Every six months or so I go through an unsettling ritual. I buy the sugar in the 10-pound bag. Dentists everywhere cringe.
The bag that makes the dentists cry.
But buying sugar in bulk is a great idea*. Let me tell you why: sugar never spoils. Oh sure, it can clump up if it gets too humid. But that’s nothing a good meat mallet, a plastic zip-loc bag and a standard dose of office-induced stress can’t take care of.
And therein lies my rule of thumb when deciding whether or not to buy in bulk: will this food spoil in the time frame that represents the worst-case scenario for me using it?
Here’s a common problem I see among home cooks: You go to the store, wander through the produce section, and discover asparagus is on sale. Oh boy! 16 pounds of asparagus for $.87! You buy said asparagus. You take it home. You place it in the crisper. You take a little asparagus for your meal that night, or forget about it entirely. Then, three weeks later, you discover a scene from “Crisper of the Living Dead” playing out in the back of your fridge. Haz-mat suits, bio-hazard bags, and respirators are considered de rigeur by the EPA for such situations.
So when you’re considering whether to buy in bulk ask yourself: Do I have a plan for using this by the time it’s likely to spoil? What is my history of using this item? Don’t be tempted to buy something just because it’s “a better deal”. If it rots in your fridge, it isn’t just losing you money — it’s wasted water, energy and food! If you hadn’t bought and wasted it, the grocery store might have perhaps donated it to a food kitchen that could — and in today’s economy, food pantries can use all the produce they can get.
So for produce, unless you have a family of 10, the answer is almost certainly no. I never buy the big bag of onions because I can only get through like two before the rest of the bag turns into a stinky, sprouty, slowly dissolving goo.
There is one exception: apples (and perhaps oranges). Since apples keep for at least a few weeks up to several months, buying them by the bag is a good bet. I find that the organic bagged apples are significantly cheaper on a per-pound basis than their loose brethren, and usually tastier, less bruised, and smaller too. I like smaller apples because I’m more likely to eat them when it appears I can get through one in one sitting. Your needs may differ. Right now I’m buying bags from the Ranier Fruit Company (based in Selah, Wash.) from my local King Soopers. They’ve consistently been sweet and crisp.
For spices the answer is a bit trickier: buy as little as possible of pre-ground spices (they slowly lose their natural flavoring oils over months to years), but go crazy with whole spices (coriander, cumin, fennel seed, nutmeg, etc.) . They’re virtually indestructible.
For dry goods like pasta, canned foods, dried beans and lentils, and baking supplies — hells yeah! Buy that huge-a** can of cocoa powder or 10-pound bag of dried chickpeas if you think you can get through it before you have to move again. Because let’s face it: no one wants to move a 10-pound bag of dried chickpeas.
So to sum up: if you’re making dinner for your local chapter of the United Steelworkers, you can buy the 15-pound bag of potatoes and the 10-pound bag of carrots. If not — save your money and prevent turning your fridge into a Superfund site. Buy only what you need.
*(assuming the per unit cost is less than that of smaller-sized bags. Always check — sometimes it isn’t and grocery stores are sneaky and inconsistent about this)
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