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Keeping spices fresh—How to store your cooking spices for maximum flavor

November 21, 2019

I have a seriously bad habit when it comes to cooking with spices. I’m forever shaking the little jar of seasoning directly into the pot or pan on the stove. Why is this terrible? Well, the heat and moisture from the cooking pot rises right up into that little bottle and can cause deterioration (condensation and resulting mold, to be exact). I’m trying to train myself to shake the spices into my hand first (some distance from the pot), and then scatter them into the pot. If, unlike me, you follow recipes exactly, then you can measure the spice out into a spoon away from the pot, and then use the spoon to add the spice to the pot. (I wonder what Julia did? I’ll have to find some old video to see!)

Here are some other things to know about keeping your spices flavorful and aromatic (and, yes, unmoldy):

• Keep clear spice jars out of the light. It’s understandable to want to store spices on the counter, where they’re handy—and beautiful, too. And there are some very clever storage options (magnetic jars to stick on the refrigerator and mason jars to screw under the cupboard, for example). But storing spices where it’s light will deteriorate them quickly. It’s best to keep them in the dark. 

A dark pantry, cupboard, or drawer would be a good choice. Dark amber jars work well, too. And if you really must keep them out—say on an open kitchen shelf—then consider covering them with a cloth or a pretty dishtowel or making a little curtain to hang in front of them. 

My spices live in a beautiful wall shelf that a carpenter friend built for me 40 years ago. The shelves slant, so that only the tops of the jars—which are labeled with the names—show. It holds over 50 spices, and it’s one of my favorite possessions. I have a favorite brand of spices, from Frontier Co-op, so it was easy to build the shelves to accompany those specific bottles. (Their Simply Organic brand has the spice names printed on the tops of the bottles, which is especially nice for my storage shelf, as well as for storage in drawers.) If you have a favorite brand, or a standard jar that you use to re-bottle spices you buy in bulk, you might consider investing in a handmade shelf, too!

• Store spices away from heat. Yup, that means away from the stove, however inconvenient that seems. Also don’t store them next to a furnace or other heat source. And avoid big temperature changes, which, again, can cause condensation in the bottles.

• Check bottles and containers for “best by” dates, but let your senses guide you, too. Most spices will keep a year or two under good conditions, but if your spices are no longer aromatic and/or they’ve lost their color, it’s time to replace them with new.

• For freshest taste, buy whole spices and grind them yourself as needed. Whole spices last longer than ground, too, because less surface area is exposed to air. (Some spices are pretty hard to grind, though! I prefer to buy some—like cardamom, cumin, nutmeg, and cinnamon— ground.)

• I don’t think it’s a great idea to freeze spices, but if you do, always return them to the freezer asap. Remember, temperature fluctuations can cause condensation. 

My favorite spice is cardamom. I love its scent, warmth, and slight sweetness. How about you? What’s your favorite spice? And where do you store your spices?

You might also like: Coffee care—The best way to store coffee beans and ground coffee.

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