Bulk Buying 101

Buying from the bulk bins is the key to curating a well-stocked (but not uselessly overstocked) kitchen, filled with interesting foods that make cooking easy. Shop smarter than ever with these essential dos and don'ts for buying bulk foods.

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A revolutionary new grocery store recently opened shop in Austin, Tex.: In.gredients is the first modern-day package-free food market in the United States. Like so many of today’s “progressive” food movements, the concept is really about getting back to a simpler way of doing things. “This is how people bought groceries for a long time,” says Brian Nunnery, In.gredients business development manager. “This is not a new thing, this is an old thing.”

Luckily, you don’t have to live near In.gredients to jump on the bulk foods bandwagon—bulk bins are a common fixture at food stores nationwide. Maybe you’ve already been poking around the bulk bins for years, harboring a hunch that buying in bulk pays off in more ways than one.

Guess what? You were right. Bulk is better—better for your food budget, better for your creativity in the kitchen, and better for the planet too. Read on for six essential dos and don’ts to help you make the most of your next bulk foods shopping trip, plus four bulk-friendly recipes to inspire your cooking.

Do: Buy Only As Much Or As Little As You Need

According to Nunnery, the No. 1 benefit of buying in bulk is that you can buy exactly how much of a given ingredient you want: “You are in control of the quantity you buy. Quantities aren’t dictated to you by the packaging.” Sure, you can buy more, but you can also buy less. For example, you can buy the exact amount called for in a recipe.

Try Buying More: Carolyn Scott-Hamilton, author of The Healthy Voyager’s Global Kitchen, likes to stock up on healthful staples for everyday cooking. “I love using grains and legumes in my cooking,” says Scott-Hamilton. “Cook once and eat thrice is my motto. I cook up a big pot of beans and a big pot of rice and use them throughout the week in different ways.”

Try Buying Less: Buying less of an ingredient (think spices, dried mushrooms, nuts, etc.) can help stretch food dollars, cut down on waste, and keep the contents of your pantry fresher. “I don’t want to buy an entire pound of cocoa powder if I just need 1 or 2 tablespoons for a recipe,” says organic chef Ani Phyo, author of Ani’s 15-Day Fat Blast. For Phyo, the freedom to buy less also makes it easy to kitchen-test substitutions. “It’s a great way to try something without committing,” she says.

Do: Bring Your Own Containers (If Allowed)

“We encourage shoppers to bring their own containers,” says Ricardo Chavira, marketing director of Co-opportunity Natural Foods in Santa Monica, Calif. “No bags are used, and we can easily weigh containers prior to them being filled. It’s a win-win!” At In.gredients, shoppers even get the tare (empty weight) of their containers on a little sticker that can last for years. If your local store doesn’t let shoppers use their own containers, consider suggesting a policy change. “Maybe other grocery stores will do the same thing if customers just ask,” says Nunnery. As for travel-friendly containers, Scott-Hamilton says, “Invest in your own reusable bulk bags so you’re not using plastic bags over and over.”
[Editor’s pick: Chico Bag Produce Stand Complete Starter Kit; find it at chicobag.com.]

Do: Stock Up On Airtight Containers

So how should you store bulk buys at home? VT food editor Mary Margaret Chappell favors 1 and 1 1/2-quart canning jars: “I label them with masking tape and a Sharpie. There have been one too many times I’ve thought soy flour was chickpea flour or Arborio rice was sushi rice.” Not a fan of Mason jars? Any airtight containers will work. In the mood to purchase new containers? Scott-Hamilton highlights two useful features: easy to stack, and clear, so you can see ingredients.

Don’t: Impulse Shop

The sheer variety of bulk offerings can tempt even the most frugal shopper to impulse buy, which isn’t the best tactic. “Meal planning is important. Go in with a plan of exactly what and how much you need so you’re not stuck with stuff you never use,” says Scott-Hamilton, who adds, “Don’t shop hungry!”

Don’t: Cross-Contaminate

When shopping in the bulk aisle, Nunnery stresses the importance of being sensitive to other people’s allergies. “Always use the right scoop for the right bins,” he says. On this topic, Chavira goes so far as to say that shoppers with a serious gluten intolerance should avoid the bulk bins altogether: “Don’t assume something is gluten-free if it is in the bulk bins. If it is stored in a bulk bin around gluten products, it can become contaminated.”

Don’t Toss The Plastic Bags

Experiencing eco-guilt over using plastic bags for bulk ingredients? Rest assured that buying in bulk requires less packaging—and printing—than typical off-the-shelf products, even if you use plastic bags to transport your bulk buys home. Plus, the bags are recyclable and reusable. “You can always take them to the farmers’ market,” recommends Phyo. Check out these five creative ways to reuse produce bags.

