Do Spices Expire?

Keeping a well-stocked spice cabinet is vital to creating the dishes you want, especially if you are an adventurous cook. You can’t make chicken tikka masala without curry powder, and it’s hard to imagine a suitable substitute for cinnamon in any given dessert.

The downside to always having spices on hand is that they lose their flavor over time. How rapidly depends on the spice, as well as some other factors, like where you store it. Since old spices do not decay or have odors like other foods that have gone bad, it can be difficult to know when it is time to throw them out.

Fortunately, there are some basic guidelines you can follow for determining when a spice is past its usefulness. (Spoiler: it’s not the expiration date.) The information below will let you know when it is time to toss those old spices in favor of fresher, more flavorful ones.

History of Spices

Archeological evidence shows that millions of years ago, human beings discovered that wrapping meat in leaves made it taste better. Since that time, spices have helped shape the world. During much of history, spices have been among the most valuable of trade items. 

More than 3,500 years ago, Egyptians were using spices for flavoring foods, cosmetics, and many other purposes. Throughout modern history, spices have played an important role in medical treatments, religious ceremonies, food preservation, and flavoring meals.

Today, there are hundreds of types of spices available. Your local grocery store probably stocks many of them, and you can find almost any spice through online retailers.

Spice Basics

The U.S. Department of Agriculture categorizes spices as “shelf-stable” food. This means that you can store them at room temperature and they will not spoil. Even past the expiration date, you don’t have to worry about dried spices making you sick the way other expired foods would.

Although many people use the terms interchangeably, “spices” come from a plant’s dried roots, bark, or stem. “Herbs” refers to fresh or dried leaves.

There is another reason besides flavor to maintain fresh spices in your kitchen: health benefits. Many of them, like turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, and others, are strong antioxidants or have anti-inflammatory properties.

There are perks linked to eating more herbs and spices, including reduced risk of heart disease or respiratory illnesses. Just like their flavor, these benefits diminish with a spice’s age.

Spice Expirations

With most foods, expiration dates are the main demarcation for determining whether they are still good. Reading a spice label tells you very little, since many factors determine when one is past its prime.

But all spices lose their flavor with age. (Note that salt is an exception to this rule. It has an almost indefinite shelf life and its flavoring ability does not dissipate over time.)
In general, dried herbs have the shortest shelf life: usually from one to three years. Ground spices last a little longer, from two to three years. Whole spices endure the longest, with a typical shelf life of three or more years, depending on the type.

Buying pre-ground spices affords convenience when cooking. But whole spices can both last longer and retain more flavor. That is because essential oils remain in the whole spice until it is ground. 
Since these dates are unreliable, using spices before the expiration date is not important. But a helpful practice is writing purchase dates on spice labels whenever you buy them. 

Smell and Color Tests

Before throwing out old spices, perform a few simple tests. The main one is to place a small amount of spice in your hand and smell it. It should be fragrant. If it is not, you can assume that it will do little to flavor your food.

You might also notice that older spices have faded color. If this is the case, then consider discarding them. Spices should have bright, vibrant colors.

How to Maintain Fresh Spices

When possible, buying whole spices is an easy way to lengthen their shelf life. A great trick for releasing the most flavor from whole spices is to toast them in a hot pan before grinding them. This will begin to release their essential oils.

A lot of people keep their spices on a rack on the counter or an open shelf near where they cook. While this is convenient, it’s not the best place for them.

It is best to store your spices in areas that are not exposed to light, such as a cupboard or pantry. This also keeps them away from the heat of the stove and will help them stay fresh longer.
Also, store your spices in an airtight container. Glass or ceramic ones are popular options. Plastic ones are suitable as well, although they can absorb the colors and aromas of the spices they contain.

Be strategic in the quantities of spice you buy, depending on how much you use them. Look for smaller (and cheaper) options for spices like nutmeg and cloves that are very potent or that you use only during certain times of the year. Keep in mind that, if you rarely open a container, the spice can last much longer because it is not exposed to the air.

Finally, look for alternatives to expired spices besides throwing them away. You can find recipes online for using them to make potpourri, soap, or chemical-free fungicides for your indoor plants.

To avoid buy spices for a one-use case recipe, consider purchasing spice blends. While making your own Jamaican Jerk Seasoning Blend or mixing up ten spices to Nashville Hot Chicken is great for special occasions when you are in the mood to cook from scratch, buying blends can reduce the number of spice jars hanging around your kitchen cabinet. Spice blends pre-mix all the individual spices with the exact proportions needed, so no wasted spices hanging around.

Find Quality Spices for Your Kitchen

Now that you have an idea of how long you can expect spices to last and how to preserve them longer, you can throw out your old ones and buy new ones to better complement your recipes and meals. Like other ingredients in a dish, having the freshest spices can make all the difference between a flavorful meal and a mediocre one.

At Curious Spoon, we have been searching for the most unique food ingredients of the highest quality for years. Our spices allow home cooks to access flavors from throughout the world in their own kitchen. Check out our spices and seasonings selection, as well as mixes and meal starters.