If you're not thinking about your spices as perishable ingredients, it's time to start. That jar of garam masala that's been languishing in the crevices of your spice cupboard for the past decade? It's likely discolored, clumpy, and doesn't taste like much of anything at all. What's more, there's no bringing old and weak back: You can't overcome the deficiencies by dumping more of it into your curry.
But while flavor quality will inevitably diminish over time, it is possible to prolong the taste and freshness of your seasonings with proper care and storage. Here are five tips to ensure your spices last as long as possible so that you're cooking with the best ingredients possible.
1. Keep spices airtight.
Exposure to air will cause your spices to lose their flavor more quickly, so whether you choose glass jars or metal tins, remember to keep those spice containers tightly closed. Or steal this tip from Ben Walters, the proprietor of North Market Spices in Columbus.
Expert Tip: Store spices in commercial-grade plastic bags, which allow excess air to be expelled to preserve freshness. Plastic bags also make for easy home spice organization. "I keep my spice bags in a couple of wire baskets that I thumb through like a filing cabinet," Walters says.
2. Keep spices in the dark.
An array of artisan spice jars on a windowsill might look pretty, but direct sunlight will also hasten the loss of flavor. Your best bet is to keep jars in a drawer or cupboard, but if you absolutely can't resist the aesthetics of a decorative spice collection, buy your seasonings in small quantities, use them up quickly, and then restock.
3. Keep spices away from heat.
That shelf above your stove might seem like a handy spot to store your favorite seasonings, but the heat is yet another factor that will quickly degrade their taste. Also avoid storing seasonings near your dishwasher, another dangerous — and less obvious — source of heat.
4. Keep spices away from moisture.
Moisture also threatens spice shelf life, another reason why keeping your spices near the stove is a big no-no. Never throw your spices in the freezer, always make sure measuring spoons are completely dry before dipping into a spice or herb container, and follow this tidbit from Megan O'brien, a spokesperson for spice giant McCormick.
Expert Tip: Never sprinkle spices and herbs directly from the bottle over a steaming pot, because moisture can get into the bottle. Instead, sprinkle into a measuring spoon or bowl away from the steam.
5. Keep track of the age of your spices.
There's no universal agreement on the exact shelf life for spices, but everyone agrees that whole spices, with a one-to-two year window of peak flavor, last longer than ground. Buying whole spices and grinding them at home just before use will maximize taste and freshness.
Regardless of whether you buy whole or ground, it's a good idea to note the purchase date on the bottle for future reference. Foodies ordering high-end products online can also set up an electronic calendar alert to restock based on the projected shelf life of their favorite seasonings.
Ultimately, though, the best gauge of spice freshness will always be appearance, scent, and taste. If a spice no longer seems fragrant or flavorful, or if the color seems off, don't be afraid to toss it.