Get the Recipes

Rustic Armagnac-Apple Pie

Serves 12

Rev up your apple pie repertoire with this free-form beauty that’s loaded with dried apricots, figs, and cranberries, plus a healthy splash of Armagnac, an aged brandy from Bordeaux.


2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 Tbs. sugar
3/4 tsp. salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) cold unsalted butter or margarine, cut into small pieces
1 large egg, beaten, or 1/4 cup milk or soymilk, for brushing crust
1/4 cup turbinado sugar


1/4 lb. dried apricots, coarsely chopped
1/4 lb. dried figs, coarsely chopped
1/4 lb. dried cranberries or cherries
1/4 lb. raisins
Peel of 1 lemon, removed with peeler
1/3 cup Armagnac, Cognac, or Calvados
6 Granny Smith apples, divided
1/4–1/2 cup turbinado sugar
2 Tbs. cornstarch
1 Tbs. lemon juice

1. To make Crust: Pulse flour, sugar, and salt in food processor several times to combine. Add butter; pulse 5 times, or until mixture resembles coarse sand. Add 1/2 cup water; pulse until dough just comes together. Transfer to large piece of plastic wrap, and press into flat disk. Wrap tightly, and chill 1 hour, or overnight.

2. To make Filling: Place apricots, figs, cranberries, raisins, and lemon peel in large bowl; cover with boiling water, and let stand 20 minutes. Drain, and return to bowl. Add Armagnac while fruit is still hot. Let plump in liqueur until cool.

3.  Grate 3 apples, and stir into dried-fruit mixture along with sugar, cornstarch, and lemon juice.

4.  Preheat oven to 375°F. Roll out dough to 14-inch circle, and place on baking sheet coated with cooking spray. Spread dried-fruit mixture in center of Crust, leaving 21/2-inch border.

5. Peel, halve, core, and thinly slice 3 remaining apples. Arrange slices in concentric circles atop dried fruit. Fold dough border over apples to make rustic edges. Brush edges with egg; sprinkle edges with turbinado sugar. Bake 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until Crust is golden and edges of apples begin to brown.

Per slice: 365 cal; 4 g prot; 9 g total fat (5 g sat fat); 72 g carb; 36 mg chol; 163 mg sod; 5 g fiber; 42 g sugars

Mixed Dal with Tomato Tarka

Serves 8

Orange and yellow split peas and mung beans give this soup a lovely golden color.

1/3 cup dried red lentils
1/3 cup dried split yellow or green peas
1/3 cup dried split mung beans
3 Tbs. melted butter, ghee, or vegetable oil, divided
2 Tbs. grated fresh ginger, divided
1 tsp. ground turmeric
4 cups baby spinach leaves (4 oz.)
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. whole cumin seeds
1 medium onion, chopped (1 1/2 cups)
1 tsp. garam masala
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
3 cloves garlic, minced (1 Tbs.)
1 large tomato, diced
Cilantro leaves for garnish, optional

1. Rinse and drain lentils, split peas, and mung beans; place in large bowl, and cover with hot water. Soak 30 minutes. Drain.

2. Combine drained lentil mixture, 1 Tbs. butter, 1 Tbs. ginger, turmeric, and 6 cups water in saucepan; bring to a boil. Cover, and simmer 1 hour, or until legumes are very soft. Whisk with wire whisk to break up lentils. Add spinach and salt, cover, and simmer 10 minutes more.

3. Meanwhile, heat remaining 2 Tbs. butter in small skillet over medium heat. Add cumin seeds; cook 30 seconds to  1 minute, or until seeds darken. Add onion, garam masala, and cayenne, and cook 3 to 5 minutes, or until onions soften and begin to brown. Stir in garlic and remaining 1 Tbs. ginger; cook 1 minute. Add tomato, and cook 2 to 3 minutes more, or until tomato releases juices and most of liquid has evaporated.

4. Stir tomato mixture into lentil mixture. Season with salt and pepper, if desired; garnish with cilantro, if using.

Per 1-cup serving 153 cal; 7 g prot; 5 g total fat (3 g sat fat); 21 g carb; 12 mg chol; 358 mg sod; 7 g fiber; 3 g sugars

Rich and Creamy Cashew Cheese

Makes 16 oz.

This is great on its own and can be flavored to your tastes. Try blending in 1/2 cup chopped parsley and chives; 2 Tbs. diced chipotles in adobo sauce; or 2 tsp. dried herbs (oregano, basil, tarragon) in the food processor after the base mixture has been processed smooth.

2 cups raw unsalted cashews, soaked 12–24 hours, and drained
2 Tbs. nutritional yeast
1 Tbs. lemon juice
2 tsp. white balsamic vinegar
1/4 tsp. granulated onion powder
1/8 tsp. granulated garlic powder
1/8 tsp. white pepper, optional

Place cashews in bowl of food processor. Process 1 minute, or until rough paste forms. Add 1/2 cup water and remaining ingredients. Process 3 to 5 minutes, until smooth. Transfer to lidded container, and refrigerate 12 hours to allow to thicken. Spread on sandwiches, crackers, or pita.

