Using and Storing Dried Herbs and Spices
First, let’s distinguish the difference between herbs and spices. Herbs are the leafy part of plants. Spices are the dried seeds, bark, fruit, or ground roots of a plant. Such items are commonly used to add a wide array of flavors to foods of all sorts. Different cultures commonly use specific herbs or spices in their cuisine. Rarely will anyone use all the different herbs and spices that nature has to offer. Anyone who cooks at all will usually keep a specific supply of dried herbs and spices on hand so they are readily available whenever they are needed. We often keep them on the spice rack without thought of their age and if they should be replaced. We simply use them until they are gone, then get another bottle from the store when needed.
The problem with that is the fact that they do age over time and lose their flavor. If dampness got into the bottle, they may clump together and even spoil. This can happen if the bottles are opened and the contents are measured over a pot of boiling water or cooking food that is releasing steam. If we close that bottle up right away, the moisture is locked in and the herb or spice will soak it up, causing it to age, and possibly clump together or even spoil.
Most bottled herbs and spices will come with a “Best By” date stamped somewhere on the container, but we often don’t think to check the date to be sure our supply is still fresh. Or, maybe we grew the herb, dried it ourselves, and didn’t think to label the container with the harvest or packed date and also our own “Use By” date to ensure it is fresh.
So, it’s VERY easy to have an accumulation of outdated herbs and spices in our pantry and not give it any thought until we use them and discover they have not given any flavor to our food. Here are some tips to keep in mind to help you ensure your supply of herbs and spices are still flavorful.
Tips for Testing Freshness
- Look at the color of your dried herb or spice. Is it still vibrant and colorful, or is it dull and faded? Old herbs and spices tend to lose their color over time. If the color has faded, the herb is probably old and the flavor has most likely dwindled.
- Crush or rub some between your fingers then smell the herb or spice. Does it smell strong like it should? If the aroma is weak or musty, it is likely too old and will not lend much flavor when used in cooking. If it still smells good, but just not as strong as it should, you can still use it, but use more than the recipe calls for. Add some, let it cook for a little while, then taste the food. If it needs more flavor, add more of what you have available. When this is the case, it’s a good idea to write it down on your grocery list so it can be replaced soon.
- Taste a small amount of the herb or spice. If there is no flavor or tastes stale, it’s old and not worth using because it will not give any flavor to your food.
- Have you found that the herb or spice is clumpy? Chances are that moisture has made its way into the container and the flavor may be reduced or “off” some. Taste it to test its flavor. If it still tastes like it should, it’s still OK to use in your food.
- This may sound obvious, but it’s important to replace the cap securely after using a dried herb or spice. Loose caps can allow air and moisture to enter the container, aging the contents reducing their shelf life. Also, a loose cap can lead to accidental spillage of the contents, sometimes directly into the pot of cooking food! That’s not a good moment and one that can easily be avoided by being sure the cap is securely placed on the jar or container before returning it to the storage area.
General Storage Life of Herbs and Spices
While dried herbs and spices usually don’t spoil, they do lose their strength over time. Here is a general guideline for their shelf life.
- Whole spices and seeds should keep for 3 to 4 years.
- Ground spices should keep for 2 to 3 years.
- Dried leafy herbs should keep well for 1 to 3 years.
- Dried seasoning blends usually keep well for 1 to 2 years.
Despite the above information, it is generally recommended that we replace dried herbs and spices every 6 months to 1 year. This is reasonable since we don’t know how long the bottled seasonings were on the store shelf before we purchased them. Unless we check the “Best By” date on the bottle, we have no idea how old they are. Replacing them on a regular basis helps to ensure that we’re adding fresh and flavorful seasonings to our food.
Storage Tips for Keeping Dried Herbs and Spices
In general, there are five factors that cause dried herbs and spices to age and lose their flavor. Those factors are: air (more precisely, oxygen), moisture, heat, light, and time. Keeping your dried flavorings away from these five factors can work together to help preserve your seasonings. The following tips can help.
- Keep them in a cool, dry, dark location, away from heat. Many people store herbs and spices that they reach for regularly in a spice rack or cabinet above the stove. This is not the best idea because heat from the stove and steam from cooking food will rise and warm that storage area which can cause the seasonings to age faster than they should. It’s best to store them away from the stove or oven so they are not subjected to the heat and moisture released in that area.
