Don’t keep it bottled up

Spice bottles

Russ Parsons of The L.A. Times recently reminded us of the importance of purging the spice drawer. His story is probably similar to that of many other cooks: you buy a spice to make a particular recipe, the bottle languishes in your cupboard for several months or even years until you pull it out to make another dish, only to find that the spice has gone stale. The change of seasons following last week’s equinox provides the perfect occasion to assess your spice situation and get ready for the new cooking season, whether it’s firing up the grill after a long winter or making soups and stews for fall. 

You probably already know the drill, but let’s review the tips shared by Russ Parsons and others. Ground spices and dried herbs have the shortest shelf life because the essential oils are more volatile. Keeping herbs for one year and ground spices for two is the standard, although some sources advise that herbs should be rotated every six months and ground spices every year. If you ever doubt that the potency of herbs and spices diminishes over time, try a simple experiment: buy a new herb or spice and compare it side-by-side to your old one before you discard it. You may be amazed at the difference. Most dried herbs are not expensive, so it won’t break the bank to refresh them frequently. (Alternatively, the crew at Food52 shows you how to dry your own herbs.) Whole spices last several years if stored properly. This is useful since purveyors tend to sell some whole spices, especially nutmeg, in industrial quantities (I have a couple of whole nutmeg that are ready for kindergarten).

Another good practice is to purchase spices from a reputable source where you can be assured that the spices are fresh. Who knows the ages of the bottled spices and herbs at the supermarket? Usually a dedicated spice store, whether brick and mortar or online, will offer fresher and higher quality product. Even better, they usually have lower prices, ounce for ounce, than the supermarket.

Storage is an additional consideration. Some experts recommend storing spices in the freezer, but the drawback to that is you can easily forget about the spices – out of sight, out of mind. Another option is to keep a small quantity in the spice drawer or cupboard, with a refill stored in the freezer. If you do this, the storage times will be lengthened as the volatile oils dissipate much more slowly.

Be sure to store your spices away from heat and light. Even though many people like to keep their spices next to or directly above the stove, they deteriorate much faster when kept there. If you do store spices by the stove keep only small quantities there and store the rest of the spice in a different location. If your spices are exposed to light, use opaque containers like steel tins or ceramic jars. And if you are really organized, you can write the date of purchase on the spice bottle to ensure that you don’t forget when you purchased it last.

If you are like me, you feel guilty about wasting food and find it difficult to get rid of old spices even when you know they are past their prime. To ease your conscience, instead of discarding herbs and spices, you can toss them on the coals the next time you are grilling, where they will gently perfume the foods being cooked. You can also throw them onto the firepit for a bit of aroma, and finally, you can sprinkle any spicy mixtures, like cayenne pepper, on and around plants to help keep away bugs (check gardening guides for more information). 

Now that your spices are in top shape, we’ll tempt you with links to a few books dedicated to spices from the EYB library:

The Spice Bible by Jane Lawson
Mighty Spice Cookbook by John Gregory-Smith
Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean by Ana Sortun
Spice: Recipes to Delight the Senses by Christine Manfield
Spices by Sophie Grigson
Spice Market by Jane Lawson

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