Dried herbs and spices are sold in bulk and lots of container sizes. Although the cost difference among the choices may be relatively small, it can add up when you start to buy various herbs and spices. Once you’ve made your purchases, you'll want to preserve their value, not to mention their taste. How long will your herbs and spices remain usable and where should you keep them? Maybe these aren't burning issues of the day, but somehow you will have to figure them out.
In the mid-1990s I helped my mom move from the house where I grew up to an apartment. Unpacking her kitchen, I discovered that most of her dried herbs and spices had been in her spice rack since I left for college in 1970. Frankly, she had probably bought some even decades before then. I was no expert on how long herbs and spices last. But I did know that most of hers had no smell at all. Theorizing that no smell meant no ability to season food, I convinced her to throw most of them out.
How long to keep herbs and spices? - I’ve used that same “smell test” ever since. If I haven’t used a dried herb or spice from my own kitchen supply in a while, before I use it in a recipe, I crush (or smoosh) a bit between my fingers and smell it. If there is no pleasing smell, I pitch the container and put the herb or spice on my shopping list. The only exceptions are hot spices such as pepper and chilies because their pungent taste cannot be tested by smelling them.
There is a scientific basis for relying on your sense of smell when deciding whether dried herbs and spices will still do the job in flavoring your food. Have you ever noticed that if you have a cold (or hold your nose), it becomes difficult to “taste” food? Although taste does matter in detecting flavor, most of what we perceive as taste is really related to how the food smells. I did research what experts say, but after checking with two food chemists, a self-taught herb and spice afficiando, and two spice companies, I’m sticking with my smell test.
The best piece of advice I found on this topic was on an incredible website encyclopedia of herb and spice information, put together by Gernot Katzer, an Austrian chemist whose hobby is exotic spices. (Robert Wolke mentions it as “the” place to find herb and spice information.) Katzer suggests buying herbs and spices in whole form (not crushed or ground) whenever possible. He recommends buying in small quantities and using a non-metallic mortar and pestle to grind just the amount you need.
It may sound like too much trouble, but that is sound advice for good cooking results. Typically bulk purchasing is also the least expensive way to buy herbs and spices. My local bulk source in Washington DC is Broad Branch Market, which sells Frontier brand.
As you might expect, the experts don’t speak with one voice. My two “go-to” food chemists, Harold McGee and Robert Wolke, had different approaches. In his book, “On Food and Cooking”, McGee says that whole spices keep well for a year and ground spices for a few months. Wolke, on the other hand, goes with my “smell test” in “What Einstein Told His Cook 2.” A bit of web research turned up a self-taught spice maven named Sandra Bowens, who has worked for a spice company, journalist and master gardener with a particular interest in herbs and spices. She says that whole spices last 3-4 years and that ground spices last 2-3 years.
Two spice companies had different shelf life guidelines. McCormick says that herbs last 1-3 years, ground spices last 2-3 years and whole spices last 3-4 years. Frontier says that whole herbs and spices last 1-3 years and that ground ones last 1-2 years. By the way, some spice companies put “best by” dates on the bottom of their containers. McCormick also has a web page that supposedly tells you if your McCormick herbs and spices are fresh if you input a code from the bottom of the container, but it did not work for me when I tried it with a mcCormick container that had a code and no "best by" date.
If you are reading this and thinking that you are glad no one can see the expiration dates on some of your dried herbs and spices, then join the club. I have a few that I bought long ago for one or two recipes and have not used in years. I should probably go through my spice drawer right now to get rid of them. But like my closets and the piles on my desk, my spice drawer remains a refuge for items that could politely be termed "past their prime." No harm done - at least as long as I don't use them as if they were brand new. Hint - before herbs and spices totally lose their potency, they may be salvageable if you increase the amount used.
Storing spices - Most people I know keep their dried herbs and spices on a shelf or in a rack, carousel, or drawer. Although the ideal storage conditions would be in opaque containers in the freezer, at least according to Harold McGee, you’ll do fine if you keep them dry and store them at room temperature away from direct light.