Preparing flavorful meals isn’t possible without herbs and spices. Whether you’re sprinkling dried oregano in tomato sauce or ground cinnamon over sweet potatoes, seasonings are the backbone of every dish. (Fun fact: Cooking with spices can also help lower your blood pressure over time.) It’s easy, though, to lose track of each seasoning’s freshness — you probably use them as needed and put them away without thinking. But, contrary to popular belief, seasoning does expire. Read on to learn how to tell which of your pantry’s current seasonings need to be tossed, and when to toss those that you keep.
How long is it safe to use spices after they’ve expired?
Good news: Cooking with expired seasonings won’t make you sick — but it will leave your food tasting bland. Exposure to direct light, humidity, and/or oxygen eventually causes dried spices to lose their essential oils, which means they’ll also lose their vibrant flavor and color. You can toast whole spices in a dry pan and ground seasonings in oil to liven up the taste; however, this method should only be used as a last resort, if you can’t buy a fresh bottle right away.
How do you know if spices have gone bad?
If you pour seasonings into separate storage containers, you may forget the expiration date because it’s no longer written on the bottle. Also, old dried herbs and spices don’t appear moldy the way milk or bread does. So, in order to tell if they’re too old to use, you need to take a good look and whiff of the spice to determine its freshness. This guide from OurEverydayLife.com is useful for detecting whether your seasonings have expired:
- Color: A bright, crisp color is an indication that the spices are still fresh. By contrast, a dull color is a sign that the seasoning is bad. A dried herb like parsley starts out green, and may turn brown with air exposure. If you notice apparent color changes, discard the spices.
- Texture: Moisture entering the spice’s container causes clumping and will make the seasonings lose their essential oils. This happens when you constantly shake the spice bottle over a steaming pan, or store it near the stove. Clumping affects powdered spices more than loose dried herbs, so replace them if you spot this texture change.
- Smell: All seasonings have their own distinct aroma, which fades over time. Seeing if dried spices or herbs still have a powerful scent helps determine if they’ll impart a lot of flavor into your food. Simply rub a pinch of this seasoning between your fingers, and take a sniff. A weak scent is a clear sign that the spice is past its prime.
When should you throw out spices?
If you keep spices in their original bottles, you can refer to the expiration date. However, they can actually last longer when stored correctly. Here are general guidelines for the shelf life of seasonings, according to the experts at McCormick:
- Whole spices (fennel seeds and peppercorns): Three to four years
- Ground spices (cinnamon, cumin, ginger, and paprika): Two to four years
- Ground and whole leafy herbs (oregano, thyme, sage, and seasoning blends): One to three years
- Additional pantry staples (vanilla extract and salt): Indefinitely (other extracts, such as lemon or almond varieties, may fade after two to three years)
One thing you should also check for: whether or not the spice in question may contain unhealthy levels of heavy metals. In an investigation conducted by Consumer Reports, researchers examined 15 dried herbs and spices: basil, black pepper, chili powder, coriander, cumin, curry powder, garlic powder, ginger, oregano, paprika, saffron, sesame seed, thyme, turmeric and white pepper. And five of the 126 products tested had amounts of heavy metals that were of “moderate concern” or “high concern.” These products were in the basil, oregano, thyme and turmeric categories. Click through to learn more about which brands had high levels of heavy metals and which spice brands were free of heavy metals.
What should I do with old spices?
Discarding semi-filled spice bottles may feel like you’re throwing away money. Although old seasonings are too dull to cook with, you can reuse them around your home and garden. A few suggestions from Mountain Rose Herbs include using herbs and spices to make a stovetop potpourri, soap, scented candles, or even DIY fire starters. For natural pest control, adding cayenne pepper or chili powder to soil prevents bunnies and deer from nibbling away at your spring garden.
How do you store spices in a pantry?
Storing seasonings correctly ensures that they’ll stay fresh as long as possible. The best way to do this is by protecting them from direct light and humidity. So, keep dried herbs and spices in a cool, dry place such as a cabinet or drawer. Whether you keep spices in their original bottle or not, be sure to tightly close the container between uses to avoid excess air exposure.
Seasoning Spring Clean
Refreshing your spice rack or cabinet this year when you’re doing a bit of spring cleaning should be easy, thanks to these tips. Discarding dull seasonings also allows you to make room for exciting flavor add-ins, like green salt, everything bagel seasoning or Texas Roadhouse steak seasoning. Ultimately, spicing up your everyday meals is effortless when your pantry staples are up-to-date!