Do Spices Go Bad? Here’s How to Know When It’s Time to Toss Them.
Just about every home cook has pulled an herb jar or spice canister from the pantry only to be shocked by the best-by date. Is your oregano older than your second child? Did you really buy that pimentón during the Obama administration? And this is if you take the time to check the label. Most of the time we simply sprinkle that out-of-date cumin on our chili and get dinner on the table.
The good news is that dried herbs and spices don’t really go bad bad, as in they won’t go moldy, rot, or make you sick. However, dried herbs and spices do lose their flavor over time, which makes using them — and storing them — a waste of time. How long do dried herbs and spices last and how can you tell if they’re past their prime? Read on for everything you need to know.
What is the shelf life of dried herbs and spices?
Herbs and spices go bad — that is, lose their potency — at different rates, depending on the variety, and whether they are whole or ground. While they won’t go moldy or grow bacteria, they will oxidize as they’re exposed to air and that’s what degrades their flavor and aroma.
Whole dried herbs and spices generally last longer than ground because their flavors and aromas are locked inside rather than being exposed to air. Once they’re ground, dried herbs and spices have more surface area exposed to air — and although that surface area makes them great for adding a quick hit of flavor to the soup simmering on your stove, it also makes them more susceptible to oxidation. The same is true of herb and spice mixes. Whole herb and spice mixes are harder to find, but they will keep longer than ground mixes.
Opinions vary on exactly how long dried herbs and spices stay fresh, but there are some general guidelines. Ground herbs and spices, as well as ground herb or spice mixes, typically last three to six months. Whole herbs and spices will keep eight to 10 months, although some cooks believe they stay fresh for up to five years. You may find these guidelines helpful, or they may also seem arbitrary. Thankfully, there are other ways to evaluate your spice rack.
How can I tell if dried herbs and spices are still good?
The most obvious way to tell if dried herbs and spices are still fresh is to check the date on the package, but this isn’t the most reliable method and sometimes there isn’t even a date to check. Another option is to use the guidelines from above and put your own date on the canister or jar. Of course, you have no idea how long that coriander or sage was sitting on the supermarket shelf, so even that’s a bit of a guessing game.
The best approach, by far, is to simply check the herbs and spices yourself. First, give them a good look. Dried green herbs like oregano and parsley should be green (not gray), and most powdered spices should look vibrant (not dull or dusty). Next, use your nose: Does your onion powder smell like onions or more like eau de nothing at all? If you’re still not sure, grab a pinch and taste. If your sumac doesn’t have the bright pungent mix of citrus and floral notes, toss it in the compost bin. Remember that the whole point of dried herbs and spices is to add flavor and aroma to what you’re cooking. If they’re not doing that, they’re just taking up cabinet space.
What about salt and pepper?
Pepper, both whole and ground, works like any other dried spice. Whole peppercorns will keep longer, while ground pepper will oxidize and lose flavor more quickly. Salt, on the other hand, never loses its potency, which means that if you see a tub of Maldon sea salt on sale, know that it’s a good investment and can be passed down to your grandchildren.
How can I get the most out of dried herbs and spices?
The life expectancy of dried herbs and spices may be far shorter than you thought, but there are ways to maximize and prolong it. As with most ingredients, starting with high-quality herbs and spices is key. They’ll taste better and last longer. It’s also best to shop at a spice market or specialty shop that has more turnover, so you know the bay leaves haven’t been sitting there for years.
Unless you use a lot of an herb or spice, try to buy it in smaller quantities so it doesn’t go past its prime before you have a chance to use it all. Ground herbs and spices offer convenience, but if you don’t mind a little extra effort you can buy whole versions and invest in a grinder or mortar and pestle.
Lastly, in order to prevent oxidation and preserve your dried herbs and spices, store them in tightly sealed airtight containers and in a cool, dark place, away from heat, light, and moisture. For more tips, see our guide on how to shop for and store spices.
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