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The common wisdom I've heard is that dried herbs and spices:

  • have a shelf-life of about a year or 2
  • keep best in a cool dark place
  • will release more flavor when crushed

That's fine but some spices are expensive. We have over different 50 jars on our spice rack and can't afford to replace them annually. Also, it's hard to believe that all herbs and spices are created equal.

What are some more specific guidelines regarding the shelf-life of herbs and spices? Which last longer? Which last less long? How much is shelf-life really affected by light or lack thereof? Do any actually become health hazards if left too long?

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9  
They start losing flavor immediately, and never lose all of it. So at any point of time, part of the flavor is lost - very small in the beginning, almost completely gone after years. The answer would need a definition of what you consider to be "lost" flavor and also knowledge of the conditions in your kitchen (heat and humidity increase the speed of flavor destruction). –  rumtscho Jan 2 '12 at 12:56
    
@rumtscho Thanks, see the edit. :) –  TheIndependentAquarius Jan 2 '12 at 13:15
    
@rumtscho How to decrease the speed of destruction of the flavor needs to be a different question? –  TheIndependentAquarius Jan 2 '12 at 13:16
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Interesting question, but I'd think it would depend on the actual spice, the courseness of the grind, environmental factors and so on. Ground coffee beans lose much of their aroma in just an hour, for example, but I'd think coffee beans is an edge case. –  Max Jan 2 '12 at 14:30
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@AnishaKaul: Perceived taste is actually mostly aroma. So you very much are concerned about the smell. Sour, bitter, sweet, salty, umami, heat (piquance), maybe a few more are taste, everything else is actually smell. See e.g., Wikipedia's article on taste –  derobert Jan 3 '12 at 20:47

5 Answers 5

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Dried herbs really do only last around six months, certainly no longer than a year. They're generally easy to get in small quantities, though.

Spices are trickier. They'll generally last rather longer, but the time will vary. If the spice is used for the colour and/or heat (e.g. turmeric, chilli) it will generally last much, much longer than one used for its smell and/or taste. Whole spices last much, much longer than pre-ground; I generally buy whole spices from asian stores, they sell them in much larger amounts for the same prices as supermarkets; and use a coffee mill to grind the right amount just before cooking (and keep a separate one for coffee!).

If kept in the dark, in a dry, clean, airtight glass container, spices and dried herbs will certainly not become health hazards, and should not pick up unpleasant tastes or odours. The strong-tasting / strong-smelling ones will, however, lose taste and smell, eventually almost completely; since that is the whole point of using them, you might as well not bother once they're off.

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What is the danger of leaving spices in airtight glass containers in the light? Just speeds loss of flavor and smell? –  Daniel Bingham Nov 30 '10 at 20:06

Be aware that even if the aroma and flavor of a dried spice is retained after being ground, there are many ground/powdered spices (and many fresh undried spice/herbs) that lose all their flavor when cooked/heated.

One of the worst dried ground spices for losing all flavor when cooked is dried powdered fennel seed. Even when it's recently ground/powdered, it will lose all of its flavor when heated. In the case of fennel, if you don't want to use whole fennel seed, then only slightly crush the seed. Do not grind it into a powder if you are going to cook with it.

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Writing with CapsLock on is not very readable and quite impolite. –  Jacek Konieczny Mar 23 '12 at 9:44
    
thanks for the info of Fennel seed. –  TheIndependentAquarius Dec 5 '12 at 7:13

The answer is different for each spice and grind. Most sources I have seen suggest that 6 months is the long case for 'fresh spices', but all suggest grinding in small quantities so that you will not need for them to last that long.

Following is some information from "Spice Mogul", some basic "Do's and Don'ts"

Do

* Buy spices whole, versus ground, whenever possible.
* Buy in quantities that you will likely use up in 6 months time.
* Mark the date you buy your spices and dried herbs. If there are no dates on the package, take a marker and date each container when opened.
* Grind spices just before using. Grinding releases the volatile compounds that give a spice its flavor and aroma. The longer the spice sits around (either whole or ground), the more the compounds disappear and the flavors lessen.

Don’t

* Store spices and herbs on the counter or close to the stove. Remember that just like with oils, heat, light, and moisture are enemies of a spices flavor and shelf life. Cool, dry and dark should be your watch words.
* Forget to check for freshness.
* Use pre-ground spices if you can avoid it. If you must, test for flavor by rolling a small amount between your fingers and taking a whiff. If it releases a distinct aroma, you’re ok. If you have to strain to smell it, pitch it and buy fresh. There is no sense in ruining a dish full of other ingredients because your spices are not up to their full strength.

Spice Mogul also has a good collection of specific advice that you may wish to review.

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And of course (setting aside any actual food safety concerns), you should just trust your nose and palate. If you rub them and smell them and don't get a bright, strong aroma, or taste them and you get flavorless powder, they are dead. If the converse, enjoy!

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I'm having trouble rubbing, smelling, and tasting my nose and palete. Do you have any tips? :) –  Dinah Aug 31 '10 at 21:07

McCormick also has a cool flash application that helps you determine how old your McCormick spices are:

http://www.mccormick.com/Spices101/HowOldSpices.aspx

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