How To Keep From Wasting Your Spices

by Sherri Brooks Vinton

12/26/18

The spice rack can be the graveyard of flavor. The place where dried herbs and spices go to die. While they don’t go bad, per se, they do lose their potency over time. Don’t waste that flavor potential! With a few tips on storage and usage, you can keep your dried herbs and spices fresher for longer, use them rather than throw them out and save money by purchasing smaller quantities.

Storing Dried Spices to Keep Them Fresh

Keep Spices Whole

Whole spices, like cinnamon sticks or coriander seeds, stay fresh much longer than those that are ground — a process that quickly breaks down the delicate, volatile oils that give spices their punch. Diehard pros grind their spices just before cooking to ensure the freshest ingredients and get the most flavor out of them. You don’t have to be that dedicated to greatly improve the quality of your spice rack. Even buying your spices whole and grinding them each time you need to refill your spice jars will bring much more flavor to your dishes.

Keep Spices Cool

Herbs and spices retain their flavor best if they are stored in a relatively cool place, such as your pantry or a cabinet that’s out of the heat of the kitchen. If you like to have your spices at your fingertips when cooking, keep only small amounts in an easily accessible rack by the oven workspace, replenishing from your cold storage supply as needed.

Keep Spices in the Dark

Light is an enemy of color and will quickly cause your spices to fade. Be sure to store your spices in a dark place or in dark bottles if you don’t have a place to tuck them away.

Keep Spices Sealed

Airtight containers are best for locking in the flavor of dried herbs and spices. Sealed jars or containers will also keep their intense flavors from mingling.

Date Your Spices

Jot the opened-on date on your dried herbs and spices, so you know how long they’ve been on the shelf. Whole spices are good for about four years, ground spices stay fresh for two to three years and dried herbs lose their impact after a year or two. You can also use your nose to sniff out the potency of herbs and spices. They should smell fresh and vibrant. Dull, dusty or musty odors indicate it’s time to give them the heave-ho into the compost bin.

Keep Spices Organized

And by organized, I mean alphabetized. It may sound a little over the top, but an alphabetized organized spice rack allows you to find things easily so that you are more likely to use up your purchased stash. It also keeps you from buying items that you already have, so you’ll end up wasting less unused product.

Buy Spices in Small Quantities

Frequently used spices, such as black peppercorns, are worth buying in bulk. You will save money for purchasing in quantity, and you will likely grind through them before they start to lose their punch. Recipe-specific flavors that you may not reach for as often are best purchased in the tiniest volume you can find. The price per ounce will be higher, but you will pay less in the long run if you pitch all but the pinch called for in the instructions. Or, consider ordering with friends to get the bulk pricing and splitting the lot.

Using Spices Before They Lose Their Flavor

Spice up Your life

A little chili powder sprinkled on popcorn, some cumin in your burger mix, a dusting of curry powder on roast potatoes will bring a little more interest to the table and help maintain a more vigorous rotation on the spice rack. Experiment with adding herbs and spices to sweet treats: for instance, chocolate and spices that have a bit of heat are a great match. Herbs such as rosemary and thyme are surprisingly delicious in pound cake and shortbread cookies. Fruit desserts are a welcoming backdrop for creativity. Try dried herbs with berries — thyme or basil with blueberries for example. Warm spices, such as ancho chili, are a great match with stone fruits such as peaches or cherries.

Make Spice Mixes

Combine small amounts of spices into a ready-to-use mix. Ground together and stored in an airtight jar, these workhorse combos are easy to put to use. And you’ll find the ease of grabbing one multi-use mix rather than measuring out half a dozen individual spices will make sure you don’t forget one of them and will have you reaching into your spice rack more frequently.

Tex/Mex

Spicy chiles, warm cumin and fresh cilantro are flavors that we readily associate with border cuisine. You can build on this palette by adding layers of herbs such as thyme, oregano, and bay leaves; and spices such as coriander (the seeds of the cilantro plant), paprika, cinnamon and even a bit of powdered cocoa. Sauté an onion and some garlic, add a healthy dose of your mix and pour in a can of tomatoes (preferably homemade) to make a sauce for enchiladas, a base for chili and more.

Indian

Curry powder and garam masala (see below) are spice blends that are frequently called for in Indian recipes. Although they generally include a number of the warm spices that we associate with Indian cuisine — cumin, coriander, cinnamon and cardamom are common — the recipe for each varies with geography and the whim of the cook. You, too, can create your own Indian-inspired spice blend. Try adding some cloves, chili powder, allspice, nutmeg, mustard seed or fennel to the mix.

Mediterranean

An all-purpose Mediterranean mix is great for sprinkling on roasts, adding to soups and stews or elevating a vinaigrette. Thyme, oregano, rosemary and bay all play well together. Add a little lavender for an Herbes de Provence influence. Add some fennel, or celery seeds or anything on your spice rack that smells good in combination to customize the blend to your taste.

Compound Butters

Compound butter is a secret ingredient that, kept in the freezer, takes any meal to the next level quickly and easily. Blend dried spices such as chili powder, the curry powder mentioned above or paprika into a stick of softened butter. Form into a log and freeze. Slice off coins to top grilled meats or vegetables, add to hot pasta or rice, melt on steamed vegetables or even popcorn for a pop of flavor.

Make Tea

Add a pinch of floral herbs such as lavender or rosemary to your favorite black tea for a savory cuppa without having to buy a box of flavored tea.

Perfume Your Home

Add a healthy scoop of old dried herbs and spices to a pot of simmering water and let the aroma fill your home. Like baking bread, the smell is pleasant and comforting and doesn’t require another store-bought candle.

Recipe: Garam Masala Chickpeas

Makes about 1 ½ cups

Ingredients

1-15 ounce can of chickpeas
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon of your garam masala, including in any combination:
Cumin
Coriander
Cardamom
Cloves
Nutmeg
Allspice
Black pepper
Chili
Cinnamon
Fennel
Fenugreek
Star anise
Bay leaves

Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 F.
  2. Drain and rinse the chickpeas.
  3. Blot them dry with a clean tea towel.
  4. Add the peas, olive oil, salt and garam masala to a medium bowl and toss until the chickpeas are evenly coated with the spice mixture.
  5. Transfer to a cookie sheet.
  6. Roast until the chickpeas are crunchy and lightly browned, about 30-40 minutes.
  7. Cool and serve warm or at room temperature. Keeps in an airtight container for 3-4 days.

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