Whether you’re an amateur home cook or seasoned chef, you probably know that keeping a well-stocked spice cabinet is one of the secrets to leveling up the flavor of your dishes.
What you may not realize is that spices do more than just season your food — they can also help prevent spoilage and add a boost of color and health-promoting plant compounds to your dishes.
Many common spices and herbs, such as cloves, turmeric, rosemary, sage, and cinnamon, have demonstrated potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
What’s more, early evidence suggests that frequently eating foods with spices and herbs may reduce your risk of complications associated with heart and respiratory diseases.
If you’ve been collecting herbs and spices for a while, you may be wondering whether they expire and when they should be replaced.
This article explores the shelf life of common dried herbs and spices, including how to tell when they’re ready to be tossed.
Shelf life of common herbs and spices
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines spices as “aromatic vegetable substances, in the whole, broken, or ground form, whose significant function in food is seasoning rather than nutrition.”
In the culinary world, spices are seasonings made from a plant’s dried roots, bark, or stem, whereas herbs are the plant’s dried or fresh leaves.
When determining the shelf life of dried herbs and spices, variables to consider include their type, processing, and storage. For example, dried spices tend to last longer than dried herbs, and the more whole — or less processed — seasoning is, the longer its shelf life.
Dried herbs typically last 1–3 years. Examples include:
- bay leaves
Ground, or powdered, spices typically have a shelf life of 2–3 years. Common examples include:
- powdered ginger
- garlic powder
- ground cinnamon
- chili powder
- ground turmeric
- ground allspice
- ground cardamom
- ground paprika
- crushed red pepper flakes
- seasoning blends
Whole, or unground, spices have the longest shelf life, as less of their surface area is exposed to air, light, and moisture. This allows them to retain their aromatic oils and flavor compounds longer than their ground counterparts.
If stored properly, whole spices can last up to 4 years. Examples include:
- whole peppercorns
- mustard seeds
- fennel seeds
- caraway seeds
- cumin seeds
- whole nutmeg
- cinnamon sticks
- whole dried chili peppers
Salt is the exception to the rule, as it can be used indefinitely regardless of its size and shape without spoiling or losing flavor. That said, if you’re using a seasoned salt, any accessory seasonings may lose their potency over time.
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Summary: Dried herbs and spices last 1–4 years, depending on the type, level of processing, and storage.
How to tell whether your spices have gone bad
Dried herbs and spices don’t truly expire or “go bad” in the traditional sense.
When a spice is said to have gone bad, it simply means that it has lost most of its flavor, potency, and color. Fortunately, consuming a spice that has gone bad is unlikely to make you sick.
Many store-bought spices list best-by dates, which indicate the time frame over which they’ll retain the most potent flavor and quality.
It’s still generally safe to consume dried herbs and spices that are past their prime, although they won’t add nearly as much flavor as their fresh counterparts.
If you’re unsure how long you’ve had your spices, you can tell whether they’re ready for a refresh by inspecting their scent and flavor. Crush or rub a small amount in the palm of your hand. If the scent is weak and the flavor is lackluster, it’s probably a good time to replace them.
Summary: Expired dried spices likely won’t make you sick, but they will lose most of their aroma and flavor over time.
How to store spices for maximum shelf life
Minimizing their exposure to air, heat, light, and moisture is key to maximizing the shelf life of your herbs and spices, which can help you reduce waste and save money on buying new products.
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Although storing spices in clear containers next to your stove may be convenient and aesthetically pleasing, it’s not a great way to preserve their potency.
Instead, a cool, dry, and dark environment like a pantry, drawer, or cupboard positioned away from the stove or oven is a great spot to house your spice collection.
You’ll also want to ensure your spices are stored in tightly sealed, non-porous containers. Glass or ceramic containers are among the best options, as they’re easy to clean and do a great job of keeping air and moisture out.
Plastic containers are also a popular choice, but they aren’t typically as airtight and can absorb the colors and odors of different spices. This can make them more difficult to clean if you want to reuse them.
Stainless steel or tin containers are other viable options, but because metal is heat conductive, it’s even more important that they’re stored away from heat sources like your stovetop.
Although refrigeration isn’t required, red spices like paprika and cayenne pepper will retain their pigment longer if kept refrigerated. Similarly, storing seasonings that contain oil, such as sesame and poppy seeds, in the fridge can prevent them from becoming rancid.
Also, keep in mind that moisture can quickly degrade the flavor and texture of your spices, potentially causing them to cake or mold. If you notice mold in any of your spice containers, discard the product in question.
You can keep your spices dry by using a spoon to get them out of the container before adding them to steaming hot food rather than sprinkling them straight from their containers.
Summary: Dried herbs and spices will last the longest when stored away from air, light, heat, and moisture.
Herbs and spices play important roles in flavoring and preserving food.
Dried herbs and spices have relatively long shelf lives that range from 1 to 4 years, although the exact length of time varies depending on the type of spice and how it’s processed and stored.
Generally, spices that are past their prime aren’t dangerous to consume, but they will lose their aroma and flavor potency over time.
Always store your spices away from heat, light, air, and moisture to maximize their shelf life, reduce waste, and stretch your food budget further.