Consider your last venture into the bulk aisle. What were you looking for? What did you purchase? Did it feel hectic, exciting, or just a mindless part of your shopping trip? Did anything new catch your eye?
Now close your eyes and consider how you see the bulk aisle. Are you imagining beans, rice, grains? Do you envision it as a place to find your “staples”? Do you think of it as a source for your snacks as well? Do you seek out salted nuts, sesame sticks, spices? Or does the whole aisle seem overwhelming, something you’d rather avoid if possible?
Mistakes and triumphs of cooking projects can often be traced right back to this location, hand-scooping into a bag, numbers on a tag. I often first think of the bulk aisle as a source for baking expeditions: almond meal, sugar, cinnamon, chocolate chips, yes please.
Many staff members have written extensively about our lovely bulk aisle, yet there is quite a lot that could still be said. From saving money to stocking up for the apocalypse, this humble aisle is more versatile and fascinating than at first glance. In an effort to offer some recognition to this often unsung place, I’m going to walk you through some adventures in eating and hopefully share some helpful information along the way.
Let’s be honest. Many folks initially locate the existence of the bulk aisle when they are looking for something covered in chocolate, perhaps something in an open bin to reach in and (secretly) sample? Children seem especially fond of this tactic. Of course, such actions are not-quite-smiled-upon by other shoppers nor the Health Department.
However, if you or your child is ever feeling particularly tempted to give a snack a taste test, feel free to ask a Co-op staff member, and they will absolutely offer you a sample of any item.
I have a particular fondness for certain bulk snacks, namely those that are sweet and those that are salty. In a previous Reader article, “Healthy Food on the Road,” Polly Sackett Westmont wrote of her own road trip snack of choice, custom-made trail mix: “I filled up several of my home-brought containers with our favorite bulk items: cashews, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, cranberries, raisins, cherries and dates rolled in oat flour. Once home, I mixed all of these items together and put it all into a large sealed container along with three snack cups for serving each child and myself.” I’m a big fan of this idea, and have also found the prepared trail mixes to my own liking. Granola is one homemade snack that outshines all the commercial brands I’ve tried. (My favorite recipe for this is shared at the end of the article.)
A couple years ago, in an attempt to cut down my visits to the chip aisle and bakery section, I began thinking more critically about what tastes I was pursuing and how I might be able to find comparable foods in the bulk section. In place of my salty chip cravings, I began eating (more pricey but less processed) salted nuts. My sweet bakery treat cravings were replaced with dried apricots, mangoes, pineapple, and cranberries, plus the occasional chocolate-covered almonds, ginger, or raisins. A few noticeable differences in wake of this change of habit included a decrease in the amount of food I consumed, which also made it easier to pack and carry go-to snacks in my bag. Nuts remain an essential snack I frequently turn to for a quick fix.
In “The Surprising Truth About Food Miles,” Megan Blodgett Minnick emphasizes an additional repercussion of eating whole, unprocessed foods: “According to a University of Michigan study, 23% of the energy used in our food system is in processing and packaging. By choosing whole, unprocessed foods, and by buying in bulk, you are cutting these steps out entirely.”
In breads, pastries and assorted sweet treats, the experience of baking tends to revolve around the use of flour. However, it is important to note that flour is generally considered a highly processed version of a whole grain. When whole grains are milled and ground down, their oils begin an oxidation process. Light, air, and heat can prompt this. According to Iowa State University’s Extension and Outreach, the processing of the grain impacts the shelf life. “Grains, because their oil is sealed in the original grain kernel and cannot easily oxidize, can keep much longer than flour.”
In “Bulk Food Storage” on the website www.happyherbivore.com, Lindsay Nixon articulates some general storage guidelines. “If you plan to use your flour within a few weeks, the packaging it came in should be sufficient. However, flour takes up moisture and dries out easily, so if you are storing it for longer than that, it’s recommended that you transfer it to a glass or metal container. Heavy-duty, BPA-free plastic containers can also work. Flour also absorbs odors; storing it away from strong scents is best.
Whole-wheat and brown rice flours benefit from being stored in the refrigerator or freezer, because it slows the oils in them from going rancid. If you live in a hot and/or humid climate, you may want to store all flours in the refrigerator, as storing your flour at a warm temperature increases the chance of having pests.”
Beyond flour, there are spices to consider. Anything finely ground will have a shorter shelf life than their whole counterpart. One hidden benefit to shopping in Willy Street Co-op’s bulk aisle is the rapid pace at which bins are filled and refilled. This ensures the products are fresher than items that may be packaged and sitting on shelves for long periods of time. We’ve often received positive comments about the freshness of our bulk spices; some folks even caution to use less at first, to account for the stronger flavor.
