As I was rooting around (for spices to add to stock I'm making - more on that later) I realized that there are certain spices and flavoring agents where quality, and with that, cost, really does make a difference. Not every spice has to come with a gold lined lid and a letter pressed price tag, of course, and if you know what you are looking for quality does not have to put you in the poor house - but, some items really are worth it:
Let's start with the most basic, fundamental, and used of spices. Salt and pepper. Don't even get me started. Someone asked me about salt last week. When I got to the part where I launched into my description of pink Himalayan salts and their delicate flavor and crunch being best utilized at the end of cooking on top of food or on raw foods I realized I needed to tuck it away and keep it to myself. I love the diversity of salts and peppers, adore pink peppercorns on roasted brussel sprouts and a sprinkle of fleur de sel with a bit of pepper on fresh cantaloupe. Knowing your salts and peppers can make a world of difference in the taste of your foods but a good salt and pepper will do just fine.
When my Dad started giving me this blend of both salt and pepper, already mixed, I thought, "No way. I need to control how much of each I use!" - it seemed a bit akin to the concept of pre-combining peanut butter and jelly (which, admittedly, I'm still fascinated by). Interestingly enough though the blend is perfect. I use it all the time. And Dad keeps buying it - from where, I have no idea but I don't care as long as it's in my pantry. (Thanks Dad!)
What is this "perfect blend"? It's Coastal Goods' Fleur de Sel and cracked Parameswaran peppercorns. It is on their site but the label is new. They describe the pepper as "single estate grown in Keral, India with all-natural farming practices, then hand-harvested and sun-dried on the stem. Bursting with unmatched flavor and intensity. Arguably the world's best black pepper!" I wouldn't disagree. It really is that good.
Things I really, really didn't need to know about? Their Autumnberry, Lavender and Provençal Salts. Can we even begin to discuss the French Toast Sugar & Spice blend of sugar, molasses, Saigon Cinnamon, cardamom, and orange zest? No. We really shouldn't.
While still on the savory spices I insist you buy a good Herbs de Provence blend. I use a ton of it. So much so that I buy it in huge bags (not even remotely kidding) and use it by the partial handful when making pots of stock and such (again, not kidding). Personally, I use Penzey's because it's what I can get my hands on for a good price and in bulk, locally. I'm sure there are other fabulous blends out there as well. For you Italian Seasoning addicts give Herbs de Provence a try for a new flavor twist.
Finally - but probably the most important, is vanilla. The grocery store brand "vanilla flavoring" you've probably bought once of twice bears no resemblance to the real thing. Real vanilla extract costs money but the difference in flavor, and how little you need, make it entirely worth it. If you are willing to go the extra mile - real, honest to god vanilla beans will put you over the edge. Even the barest scrapping of seeds in anything from a fresh whipped cream, to your coffee, or even in your jam will make you close your eyes and inhale with joy as you taste the delicious undertones of real vanilla. Don't skimp on vanilla. Personally, I do prefer organic and like Nielsen-Massey vanillas, though these beans are from Penzeys as well.
Vanilla, like salt and pepper, has a million (slight exaggeration) different taste variations by region. If you are only going to have one variety I would recommend a Madagascar. Our beans are Mexican and I like them because while they are similar to a Madagascar they are a bit darker and suited to the applications where I would use beans over an extract. Extracts always contain alcohol (well, I haven't seen an alcohol-free variation that I am aware of anyway), which is fine when baking, but if you are using vanilla in a low or no cook recipe you might prefer a bean better as it will yield a more pure vanilla flavor.
Do you have some favorite spices you can't live without? I'd love to hear about them!
Note: I have not been compensated or otherwise encouraged to review these products. While it would be nice to arrive home to boxes full of goodies I do not and will continue to trudge along, buying my favorite products regardless.