How to Keep Spices Fresh Longer—And Organize Spices to Make Cooking So Much Easier
It's no fun to find an overabundance of past-their-prime, stale spices taking up precious real estate in your pantry. As you sort to see what's too stale to use, it's the perfect time to check in with our Test Kitchen pros for a primer about how to keep spices fresh longer, plus how to organize spices for easy access, efficient cooking, and to avoid buying multiples of the same spice. By the way, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines spices as "aromatic vegetable substances, in the whole, broken, or ground form, whose significant function in food is seasoning rather than nutrition."
Spices come from the seeds, bark, roots, fruit, or stems of a variety of plants and trees, and dried herbs are dehydrated versions of a plant's leaves. In culinary uses, any of the above can help enhance both sweet and savory dishes.
For a refresher on all things fresh, check out our complete fresh herb storage and life-extending guide here. Then read on for everything you need to know about selecting, storing, and organizing spices and dry herbs.
The Best Way to Store Herbs and Spices
As we mentioned, it's wise to sort through your spices on a regular basis—such as every 6 months or so—to take stock of what you have and to toss anything that's lost its luster.
How Long Are Spices Good for Once Opened?
Wondering "do spices go bad?" Dried herbs and spices don't really "spoil," and won't make anyone sick, but they do lose their flavor and potency with age. (Salt is the only spice cabinet exception to this rule. It should last a lifetime.)
You can judge the freshness of any spice by the color and aroma. To test for freshness, take a pinch of the dried herb or spice in one hand, then rub it in the palm of your opposite hand. Fresh spices tend to have a bright, rich color and a strong smell. If they look pale or smell weak or "off," toss them and add the item to your next grocery list.
So how long are spices good for once opened? Our easy general rule of thumb: Replace dried herbs and spices once per year. If you want to get more granular about your storing spices strategy, save this list. The lifespan depends on the processing method, the type of seasoning, as well as your style for storing spices.
- Dried herbs: Last for about 1 to 3 years
- Ground, powdered spices: Last for about 2 to 3 years
- Unground, whole spices: Last for about 4 years
To use those long-living whole spices, use a spice mill, coffee grinder, or mortar and pestle to process them just before use. (Alternatively, some concoctions like pickle recipes and mulled wine call for whole spices as-is.)
How to Keep Spices Fresh Longer
Here's your checklist for the best conditions for storing spices:
- Keep at or around a consistent 70℉ temperature
- Place spices away from direct sunlight and heat
- Transfer to tightly sealed, non-porous containers that are ideally all the same size (for easy storage)—baby food jars, glass containers, ceramic jars, or metal tins all work
- Consider storing red spices, such as paprika and red pepper, in the refrigerator to help them maintain their color and flavor longer
With each container of dried herb or spice, add a label with the name and the date you opened the package of spices. While it's impossible to know how long your store had the spice on supermarket shelves, this can at least give you a rough estimate of your ownership and opening time.
For the best quality spices, we often shop at our local spice shop so we can ask about sourcing and age. No speciality shop nearby? The next time you need a refresh, online options like Diaspora Co., Spiceology, and the Spice House also have terrific high-quality selections.
4 Tricks for How to Organize Spices
Now that you have your clearly-labeled jars of dried herbs and spices, let's talk sorting. The recipe testers in our Test Kitchen share dozens of spices daily. Thanks to these methods to organize spices and herbs, they're always a breeze to find.
Keep them in plain sight. Regardless of the storage system you use (more on this shortly), every jar should be visible to your eye so you're aware of what's on-hand and don't risk doubling (or tripling) up on the same spice.
Stay away from the heat. Even if you use a specific dried herb or spice daily, don't store it on the ledge above your stove. Salt is the only flavor-enhancer that can stand up to the wild temperature fluctuations at that location. Every other spice and herb else should go back to its "home" ASAP after use.
Select a storage system that works for your space. There's no one "right" way. In fact, we keep discovering new ideas. Choose a technique that fits the amount of space in your kitchen or pantry—and how you prefer to sort. A few kitchen organization ideas our Test Kitchen pros and editors swear by:
- Wall-mounted rack
- Spice drawer
- Magnetic containers on wall-mounted magnetic strips
- Tiered shelving
Sort things out. We prefer to organize spices alphabetically by name, but if you find it more natural to group like spices together (for instance, baking spices, seasoning mixes, or spices used in a specific global cuisine), find your own method. Just be sure to set a strategy and stick with it so everyone knows where to find the goods.