It varies, but most ground spices have a shelf life of about three years, though freshness is more fleeting. As time goes on, flavor and potency really diminish. (Let's not forget about the problem with bugs, too.) Breaking the seal to scoop a measly 1/4 teaspoon of ground cardamom required to make a single batch of delicious buckwheat waffles hardly seems worth it, particularly considering that a typical jar contains packs a full 50 teaspoons of spice. You'd have to make thousands of waffles to finish a whole jar before the spice loses its potency. As much as I love a little cardamom here and there, that's impossible.
Fortunately, there are some tips and tricks you can implement to help make your spices last as long as possible, including a genius money-saving, waste-free solution. Read on to learn what they are, plus a cheat sheet of expiration dates for common spices and how to check if a spice has expired.
When do common spices expire?
1. Garlic powder: 3-4 years
Garlic powder, which makes pretty much everything taste more delicious, has anti-inflammatory properties that may help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, says Brittany Modell, MS, RD, CBD, a registered dietician nutritionist and intuitive eating counselor.
2. Black pepper: 3-4 years
Black pepper also has a long shelf life, making it a great spice to always have on hand. “Black pepper contains a key compound called alkaloid piperine, which has possible anti-inflammatory properties,” Modell says. “Piperine has also been shown to help with the absorption of nutrients, such as beta-carotene and iron.”
3. Oregano: 2-3 years
Want to add some flavor to a dish? Reach for oregano which Modell notes is rich in antioxidants shown to neutralize free radicals. The spice is also believed to have antimicrobial properties, she adds.
4. Cinnamon: 3-4 years
No spice rack is complete without cinnamon. Not only does it taste great sprinkled over a latte, Modell notes that the spice may also help lower blood glucose levels, and it’s good for your brain too.
5. Paprika: 3-4 years
Paprika is another pantry mainstay that thankfully can last for years. Keep it stashed to add to savory dishes and enjoy the benefits too, which Modell says includes helping with digestion and lowering inflammation in the body.
How to know if a spice is still good and safe to eat
So you have a spice tucked away in the back of your pantry that hasn’t seen the light of day in a long time, how do you know if it’s still good to eat? According to Modell, before you start adding it generously to your dish, the trick is to smell and taste it to ensure it still has the desired flavor. To do this, try the palm test. (Smash a little into your hand and cup your hand over your nose; the spice should be very fragrant.)
However, if you do end up unknowingly consuming expired spices, there’s no need to be alarmed. Modell says unless there is visible mold growing on it, which would be difficult to miss, chances are the spice is safe to eat, though you may have lost some of the health benefits and flavor.
How to keep spices fresh as long as possible
1. Buy smaller quantities
While buying your spices in bulk at your local Costco may feel like a genius idea, Modell advises buying your spices in smaller quantities. The rule of thumb: buy only as much as you can realistically use up within a year, she says. Or, find a health food store that sells in bulk, where you can buy the tiniest amount for those recipes that call for just a 1/4 teaspoon of freshly-ground spice.
2. Keep spices cool
Heat is like kryptonite to spices. For that reason, Modell recommends storing them somewhere cool and away from heat, direct sunlight, and humidity which can make your spices susceptible to mold. (I like to place the jars on their sides in a drawer so I can read the label.)
3. Store in airtight containers
To ensure long-lasting freshness of spices you already have in the cupboard, make sure you seal the container tightly after each use. And, if the spice doesn’t come stored in an airtight container, transfer it into one that is to preserve freshness.
4. Opt for whole spices
Since ground spices go bad much more quickly, opt for whole spices. (A good electric grinder—or a mortar and pestle—is a great investment.)
5. Use pre-measured spices
A women-led company called Occo created a collection of 12 spices, including a handful of favorites, like curry and fennel, that you might use only every so often. The spices come sealed in recyclable aluminum cards, each with 12 peel-to-open pre-measured servings of 1/4 teaspoon.
"We seal our spices using modified atmosphere technology,” reads a recent Instagram caption. "[Utilizing] a process in which a thin layer of food-safe Argon gas is pied in above each chamber of spice before it's sealed." The result? Molecularly fresher spices, the company says. Occo sources its spices from around the globe, using only organically grown products harvested within the past year.
All that said, although spices do expire, they have a relatively long shelf life. Still, if you’re a little iffy about a spice that’s been hanging out in your pantry for long, Modell advises investing in new spices for both flavor and health benefits.
However, you don’t have to toss the old ones. Instead, repurpose your spices by making potpourri. “Simply boil a pot of water and add any spice you want, such as cloves, cinnamon or cardamom,” Modell says.
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