Do spices go bad?

Gray spoons with spices.

Gray spoons with spices. Spices have a shelf life, despite what most of us think.

Pratiksha Mohanty, Unsplash

After setting up my spice rack in an enviable, Instragrammable fashion, the thought never crossed my mind that I should label my spices by date. There was no way that they could expire before I would use them, I thought.

Spices seemed immortal — like that box of pasta I’ve had buried in the back of my pantry for years now. I had never seen any mold growing on them or thought that they smelled bad, so I assumed they’d be safe to use. But then I learned I was wrong.

Spices do expire and we probably should care.

The grim reality of spices expiring

When spices go bad, it’s typically not like meat or dairy going bad. While meat and dairy become unsafe and unwise to consume, spices become unproductive to consume. What I mean by that is they lose their flavor and efficacy. According to Clean Eating, your chances of becoming sick from spices is fortunately low, but the spice won’t taste, well, spicy.

Many of us have had that happen. We’ve put together a dish worthy of three Michelin stars. The chicken is perfectly crisp, the greens are fresh and perky and everything was seasoned perfectly — or so we thought. Then, the meal turns out dull and flavorless.

It’s a disappointment.

The real solution here isn’t to dump out your bottles of garlic powder and paprika in a futile effort to give the food a little more seasoning. No, the real solution is long-term — learning how to store and replace your spices more carefully. Think about it: spices that have been stored well are more potent and fresh, meaning that you can use less of them for a better flavor. That’ll save you money.

Generally speaking, spices do last you quite a while. McCormick said that most ground spices last about one to two years before expiring. Whole spices tend to have a little longer shelf life at three to four years. There are ways to make sure you get the most bang for your buck when it comes to your basic arsenal of spices.

The art of storing spices

Think of this like storing spices made easy.

There are ways to make sure that staying on top of whether or not your spices are fresh is practically effortless. Only practically effortless because this method does require that you put in some effort to start.

Buy spice jars.

This method requires you to purchase clear, glass spice jars for your spices. While that might seem like a lot of upfront cost, it’ll end up saving you money. Label each of the jars with the spice that you put in them and have a couple wild card jars on hand for the times that you need to buy spices that you will only use for a recipe or two.

Strategically buy spices in bulk.

Strategically is the key word here. If you know that you use garlic powder in virtually every meal, portion out the amount that you think will last you a few months because you’ll use it all. If there are spices that you would like to have on hand but that you don’t use in every meal (for example, cinnamon), then instead of buying the ground version, buy the whole version, so it’ll last you a longer time.

After stocking up, there’s one of the most important parts.

Label, label, label.

As soon as you put the spices in their appropriate jars, label them immediately with the date. Here’s the system that I think is the lowest effort. Make a label with the date and put it on the jar. Then, in a spreadsheet on your computer, note the date of the spices. Whenever you put a new spice in a jar, check the spreadsheet and see how long it’s been since you’ve replaced other spices. When the need arises, then buy the new spice and update your spreadsheet to stay on top of your spice’s freshness.

What spices do I really need?

As cooking changes in different cultures, your spice profile might look different depending on your style of cooking. One way to figure out what spices you should always have on hand is to look at your own cooking habits and work from there.

Here are some spices that it may make sense to always have:

  • Black peppercorn.
  • Table salt.
  • Kosher salt.
  • Garlic powder.
  • Onion powder.
  • Cayenne pepper.
  • Oregano.
  • Crushed basil.

Then, depending on your cooking profile, you can add other spices. For example, I like to have all of the spices I would need for tacos or for spicier meals, so I also keep those on hand and make my own taco seasoning blend to add to sauces or meats.

As you personalize your spice set-up, you’ll figure out a system that works for you that keeps your spices fresh and ready to use.

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