October 3, 2013

Thrifty Thursday: Cinnamon Sticks

It's about to get ugly on this blog! That's because for this post I'm leaving the safety of precise recipes and carefully styled photographs. I've gone out into the wild of grocery store land to document some great savings and am back to report.

I just adore whole spices such as cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, and star anise. Adding whole spices to a dish always intensifies the seasoning and enhances the overall flavor. However, buying whole cinnamon hits the wallet pretty hard for just being one ingredient. What to do? Time to put that home cook DIY spirit and thrifty know-how to use!

Qualifier: If you're out in the middle of nowhere then your best bet is gonna be to fork over nearly $10 for less than an ounce of prepackaged cinnamon sticks. That's just the price you'll pay at a well-stocked, big name chain store, whether regional or national. As with most consumer goods, forking over a good deal more is just the price you pay for living in rural seclusion bliss. And if you're anything like my parents then you've just come to accept that that's the way it is. I'm sorry to say that this post will not be very helpful for you. I accept that it's better for you to go the ground cinnamon route.

However, those of you lost in the urban jungles and suburban sprawls are in luck. One advantage of the city is the number of conveniences and commodities brought in by the constant mixing of peoples. Many metropolitan areas across the country are marked by diversity--Hispanics, Vietnamese, Southeast Asians, Middle Easterners, Africans, I could go on and on. International supermarkets abound, carrying specialized products in greater selection than the measly half-isle "international" section in big chain stores. By taking advantage of this diversity, you can save a bundle. And today I'm going to show you how it's done with cinnamon sticks.

Before taking you into the great unknown of international food store land, let me start with good ol' Kroger. The Kroger chain of stores spans several regions across the nation, and it's generally reliable for decent prices and availability. My cinnamon stick investigation highlighted this trait.

The location I checked out carried three different brands of cinnamon sticks, each packaged in sizes of one ounce or less. Their best deal was their store brand, Private Selection. Because of a store-wide promotion, the Private Selection cinnamon sticks came out to $2.99 per ounce. Name brand Spice Islands was double that (no surprise) with their one ounce jar going for $5.99. The worst, though, was McCormick. Because Kroger doesn't generally carry McCormick spices, only the cinnamon sticks from the hoity-toity Gourmet Collection were available. While the glass jar and pretty label make a great sell, it would take a whole lot of packaging to distract from the $9.05 per ounce sticker shock.

Leaving no stone unturned, I also checked out Fiesta, a Hispanic-themed (heavy emphasis on "themed") supermarket chain. (It's more Tex-Mex than Mex if you get my drift.) Fiesta frustrates me for several reasons, but I digress from the issue at hand. For the purposes of this investigation, I was pleasantly surprised to find good selection and prices that beat Kroger.  I tend to see larger packages of whole cinnamon in Hispanic food stores, and surprisingly Fiesta followed suit. At this particular location, I found three different brands unavailable elsewhere. Fiesta's best overall deal was El Guapo's four ounce package coming out to $1.14 per ounce. Even so, for less than $2 per ounce you could purchase one ounce packages of either the Fiesta store brand or La India, easily beating Kroger's store brand sale.

Believe it or not, even these prices pale in comparison to what I've found in the past few years. If you want the best prices for whole spices, Indian or Middle Eastern food stores are the way to go. At the Indian food store I visited, name brand Adani Spices cinnamon sticks were going for less than $0.40 per ounce! Their seven ounce package ran for $2.79, and their fourteen ounce package ran for $4.49. My personal favorite, the one sitting in my kitchen as we speak, is the store's own pacakge. I snagged nearly a pound of whole cinnamon sticks for only $3.49! (Ok, I guess I didn't technically snag it seeing as how that's the consistently labeled price, but who cares about technicalities? I found a great deal!) That means I only paid $0.24 per ounce! Can you believe it? Nearly a pound of delightfully fragrant cinnamon sticks at a price that would've only gotten me an ounce worth at Kroger.

And while you're visiting the Indian food store, stock up on other lovely whole spices, too. Smoky black cardamom pods, beautiful star anise, aromatic coriander seeds, whole white and black peppercorns, all much cheaper than at chain stores. Your culinary repetoire will expand as a result--spirits mulled with cinnamon and cloves, homemade masala chai concentrated with nearly every spice in the book. Or if you like something a bit more scripted you could try my gingered apple-pear crisp for starters. Whole spices make lovely garnishes, too.

Whatever you do, steer clear of Tom Thumb. Don't get me wrong--I will forever be a loyal Tom Thumb customer. Their amazing customized deals on my smart phone app as well as the Five Dollar Friday promotions have completely won me over. But I just cannot bear to buy cinnamon sticks from them. Get ready for this wallet whopper--nearly $10 per ounce on the McCormick Gourmet Collection I recently saw there. The buy two get one free sale on the regular McCormick line sounds like a great deal, but even that averaged out at over $5 per ounce. No, sir.

For whole spices Indian food stores are certainly the way to go. And while you're there have fun exploring the numerous other aisles, too. My time in the trenches of grocery store land is up for this post, but until next time here's many thrifty wishes for you all! Happy saving and happy cooking!

P.S. I have to say that the lighting in Tom Thumb was by far the best for my candid spice rack photo ops. Those name brand prices do come with certain perks. Not to mention that their selection is by far the best of the chain stores in my area, and their customer service is amazing. Tom Thumb representatives, if you are reading this post then please know that I frequently recommend your stores, your promotions, and your smart phone app to others. Nearly every weekend finds me bragging about the Five Dollar Friday deals I just purchased at your stores. I, your loyal customer, will be shopping your stores for years to come... just not for cinnamon sticks.


  1. yay for Tom Thumb! :-) I'd be curious to see how bulk food store prices would compare---especially the ones where they are stored in loose containers and you can buy just one or two, if you'd like. Whole Foods and Central Market are the ones that come to mind, but I'm sure there are others.

    1. You know, I checked at the Whole Foods closest to me after you suggested it. I didn't see cinnamon sticks so I may need to try again when they are freshly stocked. I also had trouble locating prices for their open-stock spices. I'll be curious to know what you're able to get it for.