How to Determine If a Spice or Seasoning Has Expired

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Spices are always best when fresh.
Spices are always best when fresh. (Image: Sydney James/Digital Vision/Getty Images)

Almost every home kitchen contains jars of spices, herbs and seasonings mixes. Aside from salt, which is a mineral, almost every common flavoring ingredient has a definite shelf life. They do not become inedible, as most foods do when past their "best before" date. Instead, their flavors deteriorate with age, weakening or becoming rancid. Diligent cooks use a variety of methods to assess the freshness of their seasonings. None is difficult, and few require any special equipment.

Things You'll Need

  • Magnifying glass
  • Adhesive labels
  • Pen or fine-tipped marker

Remove your spices and seasonings from their cupboard or rack. Check the packaging for expiration dates. Use a magnifying glass if necessary. Discard those that have reached their expiration date, and return the rest to storage.

Taste a small amount of the spice or seasoning. The flavor compounds in most spices are activated by moisture, so it may take a few moments for the flavors to develop. If there are any any musty or stale flavors, discard the seasoning.

Examine your spices and herbs for color changes. Oxidation and exposure to direct light are damaging to herbs and spices and have a strong effect on their flavor. Discard any that are noticeably changed. For example, discared paprika that has gone from vivid red to a nondescript brown or orange.

Clean out your spice rack or cupboard annually. Most herbs and spices lose their potency after a year or more of storage, so discard any that were not purchased within the past year.

Label and date newly purchased herbs, spices and seasonings. Write the date on an adhesive label and attach it to the jar or packaging. Alternately, use a different color of label each year. Either way, discard the old ones when a year has passed.

Tips & Warnings

  • Whole spices last much longer than ground. Buy whole nutmegs, allspice, cloves and other spices, and grind them as needed in a spice grinder or inexpensive coffee grinder.
  • Retain your used spice jars and wash them thoroughly. Buy new herbs and spices in small quantities from the bulk bins of a high-volume retailer and store them in your old jars. This is much less costly than buying spices in their original jars.
  • Never store spices on or over the kitchen stove. Heat and humidity damage spices, and the area around the stove is always hot and humid.
  • Store spices out of direct light, and especially out of direct sunlight. A cool, dry, dark location is best.
  • Never eat any spice, herb or other seasoning that shows signs of mold.
  • Herbs or spices that develop rancid flavors may have adverse health effects and should not be eaten.
  • Herbs and spices are naturally gluten-free, but in some cases they may come in contact with gluten during the milling process. Some commercial seasoning mixes contain ingredients derived from wheat and may also trigger a reaction. Celiacs should seek out brands that are guaranteed to be gluten-free.

References

  • "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, Revised Second Edition"; Harold S. McGee; 2004
  • "Professional Cooking, 5th Ed."; Wayne Gisslen; 2003
  • "Larousse Gastronomique: The Encyclopedia of Food, Wine and Cookery;" Prosper Montagne; 1961
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