well with everything from crab boils to whole hog BBQ and even in the breading for fried chicken. Chef Paul’s can be used the same way.
Irradiation is another topic important to this discussion. Irradiation is the process of exposing food products to a source of ionizing radiation in order to increase shelf life and to prevent food-borne illness. The debate over irradiation’s effect on human health still rages, despite many studies showing that it is not harmful, if you believe what “they” tell you. The practice is not widespread in the U.S., due to public perception although it is still used in some cases. Other countries, in particular the European Union, use it more frequently. In the EU, irradiation is primarily used for extending the shelf life of herbs and spices, so ordering from overseas is the way to go if you want this extra level of protection.
In addition to buying jars of packaged herbs and spices, I also buy seeds, so don’t forget to add this to your list when purchasing your heirloom vegetable seeds. This is of course alongside my current garden where I grow fresh herbs and spices as I can. I prefer to buy perennials, such as thyme, sage, oregano, and lovage, because they come back year after year. Other herbs, such as basil, have to be restarted each year.
If you have never heard of lovage, I suggest you go and find some because it is very useful. Lovage is similar to celery and celeriac but with a deeper, more earthy flavor. It is very popular in eastern European cuisine where the leaves are chopped and used on soups and broths in the same manner as parsley. On top of that it grows a large root, which can be eaten as a vegetable; the stems and stalks can be chopped or diced and used just as you would celery and the seeds are useable too. Along with all that lovage also has medicinal value although I am not an expert on that.
Other great plants to grow in the garden are dill and cilantro because they are both spices and herbs. Dill produces only one flavor, dill, which can be recovered from the leaves, stems, and seeds of the plant. Cilantro, also know as Chinese parsley and coriander, provides two flavors. The leaves of the plant are commonly called cilantro and used prominently in Asian and Latin American/Caribbean cuisine. It’s great in salsa and tacos. The seeds are called coriander and are one of my most favorite spices to use, right after cumin. Coriander has an earthy, almost lemony, aroma that goes very well in stews, such as venison and bear. As a side note, I have in recent years discovered that bear is my favorite game meat by far. It has a rich flavor reminiscent of lamb and foi gras, and it makes great stew and awesome burgers.
Growing herbs in the garden is very easy, since most of them are just weeds. All you have to do is plant and forget. Then as the plants grow, you can harvest as needed. I usually get two or three harvests off of my oregano plant, which is more than enough to last a year, even with a houseful of mouths to feed. Depending on the plant, I would suggest at least two of each for every four people in your plans, so that you are ensured of having enough to use and store without killing the plant.
Garlic is also very easy to grow. One bulb can yield up to 30 or more cloves, each turning into a whole new bulb. The best part is that they grow just about year round, depending on where you live. I started out planting two batches each year, one just after Christmas and one as the summer begins to wind down. It takes three or four months for the bulbs to form, so by using this rotation I always have home-grown garlic, and my plants never have to suffer through the heat of summer. Now that I have been growing garlic for a couple of years, I have developed a garlic patch. I started by planting the cloves from one bulb widely spaced. Then, a month or two later, I planted more in the spaces between the first. This way there is always garlic growing and I can always go out and pull one if I want really fresh product. Plus, the best way to store a plant is to keep it alive, if you can. When I harvest the bulbs that are ready, I replant new cloves in the spaces left behind.
Storing your home-grown herbs and spices is also very easy. For herbs, I usually tie them into a bundle and hang them upside down in a cool, dark, well-ventilated space until completely dry. Then you can store them in air tight containers or plastic bags. These will not last as long as your store-bought supplies, but they will last for quite a while, up to a year or more. I have some dried oregano in my kitchen now that is nearly two years old and is still making great tomato sauce.
Spices are a little bit trickier but only a little. I have found that it is very, I repeat very, important to be sure they are completely dry before you package them. If you do not let them dry thoroughly and completely, you will come back to find mold growing within only a few days, ruining them. One way to help avoid this problem is to use your food dehydrator; another is to dry them out in a very low temperature oven. When I say low temperature, I mean under 200 degrees Fahrenheit, and a temperature under 150 degrees is actually best. You do not want to cook them; you just want to dry them out.
In a life-or-death survival situation, it is unlikely you will have the time to worry about maximizing the flavor of your food. However, when you are safe within your compound, campsite, retreat, bivouac, et cetera, there are two tips I can give to help you get the most out of your spices. The first is to toast them. Heating them up will help to activate the oils and other volatile compounds within the spice. This will “open up” the flavor and help make a smaller amount go a long way. Another bonus is that toasted spices taste really really good. The next time, youare at the stove, try dry roasting, in a cast iron skillet, some black pepper corns or cumin seeds to see how much flavor is unlocked. I bet, that after you do, you will be roasting spices the rest of your life.
Another is to make flavored oils. This can be done simply by putting some of your spices and herbs into a measure of cooking oil and then gently heating it. When doing this I suggest you get the heat of the oil up above 140F for at least 10 minutes to be sure you kill any bacteria and other pathogens that may be present. This step is less important when using store-bought spices but will aid in capturing the flavor. So, if you have the time, do it right. A kitchen thermometer is another valuable tool in the homestead kitchen. You can buy the simple pocket thermometers used daily by professional chefs for about $10-$15. These come in two varieties– the standard model goes up to just over 212F (boiling point of water) and are used for general cooking. The other type of thermometer goes much higher and are used for frying and candy making.
Yet another method is to make flavored vinegars. You do this exactly as you would a flavored oil but without the addition of heat. Heating a vinegar will cause the acid to evaporate and along with it some of the flavor. To use the vinegar or oil, add it to your recipes just as you would normally. The difference is that now the vinegar or oil will carry flavor with it. Chili and garlic oils are great for stir-fry; flavored vinegars are great for making salad dressing or sprinkling on raw vegetables.