In WITF's Kitchen with Chef Donna Desfor

Food Wednesdays. Spring Cleaning (of the spice drawer, that is!)

Written by Donna Marie Desfor, Culinary Consultant and Chef | May 8, 2012 11:48 PM

It’s no secret I am a huge proponent of seasoning:  salts, peppers, spices, herbs, spice blends and on, and on.  I often fear that when people see my spice “drawer,” which is actually more of a spice “pantry,” they think I’m a hoarder!  The entire cabinet is chock full of spice:  spice bottles, spice blends, whole spice, ground spice, salts and peppercorns, dried herbs and of course oils, extracts, and other flavorful ingredients.  And while that naturally begs the question “do you really use all of that?” (and the answer is yes!), it always commands the second question, “how long does all of that last?”  The simple answer to that question is “as long as the spice has aroma and flavor.”  The not-so-simple reality is that no one has ever taken the time to explain – with a bit of detail – what that actually means!  Until now…

I suppose upfront I should say I have a bit of expertise in this area.  While I am indeed a proponent and user of a seemingly endless variety of seasonings, I also happen to have a client called The Spice and Tea Exchange, which for the past 2 years or so has been an endless resource for information, education, and ideas.  But even the spice people have a hard time setting pen to paper and giving some real clear guidelines as to when spices need to be switched out.  If you go in search of some hard and fast rules, you’ll discover there are some standard answers that go something like “3 to 6 months for dried herbs” and then “up to 2 years for spices.” 

Of course there are spices or seasoning ingredients that have a “best by” date or “freshness code” on the bottom of the container, but beware.  Those dates and codes can be deceiving.  The “best by” date doesn’t tell you when the spice was originally harvested, and while it the bottle may say that it is “best by” a year or two from now, if the spice was originally harvested 1 to 2 years prior, the spice may certainly already be well past its prime.

Freshness codes are another anomaly.  If you take the time to inventory your codes and then submit them to the manufacturer, you’ll find in some instances that the contents are already 15 years old!  To test this fact, I went into my own pantry in search of a freshness code and found one on the bottom of my Cream of Tartar that I purchased in December of last year (2011).  When I entered the code into the manufacturer’s site, I discover it was “made” on February 8, 1999, and the manufacturer recommended that that I buy a new one!

So why is there so much disparity in guidelines?  It’s because the quality of the spice is what drives its longevity, more so than it is freshness.  Hmmmm.  That doesn’t help much does it?

For the numbers people who just want to know when to throw out a spice and replace it, try this:
Hard, whole spices
– sticks, seeds, pods, etc.:  1 year

Ground spices: 6 months

Dried herbs: 6 months

Seasoning blends:  with salt – up to 1 year; without salt: 6 months

Cheese and Seasoning Powders: 6 months

Smoke Powders up to 1 year

Salts: As long as it takes to use them

Olive Oil: 3 months

Shocking, I know.  The numbers here are dramatically lower than what most “big brand” spice purveyors or even some of the “experts” will tell you.  And while they’re not really wrong, when it comes to spices and herbs there are a lot of variables.  Here’s why this list, which is the same list that I compiled for The Spice and Tea Exchange, is the smarter way to rotate your spices.

First and foremost, spice quality varies.  When a purveyor purchases it’s spices, generally they are bought in “whole” form.  Some purveyors buy from the best growers in the best growing regions in the world, and other more pedestrian brands buy them from where ever they can get the largest quantity and best price – whether it’s the best available or not, they are beholden to their market and so they buy what they need from where it is available.  This is why price can vary so much for the same spice.  The key is that when a purveyor buys, they buy a lot. 

When the spice arrives to the United States, clears customs and arrives to a warehouse for distribution or packaging, your spice is already aging.  Just like wine, this is perfectly acceptable, but precisely why the “within 1 to 2 years after purchasing” (for whole spices) is the best guideline to use.  The ongoing aging process, no matter how much or how little, zaps the natural oils from the spice, and it’s the natural oils that give a spice its flavor and aroma.

When whole spices are ground more of the precious aromatic oils are exposed to air, which in turn diminishes their potency even faster.  Dried herbs work similarly, but perhaps even more delicately.  What gives an herb its aromatic quality is the natural oils contained in the leaves.  The process of drying – even freeze drying – diminishes that total amount of oil available to give a dried herb the aromatic quality.  This is why you’ll hear people say, “rub a dried herb between your fingers before adding it to your pot.”  That’s so you can further crush the dried piece exposing and releasing more of the oils that remain locked in the leaf.

