Here to Help: Penzey’s Spices

Here to Help is a segment where I will explore different people, places, and things that are here to help you on your cooking journey. 

The quickest way to resuscitate a dying dish or enhance a jarred sauce is to add spices. To do so, you could just go to Target or Walmart and pick up whatever they have on the shelves, not knowing quite how long it’s been there or you could take a chance and explore you local neighborhood spice shop. This weekend, that is exactly what I did.

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In my (now ended) quest for inexpensive, quality vanilla beans, I learned about Penzey’s Spices. Penzey’s is a chain shop, with over 60 locations (including one in Buffalo, NY, my hometown!), but  when you walk in, any pre-fabricated ideas about what a chain is supposed to feel like are immediately dispelled.

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Penzey’s is expertly set up so that the savory spices are the first thing you encounter when you walk in. You can find your basics including sea salt (ground coarse or fine), peppercorns (green, pink, or white, among others), and ground pepper, or your more exotic spices such as chinese five spice, saffron, and curries. Also, available are a number of spice mixes in the form of rubs, such as Jamaican Jerk (it was really hard to walk away from this one) and chili mixes.

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If you can tear yourself away from the plethora of savory spices, you are rewarded with Penzey’s vast collection of sweet spices. The sweet spices are set up in a manner in which I would imagine an apothecary in the time of Shakespeare and I love it! There was every kind of extract imaginable including lemon, orange, and of course, vanilla. But not only was there regular vanilla extract (which smelled divine by the way), but also double strength vanilla so you can use half as much, but still get all the flavor.

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In addition to extracts, there were also very potent vanilla beans (from Mexico and Madagascar), vanilla sugar, and massive amounts of cinnamon from whole to ground. If you’re going to be making any desserts, you need to stop at Penzey’s.

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The final area in the store is devoted to prepackaged gift boxes. There were lovely sets intended for wedding gifts, the starter cook, and a basic variety pack. While the sets are a little expensive, they are well thought out, and the spices within each set are well-matched.

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So you’re probably wondering what I ended up with, huh? I was actually very reserved and only purchased some Madagascar Vanilla beans, herbs de provence (very good with pork), sweet curry (to try and replicate some delicious wings from Buffalo Wild Wings), wasabi powder, and an empty jar for only $20!

Obviously, I am infatuated with this store and may only purchase my spices from here from now on. But I forgot to tell you the absolute best part of Penzey’s: there are samples of every.single.thing in the store so you can smell, feel, and even taste before you buy. So, if you’re looking for that one special thing to take your dinner from good to great, I strongly suggest (re: telling) you run, don’t walk to your nearest Penzey’s. And then report back and let me know what you got!