This isn’t going to be just another food storage article. For excellent advice on that subject, start by exploring the SurvivalBlog archives and the LDS web site. But there’s a related topic that I felt was worthy of discussion.
It wasn’t that long ago that .22 rimfire ammo disappeared from shelves, and conversations about PMAGs in stock sounded pretty similar to claims about Yeti and the Loch Ness Monster – utterances viewed by most listeners with great skepticism. We live in a ‘just in time’-supplied world, where almost anything can quickly affect the price – or the availability – of many products we’re used to seeing on our store’s shelves.
If you bake, you’ve probably noticed the massive increase in the price of vanilla. Last year, a hurricane in Madagascar so damaged the crop that today’s vanilla prices have nearly doubled. Vanilla, like many other spices we rely on, still come from isolated places on the globe. Any environmental, economic or political disruption could cause them to rapidly disappear from our markets – perhaps for a very long time. More than our recipes would be affected, because some of these things are essential components of food preservation as well.
The World of Spices
While we can locally source many things we might use in cooking, here are some thoughts on specific items that come from overseas and that couldn’t easily be replaced.
- Peppercorns, of any kind, come from the fruit of the Piper Nigrum vine that grows primarily in Asia. (Peppervine, Ampelopsis Arborea, grows throughout much of the US, but it’s an entirely different plant.) Pepper is an essential ingredient in most cooking, as well as a component of many pickling and preserving methods. Don’t forget to stockpile a pepper mill.
- While some claim that cinnamon can be grown domestically, most of the cinnamon in the world comes from Indonesia, China, Sri Lanka, India, Brazil, and the Caribbean. Cinnamon can be ground easily using a coffee grinder. Cinnamon takes two forms, Cassia and Ceylon. Each has a slightly different flavor, and recipes in the US and Canada are written for Cassia. Ceylon, the dominant form in Europe and Mexico, is more fragile and easier to break. Cassia generally looks like a folded stick of rawhide, while Ceylon has more of a pumice-like structure. Cassia is potentially harmful if consumed in large quantities. What we call ‘Saigon Cinnamon’ is Cassia.
- Cloves are the dried, immature buds of an evergreen tree that grows in India and Madagascar. Cloves are a powerful spice, serving as an accent in a wide range of foods from Indian cuisine to holiday hams. Cloves are also a necessary part of many pickling recipes. Clove oils are a powerful topical anesthetic, particularly useful for tooth aches. Cloves can also be substituted for tobacco as a smoking product. Cloves can be used whole, grated or ground.
- Nutmeg is the seed of a tropical evergreen tree. Originating in Indonesia, nutmeg was subsequently cultivated in the West Indies where most of the production still continues today. Nutmeg is actually the interior part of the seed, with the shell being the spice known as mace. Nutmeg is an essential spice for baking, soups and meats and can be used in a wide range of Whole nutmeg is grated rather than ground. Caution, nutmeg is capable of being abused as a hallucinogenic.
- Although your brain might register chili and Tex-Mex food when you smell it, cumin is actually native to Egypt. While cumin can be grown in the US, the bulk of the product comes from India, North Africa and China. When ground, cumin’s potency begins to fade within a year. Cumin also has a nasty habit of blending in with its neighbors in the spice cabinet. Cumin is particularly useful for Indian and Middle Eastern recipes, and is a great addition to potatoes, root vegetables, beans and lentils.
- Most vanilla comes from Madagascar, although New Guinea is rapidly rivaling their production. Vanilla is an extraordinarily complicated orchid to grow commercially that requires hand fertilization to mature. I’m told there’s no distinguishable difference in taste between authentic and artificial vanilla when used in recipes. That said, there’s an enormous difference in terms of storage. Real vanilla extract – which usually has an alcohol content of 35 percent – lasts indefinitely. Imitation vanilla is only good for a year. Real vanilla is very expensive at the moment, and there’s a number of ‘buyer beware’ warnings out there such as: Never buy anything with a foreign label, look closely to make sure the product specifically says ‘extract’ as opposed to ‘flavoring’, and that the product contains alcohol as that’s a necessary component of the real thing. Costco vanilla is well regarded and relatively inexpensive ($30), but the internet says that Hawaiian Vanilla Co, and Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla are the best.
