Spices and herbs both come from plants – spices being dried seeds, buds, fruit or flower parts, bark, or roots. Herbs come from the leaf [and occasionally flowers] parts of plants. After they are harvested they do not spoil, but they do lose their potency.
The fresh herbs that come from your garden, or from the refrigerator case at the grocery store, stay fresh for a mere 5-7 days.
The packaged herbs and spices, like we sell here at AllSpice, are handled differently at harvest, dried and packaged for transport and sale. Stored in an airtight container [like our glass jars and bottles], these dry ingredients will be usable for a long time.
Expert opinions vary, but, if you average all the opinions out, here’s approximately how long you should keep “Old Spice[s]” on your spice shelf:
* Herbs – 1-3 years
* Spices – Whole 2-4 years
* Spices – Dried or ground 2-3 years
* Extracts – 4 years [except Vanilla Extract, which lasts indefinitely]
* Rubs and Blends – 1-3 years [depends on the shelf-life of the component ingredients]
More specifically, here are some storage recommendations for some common herbs and spices, measured in years:
- Allspice: 2 – 3
- Anise: whole, 3-4; ground, 2-3
- Basil: whole leaf, 3-4; ground, 2-3
- Black Pepper: whole peppercorns, 5-6; ground, 2-3
- Cinnamon: whole stick cinnamon, 4-5; ground cinnamon, 2-3
- Cloves: whole cloves, 4-5; ground cloves, 2-3
- Dill: whole, 4-5; ground, 2-3
- Italian Seasoning: ground, 2-3
- Mint: whole leaf, 2-4; ground, 1-3
- Nutmeg: whole, 4-5; ground, 2-3
- Oregano: whole leaf, 2-3
- Paprika: ground, 2-3
- Pickling Spice: whole, 2-3
- Pumpkin Pie Spice: ground, 2-3
But I don’t know how old the stuff in this container is. How can I tell if it’s still okay to use?
This part is easy. You’re a discerning cook [or, at the very least, a person who likes to eat].
You can tell the freshness of the ingredients in your pantry with your highly-developed senses:
Appearance. The herb or spice should have a nice color about it – bright reds and oranges for chiles, pretty greens for herbs, rich yellows for curries, and so on. Old Spice[s] fade with time, and the texture of whole leaves [or seeds or peppercorns] will degrade with age.
Smell. A spice or herb that is still fresh will have a rich and vibrant aroma. Open that jar. Does it still have a delicious heady fragrance? Take out a pinch and crush it between your fingers: you should be able to smell a yummy smell. Stale spices lack the strong fragrance of fresh ingredients.
Taste. If you can’t see a rich color, or the aroma is weak, take a tiny taste of the ingredient. Like appearance and fragrance, the taste of herbs and spices will fade over time. If it doesn’t have a strong flavor, it’s time to replace it with something fresh.
Curious about how a specific product should look, smell, or taste? You can find out more here on our website, where each of the products in our webstore has information detailing its unique flavor, look, and aroma.
How can I avoid having stale spices? I hate having to throw out food – but I also hate cooking with lame seasonings.
In a nutshell, follow these four guidelines to make the best of your spices, herbs and other non-perishable ingredients:
Keep it dry. Herbs and spices are plants that have been dried before they were packaged. Avoid sprinkling spices directly from the jar into the bubbling soup pot: the moisture coming off the hot saucepan can gum up the jar’s contents, and speed its deterioration. Use a dry measuring spoon to take spices from their container, then add the ingredient to your dish. Store your herbs and spices in airtight containers [like our glass jars and bottles]. Like a fine martini, your culinary ingredients keep their distinctive taste when they’re dry.
Keep it coolin’ baby. Heat and light will hasten the deterioration of your delicious ingredients, so you might want to reconsider keeping them right above your busy hot stove, or displaying them beautifully in that sunny kitchen window. Cool is where it’s at, when it comes to jazz musicians and spice storage. And darker is better, when it comes to chocolates and keeping herbs tasting fresh.
Keep it whole. Whole spices, peppercorns and whole leaf herbs [where available] last longer than ground or crushed. If you can, purchase ingredients whole [like nutmeg, cloves, chiles, peppercorns etc.] and crumble, grind, crush, or shave them as needed.
Keep it small. Keep it fresh. Sure, the big-box stores offer bulk herbs and spices at bargain prices, and that is helpful if you do a tremendous amount of cooking with that one spice. But how long will it take you to use that one-pound plastic tub of, say, ground ginger, if you use it 1/2 teaspoon at a time? To make ginger snaps once a year?
Consider buying your herbs and spices from AllSpice, where we offer more modestly-sized containers: 1/4 cup and 1/2 cup jars, 375ml bottles, and several sizes of refills.
Also, unlike the big box store chains, we get our ingredients in small, fresh batches throughout the year, and sell them to you in denominations that [even if you are only a sporadic cook] you can reasonably use up within a year or two.
Even the awesome local bakery Creme Cupcake, who goes through copious amounts of baking ingredients to make their decadent treats, chooses to buy their vanilla extracts from AllSpice. Why? Because our ingredients are fresh, high-quality, and reasonably priced.
Questions? Want to try our herbs and spices to see, smell and taste the difference? Stop by the store, or give us a call: 515-868-0808. We’d love to hear from you.