Tips for Storing and Using Dried Herbs and Spices
Recently fellow BlogHer editor Mata wrote to me asking if I might have some advice about how long dried herbs and spices could be stored. I love cooking with fresh herbs when it's summer, but I also use dried herbs and spices all year round. I know a little bit about herbs and spices, but I'm not really an expert, so along with giving my opinions, I thought I'd check to see what knowledge I could find from the great food blogger database out there on the interwebs.
What's the Difference Between Spices and Herbs?
Spices and herbs are not the same thing, although the same plant can sometimes product both. In general, spices are dried seeds, fruit, roots, or bark, and herbs are fresh or dried leaves or stems. You can learn more by reading Wikipedia on Spices and herbs. Many types of spices and herbs are available either ground or whole, as illustrated by the ground and whole cumin in the photo above from Lydia at The Perfect Pantry.
How Long do Dried Herbs and Spices Last?
Let's address Mata's specific question first, how long do herbs and spices last? Actually it's a hard question to give a definitive answer because it depends on so many variables. You'll find plenty of sources claiming that dried herbs and spices go bad after six months or a year, but I've definitely kept them longer than that. Food Chronicles claims that the government guideline for spices is four years for whole spices and two years for ground spices, which sounds reasonable to me. She also agrees with my opinion that the best way to tell whether dried herbs and spices are still usable is to crush some and smell them. If there's no smell or you don't recognize the smell and identify it with how that spice or herb normally smells, by all means, toss it. If you notice a musty or stale smell, I wouldn't use it. On the other hand, if your dried thyme smells like thyme but you've had it for more than a year, just use a bit more than you would if it was fresher.
Where Should Herbs and Spices be Stored?
Nearly any source you read about storing dried herbs and spices will suggest they should be kept somewhere that's cool, dark, and dry. My brother has a wonderful pull-out drawer next to his stove, which is a perfect place to store spices. However, I store most of my day-to-day spices in a spice rack above my stove. (Apparently, I am not the only food blogger who does this, as you can see when food bloggers showed us their kitchens and let us peek at their spice racks.) I do keep larger bottles of things in a drawer, and I'm sure I use my herbs and spices up more quickly than most cooks. I do think it's important to keep dried herbs and spices in glass jars or metal tins (not plastic bags) if you want them to stay potent. Some spices which are seeds (especially sesame seeds) can go rancid, and are often best stored in the freezer in an airtight bottle.
A Few Food Bloggers Give Advice on Dried Herbs and Spices:
Cookthink has a good post about How to Store Dried Herbs, and also recommends the "smell test" to see if they're still usable. The folks at Cookthink also recommend buying whole spices. Compassionate Cooks has some advice about what herbs or spices go with which foods, as well as a few storage tips. I also found advice from Jasmine at Confessions of a Cardomom Addict who writes about using spices herbs and flavorings, followed by a tip on how to experience the flavor of an unfamiliar spice.
Where do Food Bloggers buy Herbs and Spices?
In my reading, I kept noticing how foodies love sharing where they buy their spices, so I thought I'd share a couple of common recommendations. Nicole from Pinch My Salt is one of many bloggers who rave about The Spice House, which you can visit in person if you're in Chicago. Camilla from Enlightened Cooking has an imformative post about Finding Herbs and Spices for a Song. Finally, many food bloggers (including me) are enamored with Penzey's, which sells a huge assortment of spices and herbs online as well as at Penzey's stores in the U.S. Of course, everyone would agree that fresh herbs and spices are most flavorful, so of course when you're buying herbs and spices, buy the smallest bottle you can unless it's something you use very frequently.
More Resources for Learning About Herbs and Spices:
Cook's Thesaurus: Spices
Cooks Thesaurus: Herbs
Spice Advice Spice Encyclopedia
Herb and Spice Index from CNN.com
Pictures and Descriptions of Common Herbs