Mar 28, 2018

An Age Old Question ~ 3 Key Tips on Storing Spices

How long should I keep my spices?

We get asked this a lot in the shop and always have a couple ready answers. But the longer answer is something I've thought about a lot, and especially now, as spring knocks at the door, and my body and mind beg for freshness.

As some of you readers may know, I'm expecting a baby. This little one is exactly one week late now. I thought it'd be fun to have a baby on the "official" first day of spring, which is also Persian New Year (we did birth a new spice called Mazeh for Nowruz). But no baby. Now it's nearly Passover and Easter, and there are just so many holidays celebrating re-birth, liberation, spring and the like that it seems a darn well good time to celebrate a baby, too. If only he or she would budge from my womb.

Here's the short answer for how long you should keep your spices:

- Ground spices: 6 months is best. After 1 year, replace.
- Whole spices: 1-2 years.
- Dried herbs: 6 months.

If there isn't an obvious "best by" date on the package, mark your spices as soon as you buy them with the date. It will be easier to rotate them!

I collect antique spice packaging, but not antique spices.
But what's the longer answer?

Spices can and often do get forgotten. They are dried things from far away that are tucked away in a cabinet or drawer and brought out on occasion for a recipe for mapo tofu or gingerbread cake. There are a few favorites that stay out on the countertop for constant use, but my impression is that most homes contain a whole cast of spices that are ghosts of their former selves, lurking in a sort of shadowed, passive state.

I like this section from a Jorie Graham poem "To Mark Rothko" where she's writing about an intense color of red (here expressed through a description of a cardinal). I like it both because Rothko is a painter whose work speaks to me with its intense, emotional color (I went through a phase once of trying to express scent through color) but also because spices are often literally pigments themselves and are used in painting. Graham's poem captures the feeling of an intensity of color that I believe can be translated to spice:

He could fly now
into a moment of sunlight
that fell from the sun's edge
ten thousand years ago,
mixed in with sunlight
absolutely new.

The tradition of using spices in our food is ancient—traditions stemming from ritual and medicine dating back more than ten thousand years. But the flavors should be absolutely new; they should be the best dry-form expression that the plant has to offer, mixed in with sunlight. How intense are your spices? Are they Rothko intense? Sunlight is pretty intense, and it is something we eat, in a way, in that plants translate sunlight into sugars through photosynthesis. 

Here are 3 key ways to eat sunlight (and keep your spice cupboard fresh):

1) Relocate: Figure out which are your absolute desert-island favorite spices, and move those to a convenient spot in your kitchen - such as where you keep your salt and pepper or olive oil. It may be that you have just two (besides salt and pepper) or maybe ten. Figure it out. Your food will taste better because you'll use these more often.

2) Refresh: Spring cleaning isn't just for rugs and floors: go into your spice cupboard at least once a year and pull out the stale spices. How do you know they're stale?
- Open the jar and smell it. Does it spark inspiration? (a la Marie Kondo's 'spark joy') I know it's vague, but the smell of your spices should excite you. If not, they're not going to add anything to your food.
- Feel it. Is it very dry, almost sandy? Or rock hard? The aromatic oils are gone, and there is no life left in this spice. Say so long.
- Does the packaging look pretty outdated? Yes, you know you have a few of these. There are also expiration dates to check.
- Has the color vanished? Especially for herbs and dried chilies - if it's gone more brown or gray, there isn't much left of this spice. Compost away.

Dried Maras chile pepper: 2+ years old (on left) versus fresh.

Ground cardamom (vaguely fragrant, looks like floor sweepings) vs. vibrant whole pods. 

3) Replace: Notice if most of your spices are ground. If yes, consider replacing all of the pure ground spices with whole versions. Exceptions are ginger and cinnamon, although grating your own cinnamon is definitely worth it! (See below for a note on turmeric). Also good to keep fresh ginger root around.

Here are whole spices that you should always keep on hand in lieu of ground:

- Nutmeg. Pre-ground nutmeg is only good for 1-2 months due to very volatile oil content. Just get used to grating it - you'll love it!
- Cardamom. Pods or seeds.
- Fennel seeds.
- Coriander seeds.
- Cumin seeds (unless you happen to buy our freshly toasted & ground!)
- Cloves.
- Star Anise.
- Peppercorns (all types).

Grate your own nutmeg. 
Grind your whole spices quickly and easily in a mortar and pestle or in an electric coffee grinder. The flavor will be astoundingly different.

What about turmeric?

While turmeric can be found fresh in the grocery store these days, it's not entirely practical to buy it this way. If you are excited about discovering turmeric and its health-promoting properties, it's worth it to seek out a freshly ground turmeric. We have one from Sri Lanka that we grind in house that's phenomenal. We also just started offering local ground turmeric from a farm in Amherst, MA. How cool is that?!

What about blends?

Since I am a spice blender, of course I must advocate for the use of blends, which may seem contrary to my whole argument about fresh spices. But if you are using freshly-made blends (from small purveyors!) you are doing great. Blends from big-chain grocery stores, or that come in giant bottles ("but it was SO CHEAP!") or that are basically commodity spices, aren't worth using. I can assure you that they've been sitting in their 'ground state' for at least one year if not three, so you are already buying expired, stale spices.

Good blends (made by small purveyors, freshly ground) offer the chance to elevate a dish more easily than you might be able to with just pure spices. They are to be used liberally and often, not just for the pie you make once a year. Blends are rooted in cultural traditions, a sense of place, a culinary concept - they are there to make your job easier in the kitchen, to stretch your imagination and to make you feel like a pro.

Concerns over money and spices:

One thing that I think demotivates us from getting rid of spices is that they cost us money, and the possibility that they *might* still be good so "maybe I'll save money by keeping them around." But think of your spices like a bunch of fresh roses - you spent $12 on that bunch of roses, and enjoyed their scent and beauty in a vase on your table. Then they began to droop, lose some petals, turn brown, dry out. Does this bouquet still bring you joy? Not the way the fresh ones did. You throw them out, but you don't think about the fact that you wasted $12. They served their purpose and you are glad for that.

Of course fresh flowers are shorter-lived than spices, but I think it's a good analogy. And besides, a jar of spice is usually half the price of a bunch of flowers.

Spices that are a bit more expensive - like saffron and vanilla - are still not that expensive relative to other foods or household items. A jar of saffron might cost you $10 but shouldn't then cause you anxiety about using too much. Again, think of a bunch of flowers that costs at least that much. Spices are valuable but not precious - enjoy the value they bring to your meals by adding incredible scent, color and flavor.
Bay leaves. Six months old on left. Fresh on right.

Happy spring spicing! May you fly now / into a moment of sunlight —