When you add salt to spices and dried herbs things change up a bit.  Salt, a natural preservative, not only helps the spices – ground or whole, and dried herbs – retain more of their natural potency, but they tend to last longer because they’re blended with a natural preservative!

Finally, oils, by their very nature are susceptible to heat, light, and air.  Smell an older bottle of olive oil next to a newer one and the difference is remarkable.

Despite all these guidelines, the biggest variable that affects the potency of a seasoning is where it is stored, which in most cases is in or near a kitchen.  One of the most active areas in our homes, a kitchen’s ambient temperature and lighting are constantly changing.  Even if you manage to store you spices in an “airtight container” in a “cool, dry place” that place is heating and cooling daily, even if only by a few degrees.  The truth remains that no matter how far away from ovens, stove tops or other appliances (and appliance motors) your spices are, they’re still being affected by heat, light, humidity and vibration, and that ultimately effects their taste and flavor.

And therein lies the point to all of this.  We use spices and seasonings, and even aromatic oils, for one reason, they add flavor.  When flavor is diminished, the push that the seasoning gives to the foods it is added to is diminished.  And, while you generally don’t have to worry about spices or herbs going bad in the sense of becoming rancid or inedible, it’s pointless to add something to your food that doesn’t enhance its overall flavor.

If for no other reason, buying higher quality spices in smaller quantities makes all the sense in the world.  At the end of a season, if you have any left over, it’s a small enough quantity that if you choose to toss it you don’t feel guilty about it. Me? I usually grind my remainders down and blend them into a cake or a loaf, like the Olive Oil Loaf/Cake recipe below.

So, for me and my excessively large spice pantry I stick to a “twice a year rule.”  Now that spring is upon us and this good spell of rain has set in, I make myself a comforting cup of delicious tea, and sort through my spices (same thing goes just before Halloween).  This particular time of year I focus on cleaning out the hard spices – my go-to winter spices, the sticks, seeds, pods, etc., the ones that got me through the holidays, the baking, the stews and soups, braises and roasting.  They all get inventoried.  I smell them or crush one or two seeds to see what I think (or more precisely, smell).  If they’ve got some power I keep them.  If they’re not as potent as I remember, they either get used up or tossed out.  And because I generally buy in small quantities so my spices come in little pouches, if I toss the spice I flatten and keep the small pouches clipped together and place them on the rack so I have an easy reminder of what I’ll need to re-order once the Fall settles in!

When I’m done with the inventory, I go one step further and check to see what I’ve got on hand for my spring and summer cooking.  I make my list of what I need, which is easy with the empty pouches on hand, and then consider what new spice or seasoning I want to experiment with.  (This spring it’s cardamom and chamomile flowers.)  Once I’ve done my shopping, I toss the empty pouches and declare the season open!


Recipe: Olive Oil and Spiced Cake
Makes 2 loaves or one 9 x 9-inch cake

This cake is dense and flavorful. The olive oil is a great vehicle to infuse a lot of flavor from a small quantity of spices.  Don’t hesitate to trade out spices or citrus zest for whatever you have on hand.  This recipe is very adaptable!

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1 ½ teaspoons finely ground juniper berries
½ teaspoon finely ground green whole peppercorns (substitute black)
1 ¼ cup sugar
4 cold eggs
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2/3 cup milk
1 tablespoon grapefruit zest (from about half a ruby-red grapefruit)
3 tablespoons Amontillado sherry


Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 350° F.  Spray two medium to large loaf pans with non-stick spray (or bundt cake pans work well here, too).

Sift the flour, baking powder, salt and spices into a large mixing bowl. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the sugar and eggs until pale yellow, about 1 to 2 minutes.  Turn the speed to low and add the flour mixture, then the oil, milk, zest and sherry.  Continue to mix at low speed until just blended.

Pour the batter evenly between the pan(s).  Bake until the cake tester comes out clean, 50 to 60 minutes.  Cool the cake(s) on a rack for about 15 minutes.  Slide a thin knife around the side of the pan to release the cake(s) and turn out onto a cooling rack.  Cool completely.  Serve at room temperature with fresh whipped ice cream.


Recipe and Photo Copyright © 2012 by Donna Marie Desfor and There’s a Chef in My Kitchen, LLC.  All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 2012 by WITF, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

Published in In witfs Kitchen with Chef Donna Desfor

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