By Matt Hickman, MNN.com
Q: I’m gearing up for my first big spring cleaning session with my sights set on an area I’ve been avoiding: the spice cabinet. My teenage son has started to call me the “spice hoarder,” and my husband won’t even get near the cabinet. (I don’t blame him … the cabinet is a mess and even I have trouble navigating it.) The thing is, I’ve never known when it’s appropriate to throw spices away. I have never been clear on the shelf life, so I keep ‘em around. Have any clue as to when is a good time to chuck them?
A. Growing up, I recall the spice cabinet (which also doubled as the frosting and sprinkle storage area) in my own home as, well, overwhelming. I’m pretty sure there were a couple bottles of something or other in there that were certified antiques, pre-dating the Carter administration. And that ground allspice? I think the sell-by date was 40 A.D.
The shelf life of spices vary, and you never really need to worry about them going “bad” like other foods do. For example, a bottle of curry powder that’s been around a questionable amount of time probably won’t make you sick … it will just be less potent. Many folks abide by a “six-month rule” when it comes to discarding most spices. Seems a bit short to me. I certainly can’t afford to replace all of mine twice a year. The folks at McCormick offer “to toss or not to toss” guidelines that are more generous:
- 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 will last forever)
Pretty straightforward, eh? Sure, but unless you keep some kind of “purchased on…” checklist inside of your cabinet it’s probably hard to keep track of how long each and every spice has been kicking around. Some spice companies like McCormick do include “best by” dates on the bottles while others don’t. The many Fairway brand spices that I own aren’t so transparent when it comes to their shelf life. In fact, I was just eying an almost-empty container of dried parsley that I’m pretty sure has been living on my spice shelf for four-plus years.
Next: A handy way to verify how old your spices are