Spices, like any food product, have a specific shelf life which if followed will mean that their freshness will give you better flavor and enjoyment of your meals. I have known people to keep spices in their cabinets for many years, and some even will swear that they never lose their potency. However, they do. Let me explain.
Every spice is chemically comprised of many elements, but most important to the flavor is the essential oils. Spice companies will often buy these oils from extractors who have removed them from the original seed/leaf or plant. This product is often referred to as “oleo resin”, and is commonly used for adding color (like paprika), flavor (like garlic), or heat (like capsicum) to their finished product. So what does this have to do with shelf life?
Well when a whole spice (like a peppercorn) is ground, and the inside is exposed to the outer elements (like air) these essential oils begin to dissipate and lose their potency. This process takes them from a very aromatic, potent state to one of virtually no flavor or oils present. Because spice companies pack large volumes of product at a time, and ship through many distribution channels, the time from grinding and mixing varies. It could be many months, it could be weeks. But all during this time, even before the spice reaches the consumers cabinet, the dissipation process is continuing.
The shelf life rule of thumb for ground spices is 6 months to 1 year, for whole spices 1 to 2 years. After that, the spice really has lost it’s punch!
That is why consumers should utilize a “one day dump and replace” procedure for the spices in their home cabinets and spice racks. We usually use Halloween as our “dump and replace” day. Why? Well it starts out the holiday season, so if we dump and replace our spices then, we have the freshest product available during the time we use the most spices.
Of course you could use 2 specific dates, one for holiday type spices like cinnamon and nutmeg-and another for grilling spices like our bourbon salmon rub , say around Memorial day (which kicks off the summer bbq season).
Either way, keeping a schedule of switching your spices out every year or so will guarantee you will get the best flavor out of them year after year!
About The Author
Michael Simmons spent most of his life growing up in the food business, first working in his fathers Jacksonville FL food brokerage, then starting his own spice mixing/importing/distribution business. He has extensive experience in using spices, formulating blends and distribution.