Per 1-oz. serving: 82 cal; 3 g prot; 6 g total fat (1 g sat fat); 5 g carb; 0 mg chol; 2 mg sod; <1 g fiber; <1 g sugars

Cassoulet Forestière

Serves 8

Wild French mushrooms give this classic bean dish its name. It can be made two days ahead and baked just before serving.

2 cups dried white or cannellini beans
1/2 oz. dried morel mushrooms
1/2 oz. dried bolete and/or chanterelle mushrooms
5 Tbs. olive oil, divided
2 medium leeks, white parts quartered and finely chopped (3 cups)
4 medium carrots, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 tsp. dried thyme
6 cloves garlic, minced, divided (2 Tbs.)
1 15.5-oz. can chopped tomatoes
2 bay leaves
1 1/2 tsp. salt
4 cups fresh breadcrumbs

1. Place beans in large bowl; cover with water. Soak 6 hours, or overnight. Drain.

2. Combine mushrooms in large bowl; cover with 7 cups boiling water, and soak 30 minutes. Drain, reserve soaking liquid, and chop mushrooms into 1/4-inch dice.

3. Heat 2 Tbs. oil in Dutch oven over medium heat. Add mushrooms, leeks, and carrots; sauté 5 to 7 minutes, or until beginning to brown. Stir in thyme and 1 Tbs. garlic; cook 30 seconds. Add drained beans, tomatoes, bay leaves, and reserved mushroom soaking liquid; cover; and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer 11/2 to 2 hours, or until beans are tender and most of liquid is absorbed, adding more liquid if necessary. (Mixture should be a little soupy.) Add salt, and add pepper to taste; cook 5 to 10 minutes more. Let stand 30 minutes.

4. Heat remaining 3 Tbs. oil in skillet over medium heat. Add remaining 1 Tbs. garlic; warm 1 minute, or until garlic turns opaque. Remove from heat; stir in breadcrumbs.

5.Preheat oven to 350°F. Remove bay leaves from bean mixture, and spread breadcrumbs over top. Bake 30 minutes, or until breadcrumbs are golden brown.

Per 1 1/2-cup serving: 372 cal; 16 g prot; 10 g total fat (2 g sat fat); 56 g carb; 0 mg chol; 706 mg sod; 11 g fiber; 6 g sugars

Seven Grain Cloverleaf Rolls with Maple Butter

Makes 24 rolls

Multigrain hot cereal blends are ideal for bread baking because they allow you to add a lot of different grains without having to buy so many ingredients.


1 0.25-oz. pkg. active dry yeast
1 cup low-fat milk
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
1/4 cup melted butter, plus more for brushing
3 3/4 cups spelt flour or all-purpose flour
1 cup seven-grain hot cereal blend, plus more for sprinkling
1 1/2 tsp. sea salt

Maple Butter

4 oz. (1 stick) butter, softened
2 Tbs. maple syrup
1 pinch cinnamon, optional

1. To make Rolls: Dissolve yeast in 3 Tbs. warm water until thick and cloudy.

2. Warm milk in small saucepan over medium-low heat until just warm to touch. Stir in maple syrup and butter, then stir in yeast mixture.

3. Whisk together spelt flour, cereal blend, and salt in mixing bowl. Stir in milk mixture until dough forms. Hand-knead dough on well-floured work surface 10 to 15 minutes, or until smooth and elastic and dough no longer sticks to hands, adding 1/4 to 1/2 cup more flour if necessary. Or knead in stand mixer with hook attachment 5 to 7 minutes, or until dough pulls away from sides of bowl.

4. Flour dough well, shape into ball, place in bowl, and cover with clean dish towel; let dough rise in warm spot 1 hour. Transfer to well-floured work surface, and knead until smooth. Shape dough into 2 12-inch logs. Cut each log into 12 1-inch slices.

5. Coat 2 12-cup muffin pans with cooking spray.

6. Divide each dough slice into 3 pieces, and roll each piece into tight ball. Place 3 dough balls in each prepared muffin cup. Brush dough with butter, and lightly sprinkle each roll with seven-grain cereal blend. Let rise 1 hour.

7. Meanwhile, to make Maple Butter: Beat butter with maple syrup and cinnamon (if using) until smooth and creamy. Chill until firm.

8. Preheat oven to 375°F. Bake rolls 15 to 20 minutes, or until golden brown.

Per serving (1 roll plus 1 tsp. Maple Butter): 162 cal; 4 g prot; 7 g total fat (4 g sat fat); 22 g carb; 18 mg chol; 163 mg sod; 2 g fiber; 4 g sugars

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