It’s no secret that pennywise and environmentally friendly shoppers are regular buyers of bulk foods. But it wasn’t until my affair with better-for-you baking ingredients that I learned just how beneficial it can be to shop from those self-service bins.
After all, buying by the pound means I only have to commit to a scoop or two of buckwheat at a time. I also found that bulk bins were the best place to reliably find less-popular ingredients like sprouted spelt.
A recent hunt for hard-to-find graham flour sent me to four different purveyors of binned goods, each visit coming with its own lesson. While it seems ridiculous at best to spend a full morning on such a silly task, thoughts of baking jam-filled graham pastry squares, which are basically healthful, homemade Pop-Tarts, carried me onward.
My 3-year-old, his favorite Lego mini-figure and I began our hunt at the Sno-Isle Food Co-op, which is a sensibly sized grocery store in downtown Everett that’s focused on healthy, locally sourced options. A back corner is lined with a variety of bins and jars that house everything from dried mushrooms to beans from local farmers.
A social media post about purple broccoli on sale at the co-op brought in Lynn Brunell of Lynnwood, who also checked out the bulk section. Bulk options are appealing to her because she likes sorting things into glass jars. They allow her to see what she has and how much.
Most stores allow customers to bring their own containers, provided they pre-weigh them at the register before filling up. This practice cuts down the need for packaging and allows customers to buy only what they need.
To the store’s regional manager, Ian Daw, their bulk foods section also is an opportunity to support small local farmers who don’t yet have the capacity to afford retail packaging.
The co-op doesn’t carry graham flour, but I eye some finely ground whole wheat, which is perfect for double chocolate brownies. Just $1.07 later, and I’m on my way to WinCo Foods.
Customers can’t yet bring their own containers to WinCo in south Everett, but with about 600 items to choose from, the bulk food section is the highlight of the store. You can buy anything from cereal to dog treats by the pound. At first, I was taken aback by the amount of candy and snacks. Then I notice blue-collar staples like pasta, pancake mix and instant mashed potatoes. The setup helps families on a budget better afford the basics.
They also have some interesting flours like buckwheat, spelt and dark rye. It’s another miss for graham flour, but a sale sign compels me to buy a cup of millet for a banana bread recipe that has the added crunch. I make it out of the store for 47 cents.
Down the road in Lynnwood, Sprouts Farmers Market has its bulk food section front and center. It’s the tidiest store yet. Their uniform bins focus on things covered in chocolate, beans and oatmeal. Baking ingredients are far and few between, so I hardly hope for graham flour.
Like some of WinCo’s offerings, the bins are stacked two-deep and everything is scooped, which creates the risk of cross-contamination. My oldest child is allergic to most tree nuts, so I’m too wary to buy anything from this setup. Still, I recommend to only use the assigned scoop and to always hold a container over the place you’re drawing food from.
Disappointed but hopeful, I lure my preschooler onward with promises of a chocolate doughnut. He walks a few paces behind, his Velcro-shoes dragging a little more with each step.
Central Market in Mill Creek is an amateur baker’s dream. They have gluten-free cassava, rye, barley malt, semolina and rice flour, to name a few. My heart pounds a little as I search for the illusive graham flour. Three types of popcorn kernels and an impressive display of tea and spices don’t outweigh the sinking feeling that I will never make my own graham crackers. I measure out some low-fat powdered milk for a Momofuku Milk Bar cake recipe, and then slink to the front.
Just as the register comes into focus, I notice I’m in the baking aisle and I see a package of Bob’s Red Mill Graham Flour just a few paces away. After four stores, I happily commit to the whole package.
Here are four grocery stores in Snohomish County that sell bulk foods:
9900 19th Ave. SE, Everett
open 24 hours daily
2804 Grand Ave., Everett
7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
Central Market Mill Creek
15605 Main St., Mill Creek
6 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily
Sprouts Farmers Market
19630 Highway 99, Lynnwood
7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
Less is more. When learning to use the gravity bins, start by going slow. Take less than you think you’ll need, and then weigh it. Commercial packaging often gives the illusion that you’re getting more than you are, so sometimes you must adjust your perceptions.
Be a good neighbor. If you do take too much, don’t just leave it out. Take the time to label it and carry it to customer service. Also, don’t cross-contaminate the bins by using the same scoop for multiple items.
Bring in your jars. If you’re heading into a busy baking season and want to top off that half-filled jar of cinnamon, just bring the whole thing in. When they pre-weigh the jar, the amount you brought will be a part of that number. This helps keep an unruly spice cabinet in check, because you don’t have baggies of spice that didn’t quite fit into the jar.
Buy bulk-friendly containers. While I have my fair share of goods stored in jam jars, there are a lot of products that cater to bulk buyers. For flours and sugars, my favorite set is the OXO Good Grips POP containers, because they’re easy to dip cup measures into and they stack nicely. Occasionally Costco has a box set for sale.
Start with spices. If you’re really concerned about cost savings, start by focusing on the bulk spices. A clerk once joked that he occasionally buys a vanilla bean from bulk, just because it’s insanely cheaper than the pre-packaged ones.