I have a pantry full of spices, and I did not pay an arm and a leg for them. The trick? I shop for my spices at Indian and Mexican stores. Granted, this tip won't work for everyone, but for those of us lucky enough to live in a diverse area, it's an added bonus! I think that part of the reason the spices are so cheap is that you must buy them in bulk, so you're not paying for fancy packaging.
At the Indian spice shop I frequent, they label the ingredients with the packed on date, so I know that the spices haven't been sitting on the shelf for years. Also, can you believe those prices (see pics below)??? I kind of screamed when I saw the citric acid. I had just paid $5 for a quarter of that amount at a health food store (I use citric acid to make cheese, but I've read that it is useful for sprouting whole beans).
For the Mexican spices, I can find them at any big box grocery stores around here, as well as some specialty Mexican stores. The spices are in clear, plastic bags and they are in the store's "International Foods" section, not the usual spice section. Just the other day, I had to buy cloves for an applesauce recipe. They were on "sale" in the regular spice section for $3 for a small jar. I reluctantly put them into my basket. As I was perusing the other aisles, I stumbled across the cloves in the Mexican spices section - $.075 for the same amount of cloves. Crazy cheap.
At the Indian grocery store, I load my basket with mustard seeds, cumin, coriander, chili, cinnamon, cardamon, turmeric, and garam masala. I also can't resist buying bags of fragrant basmati rice and lots of dried beans.
The Mexican spice sections are usually stocked with pantry staples like oregano, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, whole dried chilies, and cloves.
For those of you who live near Berkeley, you must visit my favorite Indian store: Viks Distributors. As an added bonus, you can go next door and eat bhatura chole (boy's head in the background provided for size reference). We were sitting right under a sky light, which gives these photos a funny halo effect.
Or you can eat a masala dosa! (They used to only serve dosas on weekends, but now they serve it all the time.)
Is it time for lunch yet?