- Cardamom is the seed pod of a leafy tropical plant. Cardamom has a place in recipes from the orient to Scandinavia, and can be used in many different ways. Found in foods and drinks, you’ll notice the flavor when you taste it. There are actually two forms of cardamom, Elettaria and Amomum – commonly ‘green’ and ‘brown.’ Cardamom plants seem to prefer higher altitudes and the leading producers of cardamom are Nepal and Guatemala. Both forms of cardamom can be obtained as a whole seed pod, of which all portions might have a use.
- Allspice is actually a single spice, not a spice combination. Allspice can be found in many roles and in diverse recipes across the globe. Allspice shows up in sausages, meats, gravies and baked goods. Allspice is often the ‘secret ingredient’ that disappointed consumers notice when it’s left out of the recipe. Allspice is grown in the West Indies and South America.
- Turmeric While the effectiveness of turmeric as an herbal medicine can be debated, there’s no doubt it’s essential to taste buds across the world – especially in curries. Turmeric root can be found in stores, but I’m suspicious that any attempt to dry and store it whole would fail. Like ginger, I would argue it’s best to buy turmeric already ground. The bulk of commercial turmeric comes from India, Sri Lanka, the East Indies, Fiji, and Australia.
- Ginger has been used for centuries to spice foods and drinks, and is also claimed to have medicinal properties. Likely native to lower Asia, ginger can thrive in warm and humid environments. Ginseng is not ginger but can be used in many of the same ways. While Ginseng grows in the upper Midwest, it’s a difficult resource to cultivate. Most commercial ginger today is grown in Africa and South America.
There are other spices that are produced closer to home, but that might be seriously impacted by any insult to global trade.
- Bay Leaves. The Bay Laurel Tree is native to the Mediterranean, but can be grown in the US where there’s a warm climate. Locally, the tree may be called Pepperwood or Myrtlewood. They make lovely indoor trees for many people. Personally, I’ve managed to kill them every time I’ve owned one. While I don’t really understand the necessity of this spice (I’m not sure I can taste it), it’s found in too many recipes to apparently live without. People write that this is one spice where there’s a significant difference between using fresh off the tree versus dried.
- Mustard Seeds. Many of the mustard seeds used in Indian cooking and pickling spices are the same that you can use to grow mustard greens. When people mention mustard, red blooded Americans probably visualize awaiting hot dog buns, but there’s a lot more you can do with this spice. Caution: When cooking with whole mustard seeds make sure they get hot enough to pop. If they don’t, your meal will probably still taste fine, but you’re in for a bad surprise later.
- Coriander. Coriander and cilantro aren’t exactly the same thing. In the US, ‘coriander’ refers to the seeds, but we call the stems and leaves cilantro. Elsewhere in the world the entire plant is referred to as coriander. The two spices are not interchangeable in recipes. Coriander’s native range is the Eastern Mediterranean to Pakistan, but it can be grown almost anywhere as an annual. Coriander has a number of medicinal and other useful properties. Both cilantro and coriander taste like soap to a small subset of human beings.
- Paprika is rendered from parts of bell peppers, but what we use generally comes from overseas. Not surprisingly, a great deal of paprika comes from Hungary and Spain. Paprika can be made at home, but it takes a lot of work. An incredibly useful and adaptable spice, paprika would be hard to live without.
- Celery seed. Celery seed is a powerful spice used in everything from sauerkraut to Bloody Marys. Celery can be found across the globe, particularly in very moist, nutrient rich soils. While it’s not difficult to grow, I know very few people who actually do, which invites the prospect of scarcity in bad times.
- Cayenne Pepper originated in South America and is a powerful additive to almost anything that needs heat. It simply wouldn’t be Cajun, Creole, or Mexican cooking without cayenne.
Individually, the loss of one or more of these spices might not seem like much, but without them we couldn’t make many of our favorite spice combinations. Simply consider these recipes: Garam Masala, Curry Powder, Chili Powder, BBQ Spice/Rub, Pickling Spice, DIY Old Bay Seasoning, DIY Lawrey’s Seasoning, Poultry Seasoning, Adobo Seasoning, Jamaican Jerk Seasoning, Taco Seasoning, Apple Pie Spice or Pumpkin Pie Spice. It is cheap and good insurance to lay in a stock of spices now.
How to Store Spices
Whole spices don’t spoil, but they do begin to lose their flavor after four years. Ground spices fade in less than half that time.
The same wisdom applies to storing spices as to most things: Store your spices in a cool dark place and in a sealed container. Oxidation is the greatest enemy of spices. I haven’t been able to find any authoritative research on the relative advantages of keeping spices in the freezer. One school of thought says that any advantages will be offset by the exposure to moisture when the container is taken out of the freezer and opened. Others, of course, claim this is an excellent practice.
