Good question. I love spices and herbs – especially fresh herbs –but those bottles of cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and bay leaves? They might have been keeping each other company in my spice drawer since Bill Clinton was in office.
Do Dried Spices And Herbs Go Bad?
Even though some cookbooks might suggest a “toss your spices after six months” rule, the major spice suppliers claim that they don’t go bad – but they do lose their strength. My Clinton era cinnamon wouldn’t make anyone sick – it just wouldn’t necessarily taste like full-fledged cinnamon.
Spice companies like McCormick and Penzeys say that if you keep dried herbs and spices in an airtight container in a cool, dry place you can keep and use them for as long as they seem to have flavor. That’s a bit of good news because it can take awhile to use up what’s in those bottles!
Here’s a tip: with a ground dry spice, shake the jar, let it settle, and give a sniff. If it doesn’t really have its spicy scent, toss it. If there’s a little fragrance left, try using more than usual amount to get the flavor you would expect from a fresh dried spice.
What About Herbs?
Herbs don’t have the longevity of spices and lose their flavor more quickly. If an herb that’s supposed to have the color of a St. Patrick’s Day shamrock looks more like the color of a pair of khakis — but it still smells wonderful when you crumble it in your hand — go ahead and use it. If it’s that khaki pants color and also has little or no aromatic smell when crumbled, then it’s probably too old to be of much flavorful use.
- Whole spices can last as long as 4 years
- Ground spices can last 2 to 3 years
- Leafy herbs can last 1 to 3 years, depending on the herb.
- Whole peppercorns, nutmeg, and stick cinnamon can last quite a long time.
- The same is true for the potent whole spices like cumin, cardamom, and cloves which also can live in your spice drawer for a really long time.
How To Store Them
To get the most flavor from dried herbs and spices, keep them tightly capped and away from heat, humidity, and bright, sunny places.
Putting dried herbs and spices in the freezer is not an ideal solution because condensation can be a problem. Penzeys does recommend keeping spices like whole and ground chili peppers, paprika, sesame seed, and poppy seed in a refrigerator or freezer to prolong longevity, especially in really warm weather.
Avoid shaking herbs or spices out of the bottle directly into something you’re cooking. Exposure to steam is a quick way to spoil your spices.
McCormick gives some “to toss or not toss” longevity guidelines:
- Ground spices (nutmeg, cinnamon, turmeric): 2 to 3 years
- Herbs (basil, oregano, parsley): 1 to 3 years
- Seasoning blends: 1 to 2 years
- Whole spices (cloves, peppercorns, cinnamon sticks): 4 years
- Seeds: 4 years (except for poppy and sesame seeds, which should be discarded after 2 years)
- Extracts: 4 years (except for vanilla, which lasts forever)
Just remember to make a note of when the heck you bought and opened the spices in the first place. And check the bottle. Some spice companies include “best by” dates on their bottles and some don’t. In addition to a “best by” date, with McCormick’s “Fresh Taster” online feature you can type in a code on the bottom of a McCormick spice bottle to verify its age and if the spice is past its prime.