9:22 pm - Saturday November 22, 2014

How Long Should I Keep Spices Around?

Q: I’m gearing up for my first big spring cleaning session with my sights set on an area I’ve been avoiding: the spice cabinet. My teenage son has started to call me the “spice hoarder,” and my husband won’t even get near the cabinet. (I don’t blame him … the cabinet is a mess and even I have trouble navigating it.) The thing is, I’ve never known when it’s appropriate to throw spices away. I have never been clear on the shelf life, so I keep ‘em around. Have any clue as to when is a good time to chuck them?

A. Growing up, I recall the spice cabinet (which also doubled as the frosting and sprinkle storage area) in my own home as, well, overwhelming. I’m pretty sure there were a couple bottles of something or other in there that were certified antiques, pre-dating the Carter administration. And that ground allspice? I think the sell-by date was 40 A.D.

The shelf life of spices vary, and you never really need to worry about them going “bad” like other foods do. For example, a bottle of curry powder that’s been around a questionable amount of time probably won’t make you sick … it will just be less potent. Many folks abide by a “six-month rule” when it comes to discarding most spices. Seems a bit short to me. I certainly can’t afford to replace all of mine twice a year. The folks at McCormick offer “to toss or not to toss” guidelines that are more generous:

  • Ground spices (nutmeg, cinnamon, turmeric): 2 to 3 years
  • Herbs (basil, oregano, parsley): 1 to 3 years
  • Seasoning blends: 1 to 2 years
  • Whole spices (cloves, peppercorns, cinnamon sticks): 4 years
  • Seeds: 4 years (except for poppy and sesame seeds, which should be discarded after 2 years)
  • Extracts: 4 years (except for vanilla, which will last forever)

Pretty straightforward, eh? Sure, but unless you keep some kind of “purchased on…” checklist inside of your cabinet it’s probably hard to keep track of how long each and every spice has been kicking around. Some spice companies like McCormick do include “best by” dates on the bottles while others don’t. The many Fairway brand spices that I own aren’t so transparent when it comes to their shelf life. In fact, I was just eying an almost-empty container of dried parsley that I’m pretty sure has been living on my spice shelf for four-plus years.

To ensure that your spices are living up to their potent potential, in addition to a “best by” date, McCormick even has a “Fresh Taster” feature on its website where you can plug in a code found on the bottom of each McCormick spice bottle to verify its age and TOSS (Toss Old Spices Seasonally) accordingly. And as McCormick notes, if a certain bottle of spice originates from Baltimore, it’s at least 15 years old, and if you have Schilling brand spices, they’re at least seven years old.

If you don’t buy McCormick brand spices, there are a couple of things you can do to see if a spice is still good. For starters, simply pour out a little and observe its color. If the vibrant color has faded, then usually so has the flavor. Over this past summer, I encountered grayish-brown, not red, paprika at a friend’s house and remember being wary. Sure enough, it tasted like “paprika light” and was definitely not worth using. In addition to the color test, you can perform a sniff test as well. If a spice is no longer fragrant, it’s probably best to replace it. If a spice has some fragrance left but is far less potent than it used to be, just double the amount called for in a recipe.

Also, remember to keep spices, whether of the ground or whole variety, in a cool, dry place away from your stove with their lids securely fastened so that they keep as long as possible. And don’t feel guilty if you have to toss and replace a spice. It won’t do any good taking up real estate in that congested spice cabinet of yours. If a spice is really old, you may not want to throw the packaging away. Many folks collect antique spice bottles and tins, so you may have luck pawning it off at a local antiques store or selling it at your next garage sale.

It may be wise to buy spices in bulk (in small or larger quantities) to save a few bucks, cut back on packaging waste, but you will have to face the “I only use cloves once a year but have a giant bottle” dilemma.

Not all grocery stores sell herbs and spices in bulk, but it’s worth looking into. Depending on the household usage of a certain spice, you can buy as much or as little as needed so that little goes to waste. Is your house cumin crazy? Then by all means stock up and store the spice in a cute little reusable glass jar. Need mustard seed for a recipe but don’t think you’ll use it again? Buy just a few tablespoons in bulk instead of an entire bottle that costs upwards of 5 dollars (spices aren’t cheap). I’ve started doing this with garlic powder. I found that I was using it frequently so I stopped by a local Middle Eastern grocery and purchased some in bulk — more than what I’d been getting in an average bottle — for a much lower price.

Good luck with the spice cabinet clean-out project. I hope that after this you’ll no longer warrant the “spice hoarder” tag. And remember to consider buying in bulk in the future to save money and curb your spice-related waste stream.

 

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