How Long do Spices Keep?
Spices, both whole and ground, do have a shelf life, although it is longer than some people might imagine. They do not go bad in the sense of becoming rancid or spoiled, but they do lose potency and complex layers of flavor. When spices lose their power, they should be discarded and replaced with fresh ones. Ideally, cooks should try to purchase them whole and grind them, as there is usually no way to tell how long ground ones have been stored in a warehouse or store.
Whole spices will keep the longest, because they have not been cracked or ground, exposing the volatile compounds that make up their flavor to the air. They can last up to four years in an airtight container that is stored in a cool, dry place. It will keep even better in the dark. Extremely strong spices, such as whole cloves, cinnamon, and pepper, may last even longer. Cooks can tell that whole spices are too old to use when they have lost their aroma.
Ground spices have a shorter shelf life, usually between two and three years. They should also be stored in a cool, dry place in airtight containers. To determine whether or not they are still usable, the cook should gently shake the container with the cap on, then remove the cap after a moment and smell the container to see if the rich smell is still present. If ground spices have declined in quality, the cook can carefully use more than is called for in a recipe, or toast them to refresh the flavor. To toast them, they can be placed in a cast iron skillet or a heavy pot over medium heat and tossed periodically to distribute the heat. Toasted spices should be used immediately.
Dried herbs keep for less time, because they are more delicate. Most last between one and three years. Culinary herbs can be tested by crushing them lightly in the hand. If the herbs still smell, they are good, even if the color has changed. If no odor rises after crushing, they should be discarded.
Cooks can prolong the life of spices by storing and handling them well. They do not do well in extreme heat, so should not be stored directly above the stove. They also keep poorly in the cold, so freezing them is not advisable. When using spices in cooking, they should be pre-measured rather than poured directly over a hot dish. The steam will damage the spices, and if the cook's hand slips, he or she may ruin the dish. Clean, dry measuring implements should also be used when dipping into containers.
If I get five pounds of cinnamon to put in a vase by my front door, how long will the cinnamon remain good?
@Perdido – I can understand how the stove would affect spices negatively. What about the microwave, though?
I have a cabinet right above my microwave, and I've been tempted to move my spices into it so that I can have more counter space. However, I don't want my spices to receive radiation or extra heat.
I've noticed that Italian herbs and spices don't last as long as things like chili powder and red pepper flakes. I suppose the spicier something is to begin with, the longer its shelf life will be.
I have some oregano that is three years old, and I can barely taste it anymore. The same goes for my Italian seasoning. I always buy the smallest bottles possible, because it takes awhile for me to use them all up.
It's bad to keep your spices close to the stove. The heat will affect them, and moisture from boiling water will hurt them, as well.
I used to keep my spices next to the stove, but once I saw that several of them had started to clump up in the bottles, I moved them. Once you see huge clumps in your spice bottles, the flavor has already been affected somewhat.
In the bottles closest to the stove, the spices clumped into one big mass. I couldn't even shake them loose.
I only buy dried herbs and spices. This is simply because I can't use up fresh ones before they spoil.
With herbs especially, too many are sold in one package. If I buy a bunch of parsley that has been tied together at the stems, I will never be able to use it before it wilts, which is in a few days. I wish that the grocery store would let me pick out how much I want, rather than forcing me to buy more than I need or nothing at all.
Dried herbs and spices are not as potent as fresh ones. They taste differently, but they still taste good. You get way more for your money when you buy dried, because you have years to use them.
We have a major spice company close to our house where you can sometimes smell the spices as you are driving by. Usually you only get a whiff of some of the stronger spices like cinnamon or cloves, but it always smells so good.
A few years ago this company came out with new labels and slowly I am replacing all my old spices with the newer ones when I run out.
If I reach for a spice and see that it has an old label on it, I know it is probably time to replace it. I was needing rosemary for a dish the other day and couldn't smell anything when I smelled the spice. I still used it in the recipe but don't know if it did much good or not.
Wow, I never knew spices only had a 2-3 year shelf life. Sad to say, I really don't know for sure how old some of the spices in my spice rack are. It is nice to know that they don't spoil or get rancid, but it might be time to start buying some new spices.
I know one bottle of spice doesn't cost all that much, but I don't cook very often so have a hard time throwing away a spice bottle that is almost full. It doesn't sound like freezing them is good for them, so I just need to try to use them more often.
@anon133705-- Many years ago I made pomanders from cloves and hung them in my closets. Every time I opened the closet door I had the wonderful aroma of cloves. I bought brand new bottles of cloves to make these, but even now there is still a strong scent to these spiced pomanders.
I have started to slowly replace my seasonings with organic herbs and spices. When I consider how long they last, spending a few more cents doesn't cost that much to buy organic spices. I wonder if they have the same shelf life as other spices?
@FirstViolin-- That is really good advice. I never thought about keeping my spices separated. I have all of my spices in a drawer in my kitchen and have them arranged alphabetically. This is the quickest way I can find them when I am hunting for a particular spice.
I have a bunch of cloves from the 50s. I just used them to make pomanders. They still smell and look better than any fresh new whole cloves I have found.
It is important to remember that most herbs and spices, particularly the really strong ones, will stay good for different periods of time -- there is no real hard and fast rule.
As long as it still smells good enough to use, I say, use it!
One thing to remember about storing spices is to try and keep the really strong ones separate from the comparatively weaker ones.
For instance, storing curry powder next to your rosemary may make for a surprisingly Indian-themed rosemary lamb next time you make it.
@anon22160 -- You're right, it may be time to let that one go.
Although it may still be edible, I wouldn't risk it after such a very long period of time.
I have a box of curry powder that I bought over 20 years ago in Germany. It still smells strong but isn't it time to throw it out?
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