January 25, 2011 9:57 AM   Subscribe

What spice blends (and perhaps other stuff) from Penzey's should I try?

So, I've been hearing about Penzey's for a while now, and someday I will treat myself to one of the big boxes of spice jars. But for now, I'm fairly broke, but would still like to explore what they have to offer.

What I'm most interested in are their salt-free blends, mostly for making plain food more fun. (Pasta, brown rice, popcorn, veggies). Mural of Flavor?California Seasoned Pepper? Bangkok Blend?

Will I regret buying the 1/4 cup sizes- maybe I should go for the 1/2 cup straightaway?

Is there anything else I should know or shouldn't miss?
posted by rachaelfaith to Food & Drink (44 answers total) 84 users marked this as a favorite
Not salt free, but I love Northwoods Fire; I use it all the time in tomato soup and poultry rubs. I also get a ton of use out the Bicentennial Rub, which I put on chicken and pork chops.
posted by philosophygeek at 10:03 AM on January 25, 2011

Bangkok Blend is really good. The Chesapeake Bay seasoning is also really good for popcorn, though it is not salt-free.
posted by proj at 10:04 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I especially like their Brady Street Cheese Sprinkle. I put it on all sorts of things: rice, pasta, popcorn, garlic bread... Their Pasta Sprinkle and Fox Point Seasoning are also good. (The Fox Point comes in a salt-free version called "Sunny Paris".) I also use a fair amount of their Shallot-Pepper seasoning. Good stuff.

I'd hold off on going for the 1/2 cup until you know for sure that you're going to use the stuff up fairly quickly. Far too many times, I've bought more than I could use within a few months and it's gone stale.
posted by rhartong at 10:06 AM on January 25, 2011

Penzey's and The Spice House are sister companies (they're owned by siblings). I don't have a recommendation for Penzey's, but the Spice House's Chicago spice blends are really great; my favorites are the Bridgeport Seasoning and Pilsen Latino Seasoning.

But to answer your question more directly, if I could only pick one or two things from Penzey's, I'd go with Vietnamese cinnamon, which is sooo much better than your typical store-bought cinnamon (which is usually not "real" cinnamon at all, but rather cassia).
posted by me3dia at 10:07 AM on January 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

Seconding Bangkok Blend. I also really like the Pork Chop Seasoning; it's not salt-free but it's great on lots of things, especially if you like a bit of smokey flavor. The Sandwich Sprinkle stuff is good too. Fox Point is very mild, almost not worth it IMHO.
posted by The otter lady at 10:07 AM on January 25, 2011

Not salt-free, but excellent: Pizza Seasoning. We go through their Tandoori Seasoning like mad, and use a lot of the powdered garlic and the Ground Red Chipotle.
posted by MonkeyToes at 10:12 AM on January 25, 2011

Northwoods Fire is great. I like to use it in my tomato-based hashes.
posted by Loto at 10:12 AM on January 25, 2011

Since you parenthetically mentioned (and other stuff) -- it's not a blend, but they have the most wonderfully fragrant oregano I've ever cooked with. I often sautee strips of chicken breast in hot sauce, lemon juice, salt, pepper and oregano for later adding to salad, and the difference that their Turkish oregano makes is amazing!
posted by Greg Nog at 10:15 AM on January 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Arizona Dreaming is my current favorite. It's salt-free and delicious on meat, veggies, and popcorn.
posted by esoterrica at 10:15 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sticking only with salt-free options, and only for the uses you discuss, let me recommend the following: Chipotle powder. Smoked Spanish paprika. Mural of Flavor. Sunny Paris (which is the salt-free version of Fox Point, recommended above).

Putting smoked Spanish paprika on popcorn is an amazing amazing amazing thing to do.

If you do decide to go for something with salt in it, we use Greek Seasoning and Galena Street Rub a lot.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:16 AM on January 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Rojo Taco Seasoning is soooo good that I stock up on a couple of jars whenever given the chance, even though I live less than 20 miles from one of their retail stores. I add a couple of spoonfuls of it to any sort of taco meat or enchilada sauce along with the regular spices for a delicious je ne sais quoi (no, really, I don't know what it is that makes it so delicious.)
posted by wuzandfuzz at 10:17 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Huge fan of the Tuscan Sunset blend. An italian-tasting blend but I have used it for other things, like seasoning homemade breadcrumbs. It's pretty versatile.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 10:22 AM on January 25, 2011

Sunny Paris clumps like crazy if you have humidity issues in your climate. Buy small amounts and restock frequently.

