There are a lot of fake kitchens out there. While designing our own kitchen, I came across many soul-less rooms featured in House Beautiful-type magazines. One look at the photos and I’d think, “Are you kidding? Knead bread on the counter? Keep a compost bucket by the sink?” In the process though, I realized there are two major hurdles for every kitchen: Where to install the sink and how to store herbs and spices. Allow me to share a few discoveries with you…
Deciding where to put the sink (the busiest zone in the kitchen) was easy. We live on the ocean in Kodiak, Alaska, so duh, I gave it and myself, the best view in the house. As for storing spices and herbs, the solution wasn’t so immediate. Spice containers come in a ridiculous number of shapes and sizes. And though I loved to cook, I didn’t want to waste time wading through dark cabinets to find that tin of Colman’s mustard. The solution: A large, shallow drawer where jars are laid on their side, labels facing up.
Years have passed since that “drawer revelation” but when I fetched a jar of nutmeg from the drawer the other day, I stared at the label and wondered, “How old is this nutmeg?” Maybe you have a bottle or two of ancient herbs hanging around. Is it still fresh? Should you bother hanging on to it? Hopefully this post will inspire you straighten out your own spice cabinet and at the same time, provide insights about those seasonings that lift every recipe from bland to grand.
Q: What’s the difference between spices and herbs?
A: Spices are aromatic seasonings that come from the roots, seeds, bark, buds, or fruit of certain plants. Herbs are the flavorful leafy parts of certain plants.
Q: Do spices spoil?
A: Seasonings don’t spoil per se. After all, most herbs and spices are irradiated to control insects, mold, and other organisms that cause decreased shelf life. As a rule, unopened spices last up to three years and whole spices last twice as long as ground spices.
The shelf life of spices varies, and remember, you never really need to worry about them going “bad” like other foods do. For example, a bottle of curry powder that’s been around a questionable amount of time probably won’t make you sick; it will just be less potent so you’ll need to use more. Many folks abide by a one-year rule when it comes to discarding most spices. Seems short to me. Spices aren’t cheap and I certainly don’t want to replace all of mine each year. Here are a few “to toss or not to toss” guidelines:
- Ground spices (nutmeg, cinnamon, turmeric): 2 to 3 years
- Herbs (basil, oregano, parsley): 1 to 3 years
- Whole spices (cloves, peppercorns, cinnamon sticks): 4 years
- Extracts: 4 to 6 years (except for vanilla, which lasts forever)
Sound pretty straightforward? Sure, but unless you keep a “purchased on” or “harvested on” checklist or pay attention to “best by” date stamp, it’s a pain to keep track of how long each and every spice has been kicking around.
Q: How do you know if spices have lost their punch?
A: Begin with your senses: Spices should have a strong fragrance, taste potent, and have a rich, natural color. A lack of any of these things means that the spice or dried herb is past its prime and not worth keeping. 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. Otherwise, toss it, compost it, or use it in a soup, stew or other not-so-critical recipe.
And don’t feel guilty if you have to toss and replace a spice. It won’t do any good taking up valuable real estate in your kitchen. By the way, if a spice is rather ancient, you may not want to throw the packaging away. Many folks collect antique spice bottles and tins.
Q: What is the best way to store cooking spices and herbs?
A: You want to keep seasonings within arm’s length of your food prep area, but far from any source of intense heat. In other words, avoid decorating the back of your stovetop or windowsill with a row of bottled spices. It’s a double-edged sword: Heat accelerates flavor loss. And the steam from cooking can cause ground spices, blends, and dehydrated vegetable powders to cake into a sold brick.
Strong, direct light is no friend to dried spices either, so if you purchase seasonings in bulk, store the overflow in dark containers, preferably in a cool spot. And while it might be a no-brainer, keep your cooking spices tightly capped and use dry measuring spoons. Sounds silly, but try to avoid dipping even a slightly wet spoon into the container.
My parents encouraged me to learn how to cook, starting with salads and advancing to chocolate soufflés. Mom was a casual cook, but Dad was a nut for orderliness. I used to tease him about arranging his army of Spice Islands jars alphabetically, a method you might find useful if you have a lot of people (kids, grandkids, Girl Scouts) who cook in your kitchen. But if that’s not your style, then grouping seasonings by cuisine might feel better.
Today, for health reasons, my husband and I are following a plant-based diet (no meat, dairy, or processed oils). And most meals I prepare from scratch. Sure it’s time consuming but it’s worth every second. How does my spice drawer look today? Baking spices are corralled together in one area, with savory Indian spices in another. The largest group (all-purpose seasonings like garlic powder, oregano, cayenne pepper, thyme and so on) fills out the middle section. It’s time saving and worth every second.
My note to you: As we enter the high baking season, may your gingerbread men contain an extra pinch of cinnamon and may your holiday be filled with “sugar and spice and everything nice.”
Thanks for visiting.