By Matt Hickman, MNN.com
Q: Iím gearing up for my first big spring cleaning session with my sights set on an area Iíve been avoiding: the spice cabinet. My teenage son has started to call me the ďspice hoarder,Ē and my husband wonít even get near the cabinet. (I donít blame him Ö the cabinet is a mess and even I have trouble navigating it.) The thing is, Iíve never known when itís appropriate to throw spices away. I have never been clear on the shelf life, so I keep Ďem 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. Iím 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 ďbadĒ like other foods do. For example, a bottle of curry powder thatís been around a questionable amount of time probably wonít make you sick Ö it will just be less potent. Many folks abide by a ďsix-month ruleĒ when it comes to discarding most spices. Seems a bit short to me. I certainly canít afford to replace all of mine twice a year. The folks at McCormick offer ďto toss or not to tossĒ 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 itís 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 donít. The many Fairway brand spices that I own arenít so transparent when it comes to their shelf life. In fact, I was just eying an almost-empty container of dried parsley that Iím pretty sure has been living on my spice shelf for four-plus years.
Next: A handy way to verify how old your spices are