When do spices go bad?

Breaking Bad: Spice edition

The question: When do spices go bad?

The short answer: You should replace your spices after five years.

The long answer: Hi there. I’ve been doing some readings at bookstores and libraries for my book. And while my talk centers around pepper and cinnamon, the Q&A afterwards gets into a range of topics. One question is always asked, though: Do spice go bad? When? How often should I replace my spices?

Spices don’t go bad. They lose their potency—both flavor and color—the longer they sit around. After five years they’re going to be pale imitations of their youth. They might still smell good, and you can use double (or more!) of the amount called for to get to the same amount of flavor you would from fresher spices. 

But I think people forget just how pungent freshly ground spices are. You can smell your years-old cinnamon and think, yeah, smells like cinnamon, it’s fine. But go to a spice store and smell some fresh stuff, and the difference is huge. It’ll be so much stronger. 

With those basics out of the way, let’s talk about storage.

Spices are photosensitive—sunlight will break them down. Exposure to heat will seep away flavor. Moisture is another factor to avoid. It can cause clumping (not a big deal) and mold (obviously bad). Spices don’t have moisture on their own—they’re dried out—but if they absorb moisture from another source, they run the risk of festering. (I’ve never actually had spices that mold, but it could happen.)

To avoid these reactions, spices should be stored in a dry, cool place out of sunlight. That means storing them away from windows and spots in the kitchen sunlight hits through the course of the day if your spices are in an open-fronted rack, or storing them in cabinets with doors or drawers. 

But you also want to keep them away from heat. Heat will leech the volatile oils—the part of the spice bringing its flavor. A lot of kitchens are built with little cabinets above the stove. Don’t store your spices there!

Another spot to look out for is near a dish washer, if you have one and use it. Those things expel a lot of moisture, and you don’t want your spices absorbing moisture. Spices typically come in airtight containers that do a good job of keeping moisture out. In my experience, it’s seasonings with a lot of salt or with dried shallots in them that tend to clump, which just means a little moisture is getting in there and the spices susceptible to absorption—like salt and dried shallots—are growing and sticking to each other, causing clumping. You can pound or firmly tap the jar, or use a spoon to loosen it. Clumping freaks some people out, but it’s really not a big deal.

Some people are so fastidious that they won’t shake a jar of spices above cooking food, lest the moisture in the steam wafting from a pot or pan enter the spices. I definitely don’t take it that far, and I don’t think you need to, either. 

Basically, you don’t want to leave spices open to the elements. 

I recognize that it’s often impossible to meet these requirements. I’ve lived in three apartments in the last five years, and none of them have had an ideal storage spot. I need to be able to see my spices at a glance—I really hate putting them in a cabinet where they’re three, four, five jars deep. I need racks on the walls. I have them in my current apartment, but they’re kind of too close to the window. C’est la vie.

Let’s turn to containers. As long as they’re airtight, they’re doing their job. Colored glass will help protect against sunlight. I personally use clear glass jars. That’s what I grew up with, and it just seems right. I can see the spices in there. When I run low I buy refill spices in plastic bags, but there’s no great way to store those, and plastic just seems… bad? Glass jars can also be easily cleaned and reused. 

Fun fact about plastic jars—at least the ones from Penzeys and The Spice House—I have dropped… yikes, probably hundreds of those glass jars? I was a child working at these spice stores, and I’m a clumsy adult. Anyway, I’ve dropped a LOT of the glass jars with spices in them. And it is ALWAYS the lids that break, NEVER the glass. In normal tumbles, that is: The only time I remember breaking the glass was when I was working at the Penzeys warehouse in high school and I attempted to pull a whole box of bottles of lemon extract—so 24 little glass bottles in the box—down from a shelf above my head. The whole thing plunged down from on high, gaining enough momentum on its long fall down that the bottles shattered on the concrete floor. It smelled great. 

But that was an anomaly. Just last month I dropped a bottle of vanilla extract on my floor at home. I was putting together a little package of spices for a friend’s birthday, and I couldn’t find a bag for them. What I could find was one of those cardboard containers that carries four bottles of beer, so I packed the jars of spices and bottle of vanilla in there. I picked it up by the handle and… the vanilla fell right though the bottom of the cardboard. Did the glass break? No! Only the lid was chipped, but it still did its job and no vanilla leaked out. I gave my friend the bottle of vanilla with a chipped lid, and she didn’t mind.

Pivoting now to a follow-up question that comes up when discussing how long spices last: Should you store them in your fridge or freezer? The answer is, in general, no. Unless the rest of your kitchen is a dank, sun-drenched inferno, your refrigerator is no better a place to store your spices than a dark, cool cupboard. If you’re really concerned with keeping the bright colors in your red spices (paprika, cayenne) and in your herbs that are more prone to color loss, you *can* stick them in the refrigerator to protect them from light. However, you risk creating a situation where the spices warm up, then cool down, then warm up again, causing condensation, which equals moisture, which equals clumping and possibly mold. So that’s bad. 

One last thing: Whole spices will fare better and last longer than their ground counterparts. Peppercorns, whole nutmegs, cinnamon sticks, and seeds—especially seeds that come packaged in pods, like cardamom—can still be pretty darn pungent after years tucked away. They’re in their natural containers. 

To recap:

What hurts your spices:

-heat

-sunlight

-moisture

-being left out in open air 

You want to:

-keep your spices in an airtight jar

-keep your spices out of direct sunlight (if this is a real issue, using dark-colored glass bottles can help ameliorate sunlight’s damage)

-keep your spices away from heat

-keep your spices away from moisture

Even taking all these precautions, your spices will have faded significantly after five years. Go ahead and replace them.

That about covers it. If you have a question on the topic, drop me a line and I’ll try to answer it: onspicebook@gmail.com.

Cheers,

Caity