Have you ever heard that you’re supposed to replace your dried herbs and spices after one year? Well, that’s what the experts say, but who goes through spices that quickly? The bottom line is that there are some dried seasonings that last longer than others, and there are ways to extend the shelf life of all of your herbs and spices.
First off, ground spices have a longer shelf life than herbs. Spices are the dried berries, seeds, bark, and root of a plant, while herbs are the leaves or flowers. Ground spices are meant to last a few years, as opposed to the yearlong lifespan of herbs. If you want really fresh spices, it’s best to buy whole spices, such as coriander, cumin, and, nutmeg, and grind or grate them as needed. Whole spices stay fresh and retain a strong flavor for many years.
With herbs, you may notice after a year or so that they aren’t as pungent, and their color has faded. Just because they’ve faded doesn’t mean their flavor is gone, but they probably don’t pack the punch of a younger herb. To find out whether they’re still good, smell and taste them. Do they have any scent or flavor? If they’re not as strong as they once were, but they’re still usable, you can keep them for one more year, but after that they should be discarded.
If your herbs-or spices, for that matter-smell and taste bland, cook up a big pot of tomato sauce or chili, or something that calls for lots of seasoning, and use up old herbs by cooking instead of throwing them away. Then you’ll be all ready to go get fresh ones.
Here are some tips on preserving the integrity of your dried herbs and spices:
- As a general rule, buy seasoning in small amounts. If you only use cumin a few times a year when you get a craving for Indian food, for example, a small amount will suffice. If you’re addicted to hot and spicy tastes and you put chile flakes on everything (I speak from experience), then make an exception and buy chile flakes in bulk.
- Keep herbs and spices away from heat, light, and moisture. Don’t store them by a hot stove or by a window where sunlight, rain, and drafts can get in, but store them somewhere that’s dark with a cool, steady room temperature.
- Keep herbs and spices in dark or opaque containers, as light fades their color. If you really like using glass storage containers (I do), store a small amount in glass, but leave the bulk of your dried seasonings tightly sealed in a dark place.
- Choose whole spices over ground spices, and grind a small batch as needed. The spices will stay fresher much longer, and retain a powerful flavor. You’ll need to invest in a spice grinder, and there are several different kinds on the market. You can use an electric coffee grinder, a mortar and pestle, or a simple hand-powered pepper mill-style grinder like the one pictured above. Here’s an electric grinder that Rachael likes.
Now that you have some guidelines, take a few hours one afternoon and do some spring-cleaning in your spice rack. You may find your food suddenly has a whole lot more flavor!
Louisa Shafia is a cook with a passion for healthy eating. She recently penned Lucid Food: Cooking for an Eco-Conscious Life, a collection of seasonal recipes and eco-friendly advice on food. To watch her cooking videos, see her recipes, and find out about her cooking classes, go to lucidfood.com.