Quality spices can add a whole new dimension to home cooking. Still, most home cooks do not even know how to keep track of whether their spices are still in their prime or have degraded to dusty nothingness. Spices, like almost anything in the kitchen, have a shelf life, and knowing how to determine when yours are past theirs will help elevate your cooking.
Spices that are past their prime do not pose health risks, but they do impact the flavor of the food they are used in.
“There is not a food safety issue with long term storage of dried herbs and spices,” said Kathy Savoie, educator at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “[With] the expiration date, it’s not like they expired, they’re just beyond their potency.”
Some spice bottles will have an expiration or best by date on them, but others do not. The date also might rub off in the process of use, or, perhaps, you use your own spice containers and purchase spices in bulk.
Luckily, there are some ways you can figure out if your spices are still in their flavor prime.
The first way to see if your spices are still good, especially if it is something leafy and herbal, is to crush them in your hands.
“See if they still have their traditional smell and if they don’t, you know that they have really lost their potency,” Savoie said.
Savoie said you can also conduct a visual test.
“If it’s an herb, if it doesn’t look green anymore, it’s lost its freshness,” Savoie said. “Some things you want to look for are the color, but also if they are clumped together [if it’s] a ground spice. That simply means it’s been exposed to a moister than usual environment, which would interfere with how well it’s going to taste in what you’re using it.”
You can take simple steps to preserve spices’ longevity. Savoie said to keep spices in a container with a tight lid out of bright light and sunshine, which can cause deterioration. Also, some spices will deteriorate with exposure to heat.
“I know oftentimes people will keep their herb and spice rack next to the stove and that might not be the best place because you have the heat fluctuation,” Savoie said.
Savoie also said that spice blends especially should not be exposed to moisture, as they tend to be especially prone to clumping.
“If you’re measuring out a teaspoon for soup, keep it away from the steam of what you’re cooking; that steam can deteriorate the product and also cause it to get clumpy,” she explained.
Whole spices that you grind yourself in a spice mill when you need them will also stay better for longer.
“I prefer to buy a whole nutmeg and grate it as I need it,” Savoie said. “You can grind cinnamon sticks if you want to. They tend to stay better for longer. The whole spice has less surface area. When it has a higher surface area it will break down quicker [and] lose its potency.”
Savoie also said that your shopping habits can also ensure that more of the spices in your spice rack or cabinet are reliably fresh when you need them. Savoie said to only buy what you need, and if you do buy spices in bulk, make sure it is something you use often or something you plan to share with a friend.
“Break it down into smaller units and share it with people,” Savoie said. “Or go to a local food coop that sells herbs and spices in bulk and only by what you need because you’re paying by the ounce typically, and you’re not going to spend a ton of money typically if you’re buying small amounts.”