Seconding the Vietnamese cinnamon recommendation. It makes a huge difference and it's awesome on popcorn (add a little maple syrup!).
posted by catlet at 10:22 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's not a blend, but it makes everything delicious: Smoked Spanish Paprika. Salt free, not too strong, and fun to look at - think a smoky, mellow mix of cayenne pepper and bay leaves. I use it on popcorn and in soups, mostly, but it's quite versatile.
posted by VelveteenBabbitt at 10:23 AM on January 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

About the sizes - I find it ridiculous to pay for the little jars when my main purpose is to dump out a few tsp to tbsp into soup, to coat a roast, to make a sauce/marinade, etc. If the things you're ordering are actually sprinkling spices, then sure, get a jar. Otherwise, just get the larger size in one of their ziploc bags. I've got a carboard box in my pantry that is basically a file drawer full of spice bags.

My favorite blends:
fajita seasoning (add oil and lime to onions/peppers/meat for fantastic fajitas!)
sate/satay blend (turns grilled chicken on a stick into pretty accurate-tasting Thai satay, and makes a good peanut sauce)
spiced sugar (with cinnamon, vanilla bean bits, and "the elusive cardamom pod", which has become a neverending joke around my kitchen)
posted by aimedwander at 10:30 AM on January 25, 2011

Not entirely salt-free, but relatively low-salt, are Turkish Seasoning and Singapore seasoning. Both make chicken awesome. The Singapore is also great as a seasoning for noodles. (Replace the flavor packet in an instant ramen - much less salt, and tastier.

Also, I like the Balti and Sate ("satay?") seasonings, for even more curry-tastic flavor.
posted by Citrus at 10:32 AM on January 25, 2011

Sunny Paris clumps like crazy if you have humidity issues in your climate. Buy small amounts and restock frequently.

Put some (uncooked!) rice in the jar and that will absorb the humidity and let the spice flow freely. THE SPICE MUST FLOOOOOOOW!
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:34 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Definitely go for the bags. They are cheaper. I've enjoyed the Rogan Josh seasoning, the Taco seasoning and their assorted Chilli powders.
posted by mmascolino at 10:37 AM on January 25, 2011

VERY definitely recommending the Northwoods Fire. I use it on practically everything. Arizona Dreaming is by definition Salt-free, and I've just started using that business. The Mural of Flavor is... different. It's good, but I haven't quite figured out its place yet. (note: I don't eat a ton of meat, and this might be the limiting factor.)

As someone who LOVES the Penzeys, I say w00t on your discovery. I've never had anything bad from them.
posted by indiebass at 10:41 AM on January 25, 2011

Sidhedevil - with beautiful blue eyes as a side effect!

Yeah, definitely buy the bags and transfer into your own storage containers. Much cheaper for shipping.
posted by catlet at 10:49 AM on January 25, 2011

Nth-ing Sunny Paris. I buy it from The Spice House in Chicago, and it's my favorite thing. It's great on eggs, chicken, and fish. Probably my most frequent dinner is sprinkle a chicken breast (usually boneless & skinless) with a bit of salt and the Sunny Paris - saute in olive oil, deglaze pan with a bit of white wine and/or chicken stock, reduce the liquid then whisk in a little butter to make a sauce. Fast, simple, incredibly delicious, and even healthy.

Also Sunny Spain. And Zatar is great for homemade pita chips.
posted by dnash at 10:52 AM on January 25, 2011

Mr. Arkham mocks me for my addition to the sandwich sprinkle. I also put the Italian blend in just about really improves jarred spaghetti sauce. Mural of Flavor is our go-to for putting on top of fish, then broiling.

I'd suggest going for a small jar to see if you like it, then refilling from the bags.
posted by JoanArkham at 10:54 AM on January 25, 2011

Zatar....yum! Also, their Lemon Peel is pretty tasty.
posted by fyrebelley at 11:11 AM on January 25, 2011

Get on the list for the catalog - almost every edition comes with a coupon for a free little jar of something (you can use it online or in person).

I also got the bags instead of the jars, if I need to sprinkle I just put a spoon in the bag, pull some out, sprinkle, return excess to bag. It's not as fun or attractive as the little jars though.
posted by mrs. taters at 11:16 AM on January 25, 2011

Wow, you guys are speedy. Looks like Sunny Paris, Bangkok Blend, Northwoods Fire, Arizona Dreaming, and the Spanish Paprika are popular.

