Plus, expert advice for improving the longevity of your spices.
Credit: Photo: Greg DuPree

Confession time: I was poking around my pantry a few weeks ago and came across spices in the far back corner that haven’t been used in, well, years. According to the labels, some of them technically expired in 2017, and it got me wondering if they are actually inedible, or if I could—and should—still use them.

I’m clearly no spice savant myself, so I asked someone with the proper cred—Lior Lev Sercarz, chef and owner of La Boîte spice emporium in New York City—for his take. The good news? “Spices don’t expire in a way that makes people sick,” Lev Sercarz tells me. Rather, expiration dates are more like “best by” dates, indicating the period during which a spice will be at its highest quality. Yet not all spice bottles come with these dates, and even if they do, they aren’t always the most reliable measure of a spice’s quality. So that brings me back to my original question: should I save or toss my old spices?

Here, expert advice for making the call.

Give It a Good Whiff and Taste

The best criteria for determining whether a spice is still is usable is simple, says Lev Sercarz. “It needs to smell and taste like something,” he explains. Regardless of the date on the bottle, “if it doesn’t do both, you shouldn’t hold onto it.”

That’s because as spices age, they lose their potency and flavor. A past-due bottle of oregano will smell a whole lot like..nothing.

Consider the Type of Spice

Dried herbs, like rosemary, parsley and basil, and powdered spices, like ground cinnamon, nutmeg and turmeric, fade in flavor typically within several months up to a year after purchase, says Lev Sercarz. With dried herbs, you can eke out more flavor by simply rubbing them between your palms, says Angela Onsgard, R.D. and resident nutritionist at Miraval Arizona. The friction will release their natural oils.

Whole spices, like a stick of cinnamon, are the longest lasting variety of spices. They will retain their flavor and scent for up to 2 to 3 years, says Lev Sercarz.

Because most brands don’t put expiration or best-by dates on their bottles, Lev Sercarz recommends writing on your own based on the above guidelines.“The idea is not to throw them away the day of or the day after,” he says. “It’s just to have a point of reference and help you use them more often over the next few weeks or months.” 

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Evaluate Your Reason for Spicing

If you’re like most home cooks and are using your spices primarily for flavor, follow the above guidelines for approximately how long they’ll last. If you’re spicing primarily for medicinal benefits—say, using cinnamon for blood sugar regulation, or turmeric for its anti-inflammatory properties—aim to use your spices within six months of purchasing, advises Onsgard.

“This is my rule of thumb,” says Onsgard. Why? The antioxidant content typically begins to dwindle after the half-year mark, making the spice less effective from a medicinal standpoint, she explains.

Check the Color

In general, it’s difficult to determine the quality of a spice by simply looking at it, says Lev Sercarz, because as they age, “spices don’t change dramatically [in appearance].” The one exception: red pepper flakes, which can fade in coloring and flavor if exposed to excessive direct sunlight. If your once-vibrant red flakes are more of a dull yellow, it’s probably best to toss ‘em.

How to Increase the Longevity of Your Spices

In the same way that you (hopefully) attend to your fridge, so too should you care for your spice storage space. “It’s not like a dark hole where you throw things,” says Lev Sercarz. Instead, keep them organized and in a convenient location. If your kitchen space allows, store spices in a visible area, like on an open shelf or in a rack on the counter. “Don’t put them put them in drawers and cabinets,” says Lev Sercarz. “If you see them, you will use them.”

If you do need to stow them in a drawer, arrange them in a way that you will see all of them at once, Lev Sercarz advises, and don’t stash them in a drawer right alongside your stove. “That’s the worst idea because your stove could heat them,” says Lev Sercarz.

Another no-no: sticking spices in your fridge or freezer. “Both are humid environments, which means you could get freezer burn or water on spices,” says Lev Sercarz. With the fridge in particular, the spices could absorb surrounding odors (“you could end up with smoked salmon-scented cinnamon,” warns Lev Sercarz)—or the other way around.

Keep spices in a clear container—either glass or plastic—to help you keep tabs on how much spice you have left. The lid should be airtight to prevent spices from drying out.

As for temperature, spices thrive best in the Goldilocks zone, i.e. not too hot and not too cold. “Keep them in a temperature that you would be comfortable in,” says Lev Sercarz. You don’t need to keep them in a dark cellar, though if you have large windows in your kitchen that receive lots of direct sunlight, keep your spices out of the way. Repeated exposure to bright rays could heat them up and fade their flavoring.

Lastly, to avoid spoiled spices, don’t purchase large quantities, says Lev Sercarz. While buying bulk makes sense for certain kitchen staples, when it comes to spices, there’s “nothing good about it.”