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    The Scoop on Spices

    Posted on 06/05/08
    Vegamonics Lesson Two: How long do spices and dried herbs last?

    While tinkering with the Moroccan Eggplant recipe, I found myself considering the saffron I purchased several months ago and never used. Given that spices and herbs can at times be an expensive investment for any cook's kitchen, I wondered just when do these costly yet necessary item expire? To answer my question, I went to wiseGEEK and got the scoop on spices, dried herbs, and more.

    Spices and dried herbs do not spoil, but rather lose strength and flavor over time. What is the easiest way to tell if a spice or dried herb has lost its potency? Your nose! If a spice or dried herb has lost its smell, it's probably time to toss it...or find a creative way to recycle it.

    Here is a short guide for getting the most out of your purchases:

    Storage & Usage: Spices and dried herbs should be stored in airtight containers, in a cool, dry place. Do not store near a heat source such as an oven, and avoid humidity from a dishwasher. Spices and dried herbs should not be frozen. They will last even longer if you can avoid exposure to light. Also, do not pour spices out of the container over a hot pot or pan. The heat will degrade the remaining spice in the bottle. Always pre-measure with a clean, dry measuring spoon.

    Whole spices: When properly stored, whole spices can last 3 to 5 years. Buy whole spices and grind yourself for the best value. Once spices are ground and exposed to atmospheric elements, they begin to slowly lose their flavors. Strong whole spices such as cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg, and pepper may last even longer then 5 years, but any whole spice that has lost its aroma is too old and needs to be replaced.

    Ground spices: Properly stored ground spices will last 2 to 3 years. Not sure how old your spices are? Gently shake the (closed) container, wait a minute for the dust to settle, then pop the lid and take a sniff. If the smell is very weak or nonexistent, it's replacement time. If the spices have declined slightly, you can refresh the flavor by toasting the spices first in a cast iron skillet or heavy pot. Toss the spices for several minutes over medium heat, then use immediately.

    Dried herbs: Dried herbs, if properly stored, can last anywhere from 1 to 3 years. Typically, they do not last as long as spices because dried herbs are more delicate. Even if the color has changed, however, they might still be good. Crush the dried herbs lightly in your hand, if they are still fragrant then they will still have flavor. Discard dried herbs if there is no odor after crushing.

    Salt: As long as it is properly stored, salt will last indefinitely. Salt is neither a spice nor an herb, it is a mineral, but an important seasoning ingredient in any kitchen nonetheless. Salt storage is similar to spices and dried herbs in that it needs to be kept in an air-tight container, away from humidity. My grandma puts pieces of saltine crackers in her salt shakers to absorb any moisture (a few grains of rice would also work).  

    Don't believe me? Even the folks at McCormick, the master of selling spices, offers this chart to customers:

    Whole spices: 3-4 years

    Ground spices: 2-3 years

    Herbs: 1-3 years

    Seasoning Blends: 1-2 years

    Extracts: 4 years*

    *except pure vanilla extract (which apparently lasts forever)

    McCormick also encourages customers to do the sniff test and use their spices as long as they are fragrant. You can go to their website the Spice Check Challenge to enter the code from the bottom of the container and verify its freshness (best case scenario with proper storage and usage).

    Homework: Perform the sniff test on all spices and dried herbs in the kitchen cabinet, and move the spice rack away from the oven! Discard anything that is past its prime, but replace only if necessary.