I'm still kind of split on what size to buy, though.. is it the jars that make the shipping expensive? If that's the case, I'll buy the bags and put them in my own jars. But yes, the primary use of these is probably going to be for sprinkling onto stuff, as opposed to rubs for meat or large amounts of seasoning. I'm usually just cooking for myself.
posted by rachaelfaith at 11:27 AM on January 25, 2011

Buy the bags unless you truly need or want the jars; the spices are definitely cheaper that way.
posted by hijinx at 11:38 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Get some herbes de provence, too. Penzey's version is classic and oh-so-fresh -- goes great on meat, roasted veggies, potatoes, eggs... just about anywhere. I actually prefer this spice in the bag rather than the shaker bottle, as I like to rub the leaves between my fingers before I toss them in the pan. Mmm, aromatic!
posted by vorfeed at 11:41 AM on January 25, 2011

I keep the sandwich sprinkle in a jar like the pizza places use for their pepper flakes and use it all the time. Especially good in omelets. Received a jar of Arizona Dreaming as a free sample just before Christmas and it's almost gone. I used it on baked chicken wings and now my family probably won't eat them ever again without it. We don't do fiery hot at our house (food shouldn't hurt!) but generally do like the southwestern spice taste. For that same reason, my favorite of all time is their Aleppo pepper. The smoked spanish paprika is really good, but EVERYTHING from there is good. Except I don't like Galena Street, probably because I'm from Memphis and that's just not barbeque to me. And my Louisiana friend does not use their cajun blends, preferring Tony Chachere's for the same reason. I always buy the smallest of the plastic envelope sizes and transfer smaller amounts to these magnetic spice holders, with labels from a labeling machine. I keep the bags in a large ziploc in my freezer. I only buy Penzey's spices now, because the quality is so much better and most of the time the cost is lower. Except for Roundezvous barbeque spice, Tony Chachere, and Cavender's, all of which I buy at my local grocery store.
posted by raisingsand at 11:44 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

My favorite is easily the aleppo pepper. It's got about 10x the flavor of any other red pepper flakes you've ever had. Also up there are smoked Spanish paprika, the Vietnamese cinnamon, and the cinnamon blend. Their bay leaves are also quite good, I always thought of bay as being something fairly flavorless before I tried theirs. They give my carnitas a certain something that no one else can quite duplicate. ;-)
posted by TungstenChef at 11:45 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, yeah, and Penzey's always has a coupon for a free bottle of some spice or another. Always. Be sure to take advantage of this when you check out.
posted by vorfeed at 11:46 AM on January 25, 2011

I came in to recommend their Vietnames Extra Fancy Cinnamon, which is Cook's Illustrated's pick for cinnamon (it actually is cassia, though. Sorry, Me3dia!).
posted by amarynth at 12:09 PM on January 25, 2011

I like all the cinnamons. If you like cinnamon as much as I do, buy a little of all the types (4 maybe) and compare and contrast! Nom!
posted by pointystick at 1:35 PM on January 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

I just want to put in my $0.02 for the Bavarian Seasoning, which has become my go-to rub for all pork and the English Prime Rib Rub for roast beef and steak.
posted by briank at 2:23 PM on January 25, 2011

I'm taking notes, too, as there's a Penzey's in Menlo Park, but I'm a bit curious as to whether there's a good reason to buy spices at Penzey's if I can get them at Namaste (the closest Indian market, one of many) or Cost Plus World Market--or if in fact there's a good reason to NOT buy them ther. Erm, if rachaelfaith doesn't mind my shoehorning that in there...(Great question! I hadn't realized how many interesting combinations they had.)
posted by wintersweet at 3:15 PM on January 25, 2011

The great thing about visit a Penzey's store is how each spice is available for smelling, in a big wide-mouthed jar.

My favorites are
Fox Point (for eggs, but it must have salt in it),
Singapore (for fish), and the
Bicentennial Rub (for when I roast a chicken).
posted by Rash at 3:54 PM on January 25, 2011

I like the soup bases and the extra bold black peppercorns.
posted by Bruce H. at 3:55 PM on January 25, 2011

This is an awesome question. I wish I could favorite it more than once.

My must-have from Penzey's is Smoked Spanish Paprika. It's not a blend, but it's a wonderful spice to have on hand for lots of savory dishes (I think it would be great on popcorn, too, although I haven't tried that.)

I think you'll be happiest with the 1/4 cup sizes, especially with blends that you haven't tried yet. Some spices last well over a year kept in a cool place and an airtight container, but others fade fast. In a blend, some will fade faster than others, leaving you with unbalanced flavor. A quarter cup is equal to 24 teaspoons, so that's quite a bit.

Wintersweet, my preferences for spice shopping are, in order:
1. Bulk bins in the grocery store because I'm already there, it's inexpensive, and I don't want another container.
2. Indian-food aisle at the grocery store, because it's inexpensive and I can get whole seeds that I can't find elsewhere.
3. Indian market, for the reasons above (the grocery store doesn't carry curry leaves).
4. Penzey's. The spices are the best quality overall, the prices are reasonable, but it requires a special trip.
5. Cost plus. The spices aren't as good as at other places and it requires a special trip. I like their Cajun salt-free spice, but that's about it.
posted by zinfandel at 3:57 PM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I got a nicely-sized gift certificate to Penzey's for Christmas and went to town....I think I bought over 25 different spices and have been loving it!

