The Retro Beauty of Bulk Bins

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Bulk bins always evoke my childhood, when I’d accompany my mom to our local health-food store so she could stock up on brewer’s yeast and lecithin for the kooky energy drink she and my dad sipped every day. (Turns out, it wasn’t so kooky, but a nutritional powerhouse.) It was the ‘70s, so shabby macrame shoulder bags, Birkenstocks, and the carob malt balls I got as a treat loom large in my mind.

But thanks to the stagnant economy over the last couple of years, I’ve renewed my acquaintance with bulk bins. It’s a trip down memory lane, yes, but things have changed. Yesteryear’s dusty, dim co-ops have evolved into clean, brightly lit–even chic–health-food supermarkets. I’ve even spotted bulk bins sprouting up a regular supermarkets. Along with everything else in the natural foods market, bulk bins have gone upscale, baby.

If you, like me, have tended to avoid the bulk bins, here are four good reasons to give them another try:

You’ll save money. That’s the biggest appeal for budget-conscious shoppers. The retailer saves money by purchasing in bulk, so you save too–up to 60%, according to the Bulk is Green Council. For example, quinoa flour–a notoriously pricey ingredient used in gluten-free baking–is $4.99 a pound in the bulk bins vs. $7 (or more) in its packaged form.

You can buy as much–or as little–as you like. This is my favorite feature of the bulk bins. I can load up on the stuff I use frequently–white whole wheat flour and various other grains–and buy less of items I only use occasionally. And it’s a low-risk way to try new-to-you ingredients.

There’s an amazing variety of stuff! It seems like something new turns up at the bulk bins every time I go to my local health-food store. There are bins of specialty flours (buckwheat, spelt, quinoa, and brown rice, to name a few), fun salts (Peruvian and Himalayan pink!), and groovy rices, like Indonesian Volcano, Madagascar Pink, and Bhutanese Red.

It’s more sustainable. Bulk bins mean less packaging, which translates into lower transportation costs. You can boost the sustainability by bringing reusable fine-mesh produce bags to tote your finds. I’ve used these for grains, like rice and pearled barley, as well as bulkier items like nuts.

I occasionally cast back to my bulk bin roots and wear my Birkenstocks to the store (don’t judge), but when I crave a treat I pick up a handful of real dark chocolate malt balls. Carob needs to stay in the ‘70s, dude.

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Chai-Spiced Amaranth Pudding

Bulk-bin buys are the basis for this recipe, starting with amaranth seeds, a high-protein grain, along with golden raisins, pistachios, and the fancy salt for the brittle. Cooked amaranth has a gelatinous quality that lends itself to pudding. If you have a chai spice blend on hand, substitute 1 teaspoon for the cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. This pudding caused a little controversy in our household. I loved the flavor and aroma of the warm spices. Richard liked the texture, but would have preferred it plain, without the spices–”like a proper English pudding.” Of course, not too many English puddings are made with amaranth, but a version of this sans spices would be a kid- and Englishman-friendly dessert.

Chai-Spiced Amaranth Pudding

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 25 minutes

Yield: Serves 6

Chai-Spiced Amaranth Pudding


  1. 3 cups 1% low-fat milk
  2. 1 cup amaranth
  3. 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
  4. 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  5. 1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
  6. 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
  7. 1/8 teaspoon salt
  8. 3/4 cup sugar, divided
  9. 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  10. 1 large egg
  11. 1 large egg yolk
  12. 1 cup golden raisins
  13. 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  14. 2 tablespoons crumbled Salted Pistachio Brittle OR toasted chopped pistachios


Whisk together first 7 ingredients and 1/4 cup sugar in a medium saucepan. Bring to a simmer. Cover, and cook 25 minutes or until amaranth is tender.

Meanwhile, whisk together remaining 1/2 cup sugar, cornstarch, egg, and egg yolk. Ladle in a little of the hot milk mixture from the pan, stirring constantly with a whisk. Slowly add egg mixture to pan, whisking constantly. Bring to a boil, stirring frequently. Cook 1 minute or until thickened. Stir in raisins and vanilla. Cool to room temperature, stirring frequently to prevent a skin for forming on the surface. Refrigerate. Serve topped with crumbled Salted Pistachio Brittle.


Cook Time: 25-30 minutes