The shelf life of spices vary, and you never really need to worry about them going “bad” like other foods do. Dried herbs and spices don’t spoil… 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. for, they do loose their strength over time.
The key to preserving their potency is to store them in an airtight container in a cool dark place. Don’t keep them by your stove, the heat & steam will degrade them.
Many people abide by a “six-month rule” when it comes to discarding most spices. Seems a bit short to me. I certainly can’t afford to replace all of mine twice a year.
The folks at McCormick offer these “to toss or not to toss” guidelines:
• Ground spices (nutmeg, cinnamon, turmeric): 2 to 3 years
• Herbs (basil, oregano, parsley): 1 to 3 years
• Seasoning blends: 1 to 2 years
• Whole spices (cloves, peppercorns, cinnamon sticks): 3-4 years
• Seeds: 4 years (except for poppy and sesame seeds, which should be discarded after 2 years)
• Extracts: 4 years (except for vanilla, which will last forever)
Pretty straightforward, eh?
Sure, but unless you keep some kind of “purchased on…” checklist inside of your cabinet it’s probably hard to keep track of how long each and every spice has been kicking around. Some spice companies like McCormick do include “best by” dates on the bottles while others don’t.
If you don’t buy McCormick brand spices, there are a couple of things you can do to see if a spice is still good.
For starters, simply pour out a little and observe its color. If the vibrant color has faded, then usually so has the flavor. Over this past summer, I encountered grayish-brown, not red, paprika at a friend’s house and remember being wary. Sure enough, it tasted like “paprika light” and was definitely not worth using.
In addition to the color test, you can perform a sniff test as well. If a spice is no longer fragrant, it’s probably best to replace it. 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.
Also, remember to keep spices, whether of the ground or whole variety, in a cool, dry place away from your stove with their lids securely fastened so that they keep as long as possible. And don’t feel guilty if you have to toss and replace a spice. It won’t do any good taking up real estate in that congested spice cabinet of yours!