Your Spice Cabinet
When your spring-cleaning fever hits, don’t forget about your spice cabinet. If you still cook with old, dusty spices purchased years ago (maybe many years ago), you’re not alone. But your dishes deserve better. A well-stocked cabinet of vibrant dried herbs and spices is an essential part of every cook’s pantry.
Assess your spice cabinet
Take the time to sort through your spice cabinet and consider:
The spice’s appearance and smell
It should still have a bright color and distinct aroma. If it doesn’t, throw it out (but consider cleaning the jar and reusing it for spices you can buy in the bulk section).
The best-when-used-by date
This is a guideline. If the spice/herb jar is unopened and has been stored in a dry, cool, dark place, it may still be good a year or two later.
When you bought it
In general, properly stored whole spices last for about three years, ground spices for two years, spice blends for one year, and dried herbs for a few years. Extracts have longer shelf lives—almond oil and lemon oil will keep four to five years, and vanilla will last until it is used up.
Stocking your spices
Next, consider your general cooking style. You may want to stock your spice cabinet with:
- Basic savory: Bay leaves, oregano, thyme, cumin, coriander, black pepper, red pepper flakes/cayenne, and grill seasoning
- Basic baking: Baking soda, baking powder, vanilla extract, almond extract, cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg (buy whole, then use a spice grater for the amount you need)
- Holiday: Whole allspice and juniper berries (often used in turkey brine), ground ginger, pumpkin pie spice, powdered gelatin, cream of tartar
- Basic Asian (East): Soy sauce/tamari, fermented black bean (whole or a prepared, jarred paste*, or a prepared sauce with garlic added*), five-spice powder, Sichuan peppercorn, star anise
- Basic Asian (Central): Cinnamon, dill, pepper
- Basic Indian: Cardamom, clove, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, garam masala, Madras curry powder, whole mustard seed, saffron, turmeric, annatto, fenugreek
- Basic European (Northern and Eastern): Allspice, caraway, dill, paprika
- Basic French: Marjoram, rosemary, sage, thyme
- Basic Spanish: Chili pepper, oregano, paprika, saffron
- Basic Mediterranean (e.g. Greek, Italian): Basil, cinnamon, dill, fennel seed, marjoram, oregano, parsley, rosemary, thyme
- Basic Mexican: Achiote paste, chile (e.g. ancho/chipotle/pasilla), Mexican oregano
When possible, consider bulk spices
They're less expensive, and you can get just the amount you need for the next 6 to 12 months.
Label your spices with the date you opened them or, if purchased in bulk, with the date purchased.
Buy whole spices
They stay fresh longer and are more versatile. When ground spices are called for, lightly toast whole spices until they become aromatic before grinding them yourself in a coffee grinder or mortar & pestle.
*Refrigerate after opening.