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How Long Should I Keep Spices Around?

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How Long Should I Keep Spices Around?

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)

Make Your Own Vanilla Extract

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

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Megan, selected from Mother Nature Network

Mother Nature Network's mission is to help you improve your world. From covering the latest news on health, science, sustainable business practices and the latest trends in eco-friendly technology, MNN.com strives to give you the accurate, unbiased information you need to improve your world locally, globally, and personally – all in a distinctive thoughtful, straightforward, and fun style.

105 comments

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8:16AM PST on Dec 31, 2013

Still have the spice set given to me by my youngest son, back around 1990...Most never used because I'm still working on using up the spices in metal containers. Are the oldies in metal containers collectables??? I know, I know, throw the oldies.

5:39AM PST on Dec 31, 2013

Wow some of this stuff lasts a long time! Good to know.

2:26AM PDT on Jun 6, 2013

Good to know! Thanks for sharing.

12:53PM PST on Feb 12, 2013

Thank you Megan, for Sharing this!

11:45PM PST on Jan 9, 2012

O.K. I'll have to do the sniff test since alot of the spices I have have no dates.

8:12PM PST on Jan 9, 2012

good to know

10:00AM PST on Jan 9, 2012

Thank-you for the informative article. I need to go through my spices again. One spice I use to use a lot of was Dill. I was told to keep it in your refridgerator to help preserve its freshness.

2:45AM PST on Jan 6, 2012

Thanks for the info.

2:30PM PST on Jan 4, 2012

Thanks. i needed that!

8:43AM PST on Jan 4, 2012

I guess i can toss everything then!

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