Five Ways To Spice Up Your Life

Fall is spice season here in New England as our minds turn to things like pumpkin pie and cinnamon buns!  But there are some things about your spices you probably don't know, and should .  .  .

I recently cleaned out my spice cabinet and was shocked to discover some of the containers had “best if used by” dates that passed long ago, including one bottled in 1996—the year my college graduate son entered first grade.

I’m ashamed to admit that all my jars and containers in this photo  are spices and herbs that no longer exist in the realm of “best if used by,” which sent me into a momentary panic that I had narrowly avoided poisoning my family and friends with expired herbs and spices.

Fortunately, a quick Internet search reassured me herbs and spices don’t go bad in the “making you sick” sort of way, although they certainly lose flavor and aroma over time – which makes them pretty useless when it comes to culinary creations.

I’m a bit embarrassed by this reminder that I haven’t been paying close attention, but I doubt I’m the only cook who purchased a spice or herb for a specific recipe only to have it disappear from the repertoire – and into the far reaches of the spice cabinet.

So for anyone else who hasn’t been paying close attention, here are five things you might like to know:

1.  To preserve their quality for the longest time possible, keep herbs and spices away from light, air and heat (including the stove and humid places such as near the refrigerator or sink). Store them in a cool, dark place and make sure the covers are on tight.

2.  Here are three easy ways to determine if spices and herbs are no longer potent. Pour out a little to check the color and if the vibrant shade has faded, the flavor probably has, too. Or shake the spice container with the lid on for a few seconds, then remove the lid and smell the air around it. If you can’t smell anything, or barely detect an odor, it’s time to replace it. You also can crush the herb or spice in your hand and if it has a weak aroma and no apparent flavor, dump it.

3.  Spices generally stay fresh longer than herbs. Whole spices should stay fresh for four years, while ground spices keep their pungency for two to three years. Whole herbs keep their strength for about three years, while ground herbs have a shelf life of two years. Therefore, buying spices and herbs in whole form and grinding them yourself will keep them fresher longer. Extracts last up to four years, although pure vanilla supposedly will last forever.

4.  Dehydrated vegetables sold in ground form as spices – such as onion powder, garlic powder, chili pepper powder, bell pepper flakes and celery flakes -- have the shortest shelf life: around six months. Some people say chili powder, and also paprika, retain their color and remain fresher longer when stored in the refrigerator.

5.  Avoid sprinkling spices and herbs directly from the bottle into a steaming pot because. repeated exposure to heat and moisture speeds flavor loss and could result in caking. Better to measure them into a cup, measuring spoon or bowl and then add them to your recipe. Also, always use a completely dry measuring spoon when dipping it into a spice or herb to avoid introducing moisture.

Also, if you have a Schilling spice product in your cabinet, it’s at least seven years old. If your McCormick spice has a code instead of a “best by” date, go to the “Spices 101” section of and enter the code to learn when it was bottled.


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