- If you purchase items in bulk, add some to a small bottle for easy use from your spice cabinet. The rest may be stored in its original package. Add an oxygen absorber to the original bag if you have them, and squeeze out as much air as possible, then seal the bag. If possible, place that bag in an airtight container with a tight-fitting lid and store that in a cool, dry, dark location away from sunlight and heat. Alternatively, you could store extra dried herbs in a glass mason jar with a sealable lid. Place an oxygen absorber in the jar and remove as much air as possible, and store it appropriately. Refill your small bottle as needed, while keeping your bulk supply cool, dry, and away from sunlight and oxygen, if possible.
- Some resources suggest keeping spices from the red pepper family refrigerated to extend their freshness and flavor. Such spices include paprika, cayenne, and chili powder.
- When you measure dried herbs and spices, be sure to use a dry spoon! Using a wet or even damp spoon will carry moisture into the container, potentially shortening the shelf life of your herb or spice. Again, don’t measure near or over a source of steam, such as the pot of cooking food you’re about to season.
- When you buy new herbs and spices, be sure to rotate your flavorings accordingly, using the oldest ones first. It is helpful to label the bottles and packaging with the purchase date to help remind you which items are the oldest. If you grew your own herbs, it’s helpful to label their container with a harvest or packaging date after they were dried. It’s also helpful to label your containers with a discard date, which would serve as a reminder when they should be replaced for the best tasting flavorings possible.
- If you grow your own herbs, be sure they are completely dry before storing them. This is essential for keeping them properly for the longest possible shelf life, without inviting mold or spoilage along the way. Test them by rubbing a little between your fingers. They should be lightly crispy. Also, if they feel somewhat cool to the touch, they most likely still contain some moisture and should be dried longer.
- If you grew your own herbs, it is helpful to know that storing the dried leaves whole helps to preserve their essential oils, which is what provides their aroma and flavor. The oils are held in small cells within the leaves. When the leaves are crushed, those small cells are broken open, exposing them to air. The air causes the essential oils to exit the leaf, causing the aroma and flavor to dwindle faster than it would if the leaf was stored whole. Waiting to crush the leaves until they are needed helps to preserve their valuable oils.
Tips for Using Herbs and Spices
- If possible, try growing herbs that you use most often. Growing them outdoors during the warmer months is a wonderful way to keep your own supply of fresh herbs. During the colder, winter months, try growing a pot of your favorite herb(s) indoors. There’s nothing better than being able to snip off some freshly grown herbs that you grew yourself!
- Remember that the flavor of dried herbs is stronger and more concentrated than that of fresh herbs. The general rule of thumb when using a dried herb is to use one-third the amount of fresh herb that is called for in a recipe. Example: If a recipe calls for 3 tablespoons of chopped fresh parsley, use 1 tablespoon of dried parsley flakes.
- Whole spices keep their fragrance and flavor much longer than ground spices. If possible, get a spice grinder and shop for whole spices. Grind them as needed for the best flavor possible.
- Add dried herbs early in the cooking process. This allows them time to rehydrate and release their flavors into the food over time.
- Add fresh herbs late in the cooking process. This will preserve their delicate flavors and add a little extra color to the dish. If appropriate, use a little more of your fresh herb as an attractive garnish for your dish.
- When using spices, remember that they can add a powerful punch of flavor. It’s best to add a little at a time, allow it to cook some, then taste. Add more if needed. It’s much easier to add more than to mask the flavor of too much of a specific spice in a food.
- Toasting spices before adding them to a dish can help to enhance their flavor. Simply put your dried spices into a dry skillet on medium heat. Stir them until they become aromatic. Be careful not to burn them in the process since that could ruin the flavor! When they are aromatic, use them in your dish.
With a little thoughtfulness and planning, we can enjoy the many flavors of herbs and spices readily available to us, either through commercial markets or from our own gardens. We just need to remember to store them properly and rotate or renew our supply when needed.
Julia W. Klee (Judi) began her journey enjoying “all things food” in elementary school when she started preparing meals for her family. That love of food blossomed into a quest to learn more and more about health and wellness as related to nutrition. She went on to earn a BS Degree in Food and Nutrition, then an MS Degree in Nutrition. She has taught nutrition and related courses at the college level to pre-nursing and exercise science students. Her hunger to learn didn’t stop upon graduation from college. She continues to research on a regular basis about nutrition as it relates to health. Her hope is to help as many people as possible to enjoy foods that promote health and wellness.