I like to try new recipes and new ingredients when I cook. I am lucky to have people who are willing to try these cooking experiments! Depending where you live, it may be difficult, or very expensive to buy exotic ingredients, though. It doesn’t have to be! Even the most mainstream places have spice shops and ethnic groceries. This is likely where you will find the best prices and the freshest herbs and spices, since they will sell the most, and have a high turnover.
Learn about new ingredients
Cookbooks are a great source of information and inspiration. You can check them out at the library, buy them or borrow from friends. There are even ebooks that you can buy at a low price (or free!).
Cooking classes provide in-depth information on new cooking styles and methods. These are nice because you will be able to taste and smell the ingredients and finished products, and ask questions of the teacher about ingredients and their sources. Cooking school classes are great, but can be expensive. You can also try classes at your local grocery store or co-op, and adult education programs. Online demonstrations can be a great resource, especially if you are just curious, or if you are in the middle of a recipe and need some help. Try looking here, here and here. Cooking supply stores like Williams-Sonoma and Sur la Table have inexpensive or even free classes on weekends, often with store discount coupons given out freely. Don’t go crazy with buying equipment that you will only use a few times!
Television shows are a great way to learn about recipes and ingredients. The techniques and recipes vary from traditional to the chef’s twist on classics, to simplified methods for the novice cook. A good source of a broad range of demonstrations can be found on PBS and at pbs.org. Food TV used to be non-stop demonstrations, but you can still find some between the cooking competitions.
Online recipes are so abundant now, you might find the same recipe on dozens of different sites. Be careful, though. Some blogs and personal sites have recipes from memory, or that have not been tested. Your results may vary! Here are a few places to look allrecipes.com, food network.com and food.com. WebMD has a section on health benefits of herbs and spices.
Supermarkets usually have ethnic food aisles in addition to the spices you will find near the baking section. Be careful, though. Depending on the item, it may have been there for a while. Herbs and spices should be as fresh as possible for the best flavor and health benefits.
Co ops and health food stores often have more extensive spice sections, and most have bulk spices. This section is great, because the supplies are fresher, and you can smell before you buy. There is often experienced help nearby for questions, and you can buy as little as you want to try something out before you commit to a large container.
Ethic grocery stores and spice markets exist in every large city, and many smaller towns as well. Supplies may vary with the local population, but you will find something new if you look around. These stores are staffed and frequented by people who use the herbs and spices, so ask someone if you have a question. If you are less adventurous or live in a suburban zone, you could try World Market stores in most cities for a sampling of world spices and other cooking ingredients.
Amazon.com, of course has everything. Quality and amount will vary with the supplier, so check the reviews and cross your fingers!
Penzeys is a reliable spice merchant. They don’t have the most exotic items, but they have their own spice blends, and even several of their own cocoa powder and cinnamon sources. They also have stores in many US cities.
San Francisco Herb Co. Has a local store, and also sells online. The quality is good, and prices are lower than most sites.
The Spice House has a selection similar to Penzeys, and has a herbs and spice website that can be searched by alphabet, category or cuisine.
Savory Spice Shop carries more unusual items.
Chain stores like Williams-Sonoma, Dean and Deluca, and Sur la Table have a limited selection of herbs and spices. They will likely be good quality, but more expensive.
Spices come from all over the world, but you can grow many herbs in your own garden or kitchen window. It’s wonderful to have a ready supply of fresh herbs when you are cooking.
Photo credits: srqpix, Martin and Kathy Dady, LenDog64, Skånska Matupplevelser