When I was a young child, we lived around the corner from a grocery store in Santa Rosa, California, called Community Market. Once a week, my mother and I would walk to the store and she would fill our basket with goods from the bulk section: dried beans and grains, pasta, even peanut butter, which was perhaps the most compelling item of the day, since we got to make it ourselves, right in the store, by shoveling freshly roasted peanuts into a giant grinder. It was absolutely mesmerizing.
Though I didn’t realize it at the time, being in pre-school and all, my mom’s choice to stock our kitchen with goods from the bulk bins demonstrated tremendous financial savvy—she was literally saving hundreds of dollars a year on groceries by shopping this way.
When it’s the end of the day and you just want to pick up something to eat for dinner, the bulk bins can seem unappealing. It’s so much easier to just grab a box of something frozen to heat up, or to head to the prepared foods section. Plus, who wants to bother with writing the product code on those annoying little twist-ties? Truly annoying.
However: if you can get over that part, the bulk bins can become a budget gourmand’s dream come true. From the obvious grains and beans, to nuts, seeds, spices, coffee, and tea, to cereals and protein powders, and even soap, shampoo, and cleaning products, the money you will save shopping the bulk bins is so totally worth the minor effort required to bag or bottle goods. Since a good chunk of what companies spend on manufacturing is packaging and advertising, when you buy a product in the raw and have to package it yourself, the price reduction can be enormous.
Here’s how to get started.
Invest in a set of extra-large mason jars or other airtight canisters.
I always shop for these at yard sales and thrift shops, but for $12-$15, you can pick a set up at your local grocery store (often the same one where you’re bulk section shopping!). Look for clear containers when possible (so you can tell what’s in them without having to remove the lid—though that’s not a deal-breaker), and make sure the lid has an airtight seal. Dry bulk bin items are generally shelf-stable, so you want to keep them that way by keeping air (and bugs) away from them when they’re stored. For liquids like oil, soap and shampoo, most stores offer clear plastic containers for storage, though I like to bring old, rinsed-out empty bottles from home. Mason jars also work well for these products.
When it comes to flours, grains, beans, and pastas, buy your usuals (for me that means quinoa, brown rice noodles, and garbanzo beans) and try a small amount of something new.
It’s common knowledge that the bulk section is wonderful when you want a lot of something, but it’s also great when you just want a little bit. Each time I shop, I like to pick up a small amount of something I’ve never tried before. If I don’t end up liking it, I won’t have wasted a whole package of something, and if I love it, I can always get more next time. I’ve learned to love millet, buckwheat groats, Irish oatmeal, and quinoa penne this way.
Don’t be afraid to cook new things.
Most cooking information for dry bulk items can be found online. Here’s a handy grain cooking chart for your reference.
When in doubt, just about every grain is delicious tossed with a little bit of extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper.
Beans are easy too. For most of them, soak them overnight (or for at least eight hours) to give yourself a head start (soaked beans cook faster), drain, then place in a pot and cover with water. For cooking times, read below:
Baby Lima Beans- 1 hour
Black Beans- 1 to 1 1/2 hours
Black Eyed Peas– 30 minutes to 1 hour
Cranberry Beans- 45 to 60 minutes
Garbanzo Beans (also called chickpeas)- 1 to 1 1/2 hours
Great Northern Beans– 45 to 60 minutes
Kidney Beans (light or dark)– 1 1/2 hours to 2 hours
Large Lima Beans (also called butter beans)– 1 to 1 1/2 hours
Nay Beans- 1 1/2 to 2 hours
Pink Beans– 1 hour
Pinto Beans- 1 1/2 to 2 hours
Small Red Beans- 1 to 1 1/2 hours
Now that you have all those gorgeous rice and beans, make a healthy veggie burger (of course, most bulk sections offer a veggie burger mix, so feel free to use that too). This is my favorite from-scratch one:
Bulk Bin Burgers
2 cups cooked black or pinto beans
1 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
1/2 an onion, finely chopped
1 cup cooked brown rice
½ cup, plus 1/4 cup rolled oats
2 teaspoons corn starch
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon chili powder
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup vegetable broth (you can often find dry vegetable broth mix in bulk bins—simply mix into water)
vegetable, coconut or olive oil, for the pan
1. In a medium pot, combine all ingredients except the ¼ cup of oats and the oil.
2. Over high heat, bring mixture to a light boil.
3. Cook, stirring constantly for 1-2 minutes, as mixture thickens.
4. Stir and turn off heat, then transfer to a mixing bowl and let cool (you can speed this up by refrigerating).
5. Once the mixture has cooled, add the remaining 1/4 c dry oats and stir to absorb extra liquid.
6. Heat a skillet over medium heat for 1-2 minutes. Add one tablespoon of the oil to the pan.
7. Drop the mixture into the oiled skillet in ½ cup increments.
8. Let the burgers cook on the first side over high heat until bubbles form all over, at least 4-5 minute, then gently flip and allow them to cook on the other side.
9. Serve the cooked burgers on toast, over mixed greens, or on a bun with your favorite condiments.