Many of us (myself included) are guilty of moving our spice racks en masse from one apartment to another. But did you know you’re supposed to toss spices after six months? So yes, keeping your spices organized and fresh makes a huge difference when it comes to the meals you cook.
Doing a little cleanout might not improve your cooking skills per se (we’ll reserve judgment on that), but it absolutely will make you a more effective chef. In order to get the scoop on how to clean and organize one’s spice stash, we caught up with Ivan Fitzgerald, co-owner of Bazaar Spices in Washington, DC. Below are his tips on how to add a little flavor to your rack.
Do a spice inventory.
Don’t be fooled by the spices you have, and take stock of your current spice rotation—is it possible there are two garlic salts? An abundance of allspice? See what you can consolidate and eliminate.
See how long you can keep your current rotation.
Fitzgerald recommends keeping whole spices for about eight to 12 months. “Spices like cumin seeds can last a little longer, but whole cardamom has a shorter life span,” he explains. “Herbs are generally good for about four to six months, and ground spices three to four months under the best conditions.” Of course, check the printed expiration dates on your spices (should they exist) and get rid of any that are past their prime.
Toss, toss, toss.
Fitzgerald insists on purging. “In general, if you haven’t bought spices within the last year—or if you bought them within the last year, but didn’t get them from a retailer that specializes in carrying fresh spices—there’s a good chance that what you have in your cabinet is stale and dated,” he says.
But he acknowledges that it’s hard to let old spices go sometimes. “You know a spice is still good to hang on to if it has a strong, pungent aroma, characteristic of the spice, as well as a vibrant and bright color that is indicative of the spice,” Fitzgerald says. “Toss anything that’s dull and flat.” He notes that ground spices should have an almost sticky consistency: “Definitely not dusty and powdery.”
Take care of cleaning and storage.
Fitzgerald suggests washing empty spice bottles, jars, and tins with a gentle detergent—and be sure to peel off any old labels. “If you have a container that had a particularly pungent spice aroma, fill the container with white rice, and let it sit for a few days to pull out the smell,” he says. “Lastly, wipe down the cabinet, so that you don’t end up putting fresh spices in a dirty one.” He likes using glass containers the best, but you can also use a combination of jars, tins, bottles, and sealable bags.
Keep ‘em in the dark.
And away from air as well. “The main thing in order to keep your spices fresh is to make sure they are in an airtight container and kept out of sunlight,” Fitzgerald explains. “Air and sunlight are two things that really degrade the quality of spices quickly.”
Group like spices together.
Fitzgerald recommends organizing your spices by frequency of use. “Have the spices you use the most often readily available and within easy reach,” he says. “Group spices you use less frequently together, and stored behind your everyday spices.” Also, keep those spices you tend to use together, together: If you use coriander in the same dishes as you do cumin, keep them stored next to one another for easy access.
Make sure your restocking skills are on point.
While restocking your spice stash, Fitzgerald says to look for high-quality fresh spices, because they will be more flavorful and potent. “Date your spices so that you know when they were purchased,” he notes. “That way, the next time you clean out your cabinet, you’ll be able to know how long you have had a spice, and you won’t feel as attached to it if you have to let it go.”