Everyone else has already recommended my favorites - Fox Point, Smoked Spanish Paprika, Pizza Seasoning, Chipotle, and Sate.

I also can't live without Fenugreek, Cumin, Coriander, and Turmeric anymore either...those are probably what I use more than anything, but I haven't had any other brand but Penzey's so they may not be uniquely special.

Their French Thyme, Basil, and Oregano have also been fantastic.

I would recommend you go with the smallest size jars at first. Yes, it certainly is cheaper to buy them bulk in bags....but if you're buying mostly the blends and haven't tried them before, what happens if you're not too keen on them once you do?

While I wouldn't say I don't like them at all, I've found myself to be kinda lukewarm on a couple blends, like Arizona Dreaming and Pasta Sprinkle. Again, it's not that I don't like them....I just haven't used those two that much because there are others I like better and reach for first. When I eventually do run out of Arizona Dreaming/Pasta Sprinkle, I probably won't repurchase them and will stick with the ones I really like. Just sayin'.....glad I didn't buy the bulk bags, and went with all the small jars at first. Now that I know what I like the best/use the most, I'll buy the bags in the future.
posted by Squee at 3:59 PM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm a bit curious as to whether there's a good reason to buy spices at Penzey's if I can get them at Namaste (the closest Indian market, one of many) or Cost Plus World Market

Freshness and quality. I always used to buy spices at the Indian market (mostly Swad and Laxmi brands), but the same spices at Penzey's are just plain better. I get less of them per dollar, certainly... but that also means they don't go stale before I use them, unlike the enormous bags of coriander and cumin I used to buy because they were "a better deal".
posted by vorfeed at 4:14 PM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

They have the best vanilla extract. Even if you're not a baker, it's worth it.
posted by chickenmagazine at 6:56 PM on January 25, 2011

Just nthing that Vietnamese cinnamom (super impressive difference) and taco seasoning. Their crystallized ginger for reasons I don't fully understand seems markedly better than normal too (though that's one thing that's pretty easy to make at home for yourself for a lot less money, granted. I was a HUGE fan of their fleur de sel and was super bummed when Bill or whoever wrote the press release explaining Penzey's wasn't going to do salts anymore, ugh (I'm still rationing my little jar).

Penzey's is awesome too for spices you might have a hard time finding otherwise-- their aleppo pepper is delicious and last I checked they carry sumac and za'atar. Oh, and mace, things like that.

I gotta be honest and say personally I was totally underwhelmed by all the salt-free blends I've tried (a friend gave me a box set as a gift)-- Sunny Spain, Mural of Flavor, Tuscan, can't remember the rest...ditto other classic blends like their Tsardust Memories and Krakow Nights, not bad but underwhelming.

Their Turkish bay leaves are nice if you make stews or red beans and rice, stuff where they matter a lot often.
posted by ifjuly at 5:47 AM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Pizza Seasoning & Sandwich Sprinkle are must-haves. The Taco Seasonings are very good, too. Salt-free, though? Hmm, I would have to check the jars.... The Italian Seasoning Mix is nice. A few shakes of Brady Street will get my kids to eat ANY VEGETABLE we have yet tried.

We bought jars once, and now buy bags. (It's a bit of a trek to get to one of the stores, so we don't go very often. Hi, Grand Avenue staff from 1500 miles away!) Even after a few months in the freezer, Penzey's spices are better than grocery store stuff brand new.

I love the hot chocolate mix but my wife doesn't. (She like Swiss Miss, for the record.)

Yay, Penzey's!
posted by wenestvedt at 9:03 AM on January 26, 2011

nthing cinnamon - I think I have their house blend cinnamon, and it is wonderful - 1000x better than your standard cinnamon.
posted by insectosaurus at 11:25 AM on January 26, 2011

The Southwest Seasoning is really nice, although not salt-free. The Salsa Salad Seasoning makes a great sprinkle for oven-baked wonton crisps or potato/sweetpotato/other chips. The curry powders I've tried have been nice (cue the shouts of "real Indian cooks don't used pre-mixed spices!" Okay, fine, whatever — have you read the story of how they got their garam masala recipe?)

I wish they'd make more of their blends available in salt-free and sugar-free versions. I like the Salsa Salad Seasoning but would prefer it without sugar. The Fox Point would taste nice except that it's so overwhelmingly salty I can't use it. Similarly the Galena Street.

Not a mix, but the freeze-dried shallots are nice to have on hand.
posted by Lexica at 3:05 PM on January 26, 2011

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