How Long Should I Keep Dried Spices?

Just because spices and herbs are dried, doesn't mean their flavors will last forever. John Reid [CC BY-SA 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons

You may go through your closet and get rid of clothes that don't fit anymore. You may even go through your attic and get rid of that old record player from the '80s that doesn't work anymore. But what about the spices in your kitchen?

Just because those herbs and spices might look and smell "OK" doesn't mean they'll make your meal taste any better.

The shelf life of spices vary, and you never need to worry about them going “bad” like other foods do. For example, a bottle of curry powder that's been around since you moved in probably won’t make you sick; it will just be less potent. Many folks abide by a six-month rule when it comes to discarding spices. That seems a bit short to me. I certainly can’t afford to replace all of mine twice a year.

The folks at McCormick offer "to toss or not to toss" guidelines that are more generous:

  • Ground spices (nutmeg, cinnamon, turmeric): 2 to 3 years
  • Herbs (basil, oregano, parsley): 1 to 3 years
  • Seasoning blends: 1 to 2 years
  • Whole spices (cloves, peppercorns, cinnamon sticks): 4 years
  • Seeds: 4 years (except for poppy and sesame seeds, which should be discarded after 2 years)
  • Extracts: 4 years (except for pure vanilla extract, which will last forever)
McCormick spice chart
Not sure if your spices are still strong enough for cooking? This handy chart can help you check. McCormick

What about 'best by' dates?

Pretty straightforward, but unless you keep some kind of "purchased on ..." checklist inside your cabinet, it's hard to keep track of how long each and every spice has been kicking around. Some spice companies like McCormick do include "best by" dates on the bottles but not all spice companies do this.

McCormick notes, if a certain bottle of spice originates from Baltimore, it's at least 15 years old, and if you have Schilling brand spices, they're at least seven years old. The many Fairway brand spices that I own aren't so transparent when it comes to their shelf life. In fact, I was just eying an almost-empty container of dried parsley that I'm pretty sure has been living on my spice shelf for four-plus years.

If you don't buy McCormick brand spices, there are a couple of things you can do to see if a spice is still good. For starters, simply pour out a little and observe its color. If the vibrant color has faded, then it's likely the flavor has too. Over this past summer, I encountered grayish-brown — not red — paprika at a friend's house and remember being wary. Sure enough, it tasted like "paprika light" and was definitely not worth using. In addition to the color test, you can perform a sniff test. If a spice is no longer fragrant, it's probably best to replace it. If a spice has some fragrance left but is far less potent than it used to be, just double the amount called for in a recipe.

Spice storage

Also, remember to keep spices, whether of the ground or whole variety, in a cool, dry place away from your stove with their lids securely fastened so that they keep as long as possible. And don't feel guilty if you have to toss and replace a spice. It won't do any good taking up real estate in that congested spice cabinet of yours. (But if a spice is really old, you may not want to throw the packaging away. Many folks collect antique spice bottles and tins, so you may have luck pawning it off at a local antiques store or selling it at your next garage sale.)

It may be wise to buy spices in bulk (in small or larger quantities) to save a few bucks, cut back on packaging waste, but you will have to face the "I only use cloves once a year but have a giant bottle" dilemma.

Not all grocery stores sell herbs and spices in bulk, but it's worth looking into. Depending on the household usage of a certain spice, you can buy as much or as little as needed so that little goes to waste. Is your house cumin crazy? Then by all means stock up and store the spice in a cute little reusable glass jar. Need mustard seed for a recipe but don't think you’ll use it again? Buy just a few tablespoons in bulk instead of an entire bottle that costs upwards of $5. (Spices aren't cheap!) I’ve started doing this with garlic powder. I found that I was using it frequently so I stopped by a local Middle Eastern grocery and purchased some in bulk — more than what I'd been getting in an average bottle — for a much lower price.

Good luck with the spice cabinet clean-out project. I hope that after this you'll no longer warrant the "spice hoarder" tag. And remember to consider buying in bulk in the future to save money and curb your spice-related waste stream.