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Do Spices Go Bad?

In the great debate between fresh vs dried herbs and ground vs whole spices, one aspect that most people forget about is shelf life. Is that 5-year-old bottle of paprika in your cabinet still good or is it time to toss it? In this blog we’ll address the question of spice expiration dates and when it may be time to replace them.

Shop All Herbs and Spices

Do Spices Expire?

Yes and no. Spices do not expire in a way that would make you sick to consume them, however they do expire in the sense that they lose their flavor potency as they pass their peak freshness. Spices are considered to be a shelf-stable product and do not have a true expiration date, instead you will typically find a best-by date on the packaging of store-bought spices that you can use as a reference for their disposal. This is important to keep in mind as you prepare for your health inspection as a health inspector may dock points from your facility if your spices are too far past their best-by date.

If you season your dishes with spices that are several years old, you may not achieve the flavor you were looking for. The reason for this flavor change is because once a spice is exposed to oxygen it begins to oxidize and degrade. The natural essential oils escape and this weakens the flavor strength, aroma, and color over time. Ground spices will oxidize more quickly than whole spices due to their increased surface area.

Shelf Life of Spices

Assortment of spices on table

Each spice type has a different shelf life, and that can be impacted by how they are stored and if they are ground or whole.

Here are some general rules about the shelf life of spices:

  • Ground spices are at their freshest within the first 3 months of being bottled
  • Whole spices are at their freshest within the first 10 months of being bottled
  • Ground spices retain most of their flavor for 2-3 years
  • Whole spices retain most of their flavor for 3-4 years
  • Spice blends retain most of their flavor for 2 years
  • Dried leafy herbs retain most of their flavor for 1-3 years
  • Seeds retain most of their flavor for 4 years
  • Fresh spices retain most of their flavor for 1 week
  • Salt is the only seasoning to retain its peak flavor indefinitely

How Long Do Spices Last?

Different spices within a vast culinary spice library will deteriorate at different rates due to their natural composition. Below we have a shelf life list of some of the more common seasonings that you may find in your spice cabinet.

  • Allspice: 2-3 years (ground or dried)
  • Basil: 5-7 days (fresh), 2-3 years (ground or dried)
  • Bay leaves: 5-7 days (fresh), 2-3 years (ground or dried)
  • Black pepper: 2-3 years (ground), 5-6 years (whole)
  • Cayenne pepper: 2-3 years (ground), refrigerate for maximum freshness
  • Chili powder: 2-3 years (ground)
  • Cinnamon: 2-3 years (ground), 4-5 years (whole)
  • Cloves: 5-7 days (fresh), 2-3 years (ground or dried), 4-5 years (whole)
  • Cream of Tartar: 2-3 years (ground or dried)
  • Cumin: 2-3 years (ground)
  • Garlic: 4-6 months (fresh), 2-3 years (ground or dried)
  • Nutmeg: 2-3 years (ground or dried)
  • Onion powder: 2-3 years (ground or dried)
  • Oregano: 5-7 days (fresh), 2-3 years (ground or dried)
  • Paprika: 2-3 years (ground), refrigerate for maximum freshness
  • Poppy seeds: 2-3 years (ground, whole, or dried)
  • Rosemary: 1-2 weeks (fresh- refrigerated), 2-3 years (ground), 3-5 years (whole)
  • Sage: 1-2 weeks (fresh- refrigerated), 1-3 years (dried), 3-4 years (ground)
  • Salt: indefinite
  • Thyme: 1-2 weeks (fresh- refrigerated), 2-3 years (ground), 3-5 years (whole)
  • Turmeric: 2-3 years (ground)

How to Make Your Spices Last

There are a few steps that you can take to ensure the longevity of your spices, from purchase to storage and usage.

Buying Spices Correctly

Herbs and spices in measuring spoons

In order to maintain a cabinet of fresh and potent spices, it is advised to purchase the spices that you need in moderate quantities that properly correlate to your spice usage and recipes. Purchasing a pre-made kit of spices may seem like a great way to stock up quickly, but this can result in seasonings sitting in your pantry unused and fading in flavor.

Additionally, it is advised to shop for your spices and seasonings at well-frequented stores. This typically means that the location has a quicker shelf turnover rate, providing you with the freshest spices available. When possible, purchase whole spices and grind then yourself, rather than purchasing pre-ground spices that will degrade more quickly.

Practicing Proper Spice Storage

Storing your spices properly can help ensure a more potent flavor throughout their life span. Here are some tips to guide you in the best way to store spices:

  • Store spices in airtight containers
  • Label the spice container with the date that you purchased it by using tape or labeling stickers
  • Fully seal your spice canisters after each use
  • Store your spices in a dark and dry environment
  • Seasoning should be stored in an area with cool and consistent temperature
  • Red pepper spices like chili powder, paprika, and red pepper flakes can be stored in the refrigerator (do not store in the freezer), all other spices should be stored in a pantry
  • Fresh herbs can be washed, chopped, and placed in an ice cube tray with water or broth to be frozen and used at a later date

Since air, heat, and moisture all impact spice longevity, seasonings should be stored away from the oven. Avoid keeping your seasonings on the ledge above the stove.

Using Spices Correctly

To achieve the most potent flavor from your spices, purchase whole spices whenever possible and only grind them right before you plan to use them. Keep moisture from getting into your spice bottles by measuring them out into a spoon or measuring cup away from the stove. It is a common practice to shake ground spices directly into a pot or pan of cooking food, however, this can lead to steam getting into the openings of your spice bottle and clumps forming. The moisture in turn will degrade the flavor of your seasoning.

How Do You Know If Spices Are Still Good?

grinding spices in mortar

You can check the freshness of your seasonings with a few simple tests.

  • Color Test - Spices can vary in color between batches but your spices may fade in color over time. If the colors are much duller than when you purchased it, this can be a good indication that the flavor has faded as well.
  • Sniff Test - The strength of a spice’s fragrance typically directly correlates to its potency. Rub a bit of seasoning in your hand to activate the essential oils. If the aroma is weak, this can mean that their essential oils have evaporated, impacting their flavor.
  • Taste Test - Taste a small amount of seasoning in question before adding it to your dish to avoid serving a bland meal.

What to Do With Old Spices

If your spices are on the tail end of their life span, there are a few tricks you can try to salvage or repurpose them before disposing of them entirely.

  • Fry your spices before cooking. You can boost the flavor and aroma of your spices by lightly frying them immediately before use. Heat oil in a pan and add your desired spices, stirring the whole time. Once the aroma improves, add the spices directly into your meal.
  • Toast your seasonings in a skillet. To revive the flavor of a spice blend, empty the remaining content of the spice into a dry skillet and heat it on medium-low until the aroma is noticeably stronger. Continuously stir the spices to prevent burning. Once the aroma is potent, take the spices off the heat and allow it to fully cool before putting it back into the bottle.
  • Make spice potpourri. Add your slightly dull spices to dried flowers and fruits to create a comforting scent for your bathrooms, kitchens, or reception areas.

Whether you’re growing and drying your own herbs or stocking up at your local spice shop, knowing the life span and proper storage methods of your spices is essential to serving flavorful and delicious dishes.

Posted in: Kitchen & Cooking Tips | By Janine Jones
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