To ensure that your spices are living up to their potent potential, in addition to a “best by” date, McCormick even has a “Fresh Taster” feature on its website where you can plug in a code found on the bottom of each McCormick spice bottle to verify its age and TOSS (Toss Old Spices Seasonally) accordingly. And as McCormick notes, if a certain bottle of spice originates from Baltimore, it’s at least 15 years old, and if you have Schilling brand spices, they’re at least seven years old.
If you don’t buy McCormick brand spices, there are a couple of things you can do to see if a spice is still good. For starters, simply pour out a little and observe its color. If the vibrant color has faded, then usually so has the flavor. Over this past summer, I encountered grayish-brown, not red, paprika at a friend’s house and remember being wary. Sure enough, it tasted like “paprika light” and was definitely not worth using. In addition to the color test, you can perform a sniff test as well. If a spice is no longer fragrant, it’s probably best to replace it. If a spice has some fragrance left but is far less potent than it used to be, just double the amount called for in a recipe.
Also, remember to keep spices, whether of the ground or whole variety, in a cool, dry place away from your stove with their lids securely fastened so that they keep as long as possible. And don’t feel guilty if you have to toss and replace a spice. It won’t do any good taking up real estate in that congested spice cabinet of yours. If a spice is really old, you may not want to throw the packaging away. Many folks collect antique spice bottles and tins, so you may have luck pawning it off at a local antiques store or selling it at your next garage sale.
It may be wise to buy spices in bulk (in small or larger quantities) to save a few bucks, cut back on packaging waste, but you will have to face the “I only use cloves once a year but have a giant bottle” dilemma.
Not all grocery stores sell herbs and spices in bulk, but it’s worth looking into. Depending on the household usage of a certain spice, you can buy as much or as little as needed so that little goes to waste. Is your house cumin crazy? Then by all means stock up and store the spice in a cute little reusable glass jar. Need mustard seed for a recipe but don’t think you’ll use it again? Buy just a few tablespoons in bulk instead of an entire bottle that costs upwards of 5 dollars (spices aren’t cheap). I’ve started doing this with garlic powder. I found that I was using it frequently so I stopped by a local Middle Eastern grocery and purchased some in bulk — more than what I’d been getting in an average bottle — for a much lower price.
Good luck with the spice cabinet clean-out project. I hope that after this you’ll no longer warrant the “spice hoarder” tag. And remember to consider buying in bulk in the future to save money and curb your spice-related waste stream.