Whether you're stocking up or filling in your spice pantry, here's what you need to know.

By Randi Gollin
November 20, 2020
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Credit: Courtesy of The Spice House

It's easy to be seduced by spices—their vibrant colors and rich scents bring a world of flavor possibilities to your fingertips. But when you're refilling your spice cabinet or stocking up for winter cooking, should you buy whole or ground spices? It's not always an either/or situation.

Grind as You Go

"Whole and ground spices both have important roles to play in everyday cooking and baking," says Alex Wilkens, head of sourcing for The Spice House, a purveyor of spices, herbs, blends, and extracts. Well-stocked spice pantries, he says, should have a healthy mix of ground and whole spices.

To get the freshest flavor, purchase a coffee grinder that's used exclusively for spices, and grind them as needed. Bear in mind that some spices just aren't suitable for home grinding. Whole spices like cumin, coriander, or the inner seeds from cardamom pods, Wilkens relays, can easily be converted into fresh powder. Cinnamon sticks, cloves, or dried ginger, however, can be very difficult to break down into fine particles. "Whole nutmeg will last decades in your cabinet but is far too oily to grind into powder, so it's nice to have a little ground nutmeg on hand for baking."

Cuisines Are Part of the Equation

Favorite recipes and cuisines may also dictate your spice route. Ground and whole spices each produce different flavors and many parts of the world favor whole. "Indian cooking is the best example of how whole spices can add complexity of flavor, aroma, texture, and appearance to a dish," says Wilkens. "If you love spices and haven't dabbled in Indian cuisine at home, there is no time like the present to go down that rabbit hole. Whole spices will quickly find their way onto your next shopping list." 

And whole vanilla beans, he believes, are the sticky wonders of the world that absolutely should be part of every home baker's repertoire. While a high-quality extract will impart lovely vanilla flavor to cake or cookies, it's not a tangible affair like getting up-close and personal with the source. "Slicing, scraping, and steeping is the only way to fully appreciate nature's most complex spice." 

Stock Ground and Whole

But don't overlook the alternative—ground spices also play a key role in recipes. That's why it's best to have small amounts of some spices on hand in both forms—cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, mustard seeds, and chiles, to name a few. You can store them in tight-fitting jars in a cool, dark place, within reach. But how to maximize this embarrassment of riches? "Ground cloves for spice cakes and whole cloves for that holiday ham or chicken stock," says Wilkens, listing the seemingly endless uses for each. "Ground cardamom for snickerdoodles and some whole green pods to crush into your pot of rice. Ground cinnamon for cinnamon rolls and cinnamon sticks for stirring into your hot cocoa." You get the idea!

Swap the Old for the New

Note that whole spices, in general, will have a much longer shelf life than ground, because the volatile oils that produce flavor and aroma haven’t been disturbed. And once it's ground into a powder? Yes, the freshness countdown begins. In most cases, you should use powdered spices within a year of purchase, and whole spices within two to three years. To ensure that they're at peak potency (and haven't been lingering on the store shelves for months before purchase) buy them from a trusted supplier. Then it's time to get cooking.

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