Is it better to stock up and get the big spice container that costs a lot less per ounce, or get the little one that will be used up quickly?

Big or Little Containers?

When you’re buying spices for the boat (or anywhere, really) should you buy the largest container that you have room for?  I mean, if you want to stock up, why not really stock up?  Or are there times when smaller is better?

For most spices, smaller is better . . . within reason.  Spices in general lose their flavor when exposed to heat and humidity and most boats have plenty of both.  Things like chili powder, basil, oregano and garlic are particularly susceptible.  My experience is that in the tropics they rarely keep their flavor more than three or four months, but your experience may be different depending on where you are and how you store your spices.

So for most of us, that rules out the monster restaurant-size containers or large containers filled from bulk. (Darn!  They’re far cheaper per ounce.Is it better to stock up and get the big spice container that costs a lot less per ounce, or get the little one that will be used up quickly?And the large containers hold a LOT more than the regular sized bottles, making it unlikely that you’ll use up the contents before it has all the flavor of sawdust.  Obviously, if you have a large family or substantial crew — or know that you use a lot of a particular spice — you may decide that the large container is right for you.

Spices that I use frequently I buy in the larger of the regular-sized bottles.  I also buy this size for spices that I use in larger quantities when I do use them — such as chili  powder where I use a couple of tablespoons when I make a pot of chili.

I get the little jars for things that I use less often and that typically aren’t used in great quantity.  White pepper and cayenne are two of these — while I use them a couple of times a week, it’s typically only 1/8 teaspoon or less at a time, so a little jar lasts quite a while.

Admittedly, sometimes I can’t find a particular spice in a small-ish container, such as the time that I found caraway seed in Loreto on the Sea of Cortez.  It was in a huge bottle that held a quart or more!  I knew I’d never use it before it lost its taste, so I divided up with some friends who also liked to bake bread.  We never did find rye flour, but we learned to make “Almost Rye” with whole wheat flour and the caraway!*

So the next time you’re tempted to reach for the big spice jar because it’s half the price per ounce of the smaller one, think whether you’ll really be able to use it all.  Too often, I’ve discovered that the one that’s cheaper per ounce actually ends up costing me the most since I throw a large part of it away.

*If you have The Boat Galley Cookbook, the recipe for “Almost” Rye Bread is on page 394.

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  • Nicola
    Posted at 30 October 2013 Reply

    Excellent point, Carolyn! (as usual!) I have been buying all of the spices that I can find in the teeny containers, and if it’s something I use a lot, I am buying multiples. Yes I am paying more per ounce, but it should be worth it in taste & not discarding sawdust. This is my first provisioning experience, for 4 months in the Caribbean this winter, so I am so incredibly grateful to you for sharing your wisdom, and even your spreadsheets!
    Thanks for all you do!

  • sue
    Posted at 06 November 2013 Reply

    Yes smaller seems to be more economical in the end. Before each of our major cruises we have stocked up, My husband ( a bit scared of running out of anything) made my buy lots or bulk spices. Before I left the boat after 2 years of cruising we had to throw out much of that – hadn’t used it all, although I use lots of herbs and spices in my cooking. We are away for an extended time so I will have to restock just about everything when we get back. My cooking style has changed a lot since we left home, too, with many more Asian style dishes which require fresh herbs and they are so accessible everywhere we go in Asia too.
    My suggestion is do your homework as to what is available where you are cruising. It is fun going to the markets and buying spices from the “spice man”.

  • S/V Dos Libras
    Posted at 02 October 2014 Reply

    Oops! Gotta put chili powder on the list! Thanks for the reminder!

  • The Boat Galley
    Posted at 02 October 2014 Reply

    Definitely don’t want to be without! It’s a staple for us.

  • Becky
    Posted at 02 October 2014 Reply

    Would it work to vacuum pack smaller quantities of spices ? Amts. that can refill a small bottle –then you can buy an economy -size? Maybe those would store in cooler crannies in storage? You’d have to use paper towling to keep the powders from sucking thru the vacuum….I think the directions have hints for sealing powders.

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 02 October 2014 Reply

      It would depend on where you are. I think. Heat is as much of a problem as humidity, so it would only work if you’re in a cool location and not in the tropics — or summer heat almost anywhere.

  • Janis Arnold Dravenieks
    Posted at 02 October 2014 Reply

    If you have room to store your spices in the freezer, the large, otherwise the small version – the shelf life on spices is very short for optimum flavor.

  • Iris Meredith
    Posted at 16 November 2017 Reply

    The little! When buying big containers… if they are not in a controlled enviroment like air conditioning, they will go bad and groe fungus and get hard as a rock. I have thrown away lots of large spices. Now i stock up on several of the small spice containers and have very little problems.

  • Terry Bogart
    Posted at 16 November 2017 Reply

    Dill always goes off so fast, and I can’t buy it here. Some cruisers from Norway laughed when I swung by the post office a

    • Terry Bogart
      Posted at 16 November 2017 Reply

      …..and had received my tarragon from Bulgaria! Couldn’t find that in FL or PA while visiting.

  • Tina Collins-Boggs
    Posted at 16 November 2017 Reply

    Even with the food saver vuccum pack it doesn’t last long. Go small

  • Michael Guelker-Cone
    Posted at 16 November 2017 Reply

    Buying from the bulk aisle you can get a small amount at a much better price.

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