Glass containers protect the contents but make sure they also have strong air tight lids. To guard against cross contamination of odors and flavors, avoid putting bags of different spices in the same sealed container. Some people even take the trouble to vacuum seal spices in mason jars, which makes good sense when maintaining a large reservoir, then refilling smaller containers for the pantry. Anyone who’s cooked knows the magical properties of those small glass spice jars, seemingly capable of bouncing off tile floors without breaking. The weak point is too often the plastic lid. In any event, better to routinely handle a small quantity rather than risk the larger container.
Instinct teaches to buy in bulk, but with spices there’s a caution: A study in the Kansas City area in 2014 found that 4 out of 10 packages of bulk spices were contaminated by heavy metals, toxins or bacteria. These included some nasty bacteria such as Enterobacter, Klebsiella, and Pseudomonas. The Food and Drug Administration found that 12 percent of all imported spices were contaminated in some way. Black pepper, thyme, oregano and turmeric were most associated with salmonella contamination, sawdust was frequently added to turmeric, paprika and ginger, and lead chromate was occasionally added to turmeric as well. Generally, they found that cinnamon is fine.
Where to Buy Spices
All that said, this really isn’t news. There have been stories like this at least since 1941, and for good or ill, the FDA continues to engage in testing for the sake of food safety. While cooking the spices in food to 160 degrees will kill any native bacteria, most of us have the habit of adding spices after the cooking is done which would reintroduce any bacteria back into the food. It is best to buy from reputable vendors.
One of the best known vendors is Penzey’s Spices, but I don’t buy from them. My personal choice, as otherwise Penzey’s has a great reputation for quality, but I’m partial to The Spice House. Though the owners of both businesses are related, the owners of The Spice House have made it a point to leave the politics behind. Costco products are also excellent, as well as Spice Islands which can usually be found in most grocery stores. If you’re buying from a bulk supplier online, it might be wise to consider one that supplies restaurants. They’ve got a lot riding on food safety.
How Much to Store
While there are many food calculators on the web that help you estimate your long term storage needs, far less bandwidth is dedicated to the things that will make your beans, rice and tuna fish palatable. Relying on popular wisdom would leave you with salt, sugar, honey and very little else.
The historical spice trade drove the world economy from the 15th century to modern times, altering the economic shape of the entire planet. Then, pepper was the greatest bulk commodity, followed by cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Generally speaking, Americans consume approximately 3.7 pounds of spices each year, but it’s difficult to break that down any further. In the world of chefs, the ratio of salt to pepper used in the kitchen is around 3-to-6 parts salt to one part pepper.
Most calculators suggest storing about 6 pounds of salt per person, per year. All things considered, one pound of pepper would seem about right. From that point on its mostly personal preferences and guesswork, but my two cents are that a shift to food storage staples would benefit from more spices. With that in mind, consider storing – per person/per year – one pound of cumin, cinnamon, and paprika; 8 ounces of vanilla, ginger, allspice, mustard seeds and turmeric; 4 ounces of nutmeg (about 20 nuts), cloves, cardamom, coriander, bay leaves, celery seed and cayenne pepper.
[JWR Adds: If you over-estimate the quantity of spices that you need, then just consider yourself well-stocked for barter or charity.]
Food should be a centerpiece of emergency planning. In fact, it’s the only prep that can be mastered by anyone: young or old, the robust or infirm. Done right, it not only provides peace of mind, but the practice of food rotation and buying in bulk probably saves time and money in the long run too. While the rated shelf life of dried legumes might be several years, better to rotate them into regular meal planning. Americans don’t eat many beans and our bodies might not appreciate a quick conversion to a ‘legume heavy’ diet. One way to rotate these ingredients into your current consumption might be to try some traditional Indian recipes. Indian food is heavily based on long term storage staples, and the flavor combinations are fascinating. If Indian cooking is in your wheelhouse, you might want to add fenugreek, asafetida and curry leaves to your storage inventory.
Unless you can meat, then banking proteins for long term food storage takes planning. Legumes, combined with rice or a grain, form a complete protein and are inexpensive and easy to store. A pressure cooker is your friend when it comes to preparing dried beans. The electronic idiot proof ones — like The Instant Pot – are a great introduction to pressure cooking, as well as a time saver. Think of it as a cross between a pressure cooker designed for middle school age children and a slow cooker.
“Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.” – Mark Twain