Wars were fought over spices. I remember thinking in grade school history class how odd that seemed. The idea of traveling for months or years to exotic locations for herbs and spices?
Now that I am a cook, I understand. And if our ancestors were willing to die for them, I should have no trouble going beyond the supermarket -- but it worth it? Are premium spices really better?
And surprisingly, they are not much more expensive.
This article described three terrific sources: Penzey's, the Spice House, and "Grow Your Own."
Grow Your Own
The best source is your own garden and the good news is that herbs require very little space or skill. You can grow many of them indoors. It's pretty dirt-simple: Dirt, a pot or a plot, seeds or plants, and water. If you can rig a timer and drip irrigation, then it's all a no-brainer.
There is something romantic about walking outside and coming back with a handful of flavor you will never find in a jar. I presently grow: basil, thyme, lemon thyme, marjoram, parsley, cilantro, tarragon, rosemary, and chives.
Penzey's and the Spice House
I bought from Penzey's numerous times and found them an outstanding source for really excellent spices and herbs. They also have several retail outlets, including one near me, in Menlo Park, CA. Their printed catalog and on-line articles are excellent and full of recipes.
About a year ago, I tried the Spice House. Their products, policies, and packaging are very similar to Penzey's, and for good reason: Both companies are run by offspring of Ruth and Bill Penzey, Sr. They are also great. In general, I find the information at Spice House folksier but just as good as Penzey's and the products are also top quality. Prices are generally lower.
What to Buy
The following comments apply to Penzey's and Spice House's products.
If you try nothing else, try their cinnamon (China Cassia) or Penzey's cinnamon blend. Some people prefer the Vietnamese cinnamon. But you can't go wrong. Either way. you will never buy cinnamon in a grocery store again!
Cassia and cinnamon are different, but similar, products and in fact, most of what you buy labeled as cinnamon is really cassia. There was a shortage of true cinnamon, around 100 years ago, I think, and suppliers began to furnish cassia instead. We became accustomed to is and that's what we prefer now.
There are numerous types and grades. I have only tried several. The China Cassia remains my favorite but I also like the blend.
Try their peppercorns. I use the Indian Special Extra Bold Tellicherry black pepper and it much more pungent and complex than anything I have bought in a grocery.
Their exotics, like curry and paprika, are complex and rich.
Herbs, like bay leaf, dill weed, parsley, and basil, are bright green, fresh and still fragrant.
I love the ground chili peppers. This is not the same as chile powder, which is a blend. These are dried and ground chili pods, of various types. I especially like the smoky ones. The Ancho Chili is smoky, complex, and full of flavor, and not at all hot. The Chipotle is quite hot and full of flavor.
Both companies market blends that are great. Try the Fox Point seasoning, the sandwich or pasta sprinkles and specialty mixes like pumpkin pie spice. I especially like Fox Point on popcorn. My favorite blend is the Sunny Paris.
The gift packs are nice wedding presents, too.
Trust me -- once you have tried a few of these items, you will never buy the red and white can, or any other supermarket spice, again.
One more source should be mentioned: local specialty spice shops (including the Spice House and Penzey's retail stores), which have the advantage that you can smell and taste what they have and get the advice of a face to face merchant.