One of my favorite quick-bake items are coconut macaroons. Using just a few basic ingredients (sugar, almond flour, coconut, vanilla, eggs and butter) these gems make great secret-admirer gifts or last minute potluck contributions. Give the recipe a try!
In regards to navigating bulk aisle “staples,” folks often have questions about how to build a pantry. To consider what your pantry might be comprised of, it’s helpful to look at the storage lives of particular items, alongside kitchen space and frequency of use.
Dry, dark, and cool are the general rules for pantry space. Well-sealed containers are much better than bags, particularly as they serve to prevent bugs. Seasoned pantry users tend to prefer glass containers, and many people add a couple whole bay leaves, which act as a bug deterrent. Whole grains, rice, and legumes tend to store longer. Our home has a cabinet full of quart-size mason jars filled with mung beans, quinoa, chickpeas, basmati rice, brown rice, millet, black beans, red lentils and more.
Obviously, bulk dried beans and legumes are less convenient but also much more affordable than canned versions. For me, the key to making them easier to work with is. . . using a slow cooker. Soaking overnight also helps. Getting into a rhythm of preparing a crockpot full of black beans often means thinking a little in advance, using some beans immediately upon completion, and refrigerating the rest to use over the next few days. It is actually simpler than it seems, and clearly much less expensive than cooking with canned beans. After a recent article I wrote about convenient, affordable, and healthy meals, I was sent a number of suggestions by Co-op Owner Nandini Lorenzsonn. One of them was for khichdi, also called kicharee, khichuri, kedgeree or kichari which is a South Asian preparation made from rice and lentils. This has been a go-to meal for me, particularly because it is easily digestible and great to eat while “doing a cleanse” or feeling ill, weak, or depleted.
As for baking supplies, I predominantly use gluten-free flours, such as almond meal and brown rice flour, and I try to keep these in glass jars in the freezer. I also purchase them in smaller quantities and replenish often. As raw nuts have a high-oil content and can go rancid in a kitchen with fluctuating temperatures, I try to also keep them in the fridge or freezer. In our home full of bakers, we tend to keep our pantry stocked with proper supplies, including vanilla extract, shredded coconut, oats, sugars, molasses, and spices. A tip on baking powder: when it’s too old it will produce hard and flat baked goods, instead of light and fluffy ones. Following a sugar craving to a home-baked sweet treat (without a trip to the grocery store to delay the dessert) is one major benefit of our stocked pantry.
TAKE A CHANCE
Perhaps you’ve seen the black Forbidden Rice and wondered what it looks like when it’s cooked or how it might combine with some bright orange carrots or deep red beets. Maybe you’ve wanted to experiment with nutritional yeast, or have been eyeing up a fancy new type of salt. One of the most endearing aspects of shopping in the bulk aisle is the options given to choose as little or as much as one wants. My own pantry expanded after I began eating millet and found it to be a very versatile grain. Most recently, I tried purple jasmine rice and volcano rice and found them both to be colorful additions to fun meals.
Ultimately, there isn’t much to lose if you’re curious about trying an item. Take home a tablespoon of that interesting curry powder, or find out if dried jakfruit is actually sweet or sour. If you’re interested, share your new favorites with us on our Facebook page, and pass along your tips, hints, and recipes as well. As always, feel free to eat your way through the aisle!
1/3 c. coconut oil
1/3 c. maple syrup
1/2 tsp. vanilla
5 c. oats
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 c. almonds
1 c. sunflower seeds
1 c. coconut
2 c. raisins
Directions: Preheat oven to 300ºF. Combine all ingredients (except raisins) in a large bowl. If coconut oil is solidified, heat slightly on a stovetop with maple syrup, vanilla, and cinnamon. Spread mixture out on 2-3 cookie sheets. Bake in oven for 20 minutes, stirring midway through. Remove & cool completely. Add raisins and store in a covered container in the fridge. Makes approximately 9 cups.
3/4 c. sugar
1/2 c. almond flour
1 Tbs. melted butter
2 c. shredded unsweetened coconut
1 tsp. vanilla
Directions: Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Drop spoonfuls onto greased cookie sheet. Bake in preheated 325ºF oven for 10-15 minutes. Remove cookies from pan and let cool on wire rack.
1/4 c. brown basmati rice
1/4 c. red lentils
1 c. of water
1 tsp. of salt
1 inch piece of fresh ginger peeled and sliced finely
1 tsp. cumin powder
A pinch of cinnamon powder
Optional: half a jalapeño pepper sliced or some chopped cilantro (or a squeeze of lemon)
Directions: In a medium-sized pot bring water and salt to a boil. Add rice and lentils along with ginger, cinnamon and cumin. Cover the pot and lower heat to a simmer. Stir once or twice in the next fifteen minutes. When the rice is done it is ready to eat. Serve hot with some chopped cilantro or juice from a lemon slice or half a chopped jalapeño.