Q. With all the holiday baking and cooking, I found myself using more spices than usual and it got me wondering — how long do spices stay fresh? I know it has been at least two years since I purchased cinnamon and who knows when I bought cumin the last time. B. H., Brattleboro, VT
A. Ground spices and dried herbs have varying shelf lives, but very few are still potent after two years. If you are like me, you have 50 or more small containers of this and that. I often find that I have three or more vials of the same thing (for some reason, it is usually cloves or cinnamon). I have taken to cleaning out my spice cabinet every year just before my holiday baking and purging my cabinets of ingredients that have lost their “oomph.” The easiest way is to open the container and give it a good whiff. If it is something that I know is old (simply, if I cannot remember the last time I used dried onions, I toss ’em). Now, when I purchase dried herbs and spices, I write the date on the back of the container, so there is no doubt. Resealing the top very tightly will help keep things fresh, as will storing them in a cool, dry, and light-free place in your kitchen. Spice racks next to the stove are handy, but not a good storage spot.
If purchased whole, most seeds and some herbs (mustard, fennel, star anise, and bay leaves) can last four or five years — but again, smell them before using. Crushing them before use in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder is a good way to extend their value. If some spices are questionable or you don’t have time to run to the store for more, try toasting them in a dry pan over medium heat to draw out natural oils and maximize their fragrance and flavor.
A general rule of thumb (along with using your nose) is:
- Whole spices (including peppercorns) — 4 to 5 years
- Whole leafy herbs — 3 to 4 years
- Ground spices — 8 months to 2 years
- Dried or dehydrated vegetables (onions, garlic) — 1 year
- Hot pepper flakes (these vary the most, depending on how hot they start out, and how much heat you prefer) — 6 months to 2 years