Storing Spices for Longevity

Spices have the power to change the flavor of just about anything in interesting ways. For instance, beans and rice are dietary staples in countries around the globe, but each country's take on them tastes different. A plate of rice seasoned with turmeric and ginger has a very different taste profile from rice flavored with paprika! Delicious food requires good spices. However, good spices cost money, so home cooks will want to protect that investment and make their spices last as long as possible.

How Spices Are Made

Different spices come from different plants, and they can also come from different parts of the same plants. Some are seeds, some are roots, and some come from leaves. How they are harvested is largely dependent on which part of the plant the spice derives from. Harvested plants should be free of bugs and damage. Typically, the plants are cleaned and stored, and the spices are then dried. There are three major ways for the plants to be dried. They can be air-dried, oven-dried, or microwaved. Then, they are put into glass jars either whole or ground and prepared for sale.

Shelf Life of Different Types of Spices

The shelf life of spices is mostly determined by how the spice is made and stored. Generally, the less processed a spice is, the longer its shelf life will be. Also, on average, dried spices last longer than dried herbs. Dried herbs, which include basil and sage, have a shelf life of one to two years. Ground or powdered spices are good for up to three years. Ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, and cardamon are typical examples of dried and powdered spices. Whole dried spices last the longest. They stay good for about four years. Whole peppercorns, mustard seeds, and cloves are common examples of whole dried spices found in many kitchens. For example, ground pepper is only good for up to two years, but whole peppercorns stay fresh for about four years. By the way, salt doesn't have an expiration date unless it's been mixed with an herb or spice. Seasoned salts follow these general rules.

How to Determine Spice Freshness

Other than trying to remember when the spices in the pantry were purchased, how can home cooks know if their spices are still good? Damaged glass jars are an obvious sign that the spices inside are no longer fresh. Also, look for dates on labels and containers. But mostly, cooks should depend on their senses. Look at, touch, and smell the spices in question. The spice should be the proper color. Turmeric, for example, should be a rich golden yellow. The spice should also be strongly scented. A spice that doesn't have a strong scent won't lend any flavor to food when used in cooking.

Best Ways to Store Spices

Spices and herbs last longer when they are properly stored. As cute as countertop spice racks are, they actually reduce the shelf life of spices. Spices do best when stored in clean, dry, airtight glass bottles in a cool, dark, dry place. They should not be stored near the stove. Frequent changes in temperature can alter the texture and taste of dried spices. Large amounts of spices can also be thoroughly wrapped in freezer-safe plastic and stored in the freezer until they are needed. However, spices should never be kept in the refrigerator.

Temperature and Environmental Considerations

Humidity, temperature, and sunlight all can rapidly decrease the longevity of spices. Light robs spices of their color and flavor, making them practically useless for cooking. Spices should be stored in airtight glass jars to prevent moisture from getting mixed in with the spices. Wet, lumpy spices lose their texture and flavor. Heat also destroys the flavor of stored spices.