When I packed up my kitchen for our big move a few years ago, I was embarrassed to discover what I had accumulated in the spice drawer.
I’m pretty sure there were a couple bottles of something or other in there that were certified antiques, pre-dating the Nixon administration. And that ground allspice? I think the sell-by date was 50 A.D.
Are spices safe to use indefinitely? We tend to take a long time to use them. The spices have no date anywhere on them. I hate throwing out perfectly good items if they’re safe to use. I also keep my spices and condiments in the fridge. Is that practice okay for the spices? Leroy
Dear Leroy: The shelf life of spices varies but you don’t have to worry about them going “bad” like other foods. A bottle of curry powder you’ve had for an untold number of years won’t make you sick. But it won’t be as potent and flavorful as when it was fresh. Spices, especially once ground, degrade over time.
There’s a general rule of thumb out there for spices that says we should use or toss after six-months. Seems a bit short to me. I sure can’t afford to purge my spice drawer twice a year.
I much prefer the sniff test. Open the container and take a sniff. If the smell doesn’t match what the label says—or it’s so weak you have to work at smelling anything—you can be pretty sure that spice will not be any more appealing in the dish you’re preparing.
The folks at McCormick offer these more-generous-than-every-six-months guidelines:
- Ground spices (nutmeg, cinnamon, turmeric): 2 to 3 years
- Herbs of basil, oregano, parsley: 1 to 3 years
- Seasoning blends: 1 to 2 years
- Whole spices like cloves, peppercorns, cinnamon sticks: 4 years
- Seeds: 4 years except for poppy and sesame seeds, which should be discarded after 2 years
- Extracts: 4 years except for vanilla, which will last forever
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Use your common sense. If the cinnamon still smells lovely but doesn’t seem quite as potent as when it was new, add a bit more than the recipe calls for.
Consider buying spices from a store that sells in bulk, then buy only the amount you will reasonably use in the next six months or so. My supermarket offers this option as do stores like Whole Foods and Sprouts.
Though it’s best to keep spices in a dry cabinet, you can store larger backup supplies in the fridge or freezer. Whole spices can be stored in the freezer for up to three years and ground spices for up to six months. Do not store small amounts of spices in the fridge or freezer, as this will trap humidity. It is always best to purchase smaller amounts of spices instead of buying in large quantities.
As for what to do with herbs and spices that truly have exceeded their useful life, here are some clever ideas for how to repurpose them:
Over-the-hill spices can freshen your carpet, your vacuum too. Mix an assortment of old spices like cinnamon, thyme, cloves, and nutmeg—or a blend of rosemary and ginger. Sprinkle on the carpet and then vacuum. Always test in an inconspicuous place first to make sure the color from the spices won’t stain the carpet.
Spices with strong or pungent smells will often repel insects. For example, ants’ worst enemy is spices like pepper, oregano sage, and peppermint.
Guard the Garden
Hot spices like cayenne and chili powder make our eyes water, right? Well, imagine how they might affect rabbits, squirrels, and other critters bent on eating all the goodies in your garden. Try sprinkling those hot spices to entice pesky predators to go elsewhere.
Add to Laundry
Keep colors bright and prevent fading in your laundry by shaking a few teaspoons of black pepper into each wash load. Don’t worry about flakes of pepper dotting your clothes. The pepper will wash out during the rinse cycle.
If you’re into making homemade candles, you can put your old spices to work to scent those candles. Start with a basic candle-making recipe then add a tablespoon of pleasant-smelling spice to the candle mixture. But sure to use ground spices though, as whole spices could create a fire hazard.
Freshen and Deodorize
Simmer a pot of water into which you’ve dropped whole cloves, cinnamon sticks or any combination of spices to make the house smell fantastic and deodorize the air.
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