Spice guy

Get the most from your spices

May 20, 2009

There are many, many spices in my spice cabinet that I just don’t use that often. How long do spices last? Do they lose their zaazang while they are sitting there waiting for me?
— Suzanne B., New Orleans, Louisiana

I promise not to write every column about spices, but after discussing saffron last time, I was on a roll and couldn’t resist this follow-up.

Spices do indeed lose their zaazang, Suzanne (and I want to thank you for using the correct scientific terminology).

One cook’s clever spice solution: Magnetized tins on the side of the fridge.

The active ingredients in most spices (and herbs, for that matter) are aromatic compounds that add flavor to foods. The compounds tend to disperse into the air and to break down over time. Most experts (and handsome columnists) agree that ground spices lose significant aromatic effect after six months on the shelf.

What can you do to slow the process? Heat, oxygen, light, and moisture are all major zaazang sponges, so shield your spices in airtight containers in the proverbial cool, dark place. Theoretically, keeping them in the freezer would work wonders, but no one does this or is ever going to, so let’s just skip it.

When purchasing spices, seek out the smallest containers you can find. (The only ground spice that I go through fast enough to warrant buying a standard supermarket jar is cayenne pepper.) Check your grocer’s bulk aisle, as many of them now carry spices. This is a huge benefit as you can buy quantities as small as you want, and even re-use the bags if your wife reminds you to take them with you (but enough about me).

The secret weapon, though, is to buy whole spices. Unlike the wispy leaves and stems of herbs, spices usually come from sturdier plant parts like bark (cinnamon), seeds (cumin), or hardy fruits (black pepper). As long as the cell walls remain intact, the aromatic compounds survive much longer on the shelf.

With whole spices, you can count on a year of shelf life, and grind your own spices to order in just a few seconds in a dedicated coffee grinder or a mortar. (Even though it takes a little longer, I prefer the mortar and pestle because it’s fun, it’s nearly impossible to break, and I can use it to make other stuff. Check out Asian markets for bargain-priced mortars.)

The double-secret weapon is to toast whole spices before you grind them, which maximizes their aromatic punch. This is part of the normal routine in most Asian cooking, but not so much in the land of pre-ground Apple Pie Spice and Old Bay.

By “toasting” I mean heating the whole spices in a pan until their aroma blankets your kitchen, and they just barely start to change color. This blooms the spices not only to release the aroma, but also to transform some of the aromatic molecules to produce a more complex flavor (similar to toasting bread).

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Just put your spices in a hot pan (steel, cast iron — anything without a nonstick coating, which can emit unwanted nastiness at high temps) and give them a shake every few seconds until you see the first hints of darkening. Then turn off the heat and continue to agitate for another minute or so while the pan cools for even toasting. (You don’t want blackened or burned spices.) A heavier pan will hold more heat, so you’ll want to get the spices out of it as soon as they’re done.

Denser spices take longer, so at first, toast one type at a time when building a spice blend. Once you have some experience, you’ll be able to add the spices in stages to the same hot pan. For example, cinnamon bark could go in first, as it takes longer than white pepper, which takes longer than coriander, which takes longer than the cumin seeds you’d add at the very end.

Make sure the spices are cool to the touch before grinding, as smashing the scorching-hot exterior into the freshly released oils can burn them, which stinks (both literally and figuratively).

If you have dusty old spices lying around that you can’t remember when you bought, do yourself a favor and toss them so you won’t be tempted to use them. Add them to your shopping list as necessary.

Based in Portland, Oregon, Hank Sawtelle has engineering, legal, and culinary degrees.

There are 16 comments on this item
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1. by Jill, The Veggie Queen on May 20, 2009 at 2:34 PM PDT

This is a great post and will hopefully get people to throw away spices that don’t do any darned good.

I used to think that I hated nutmeg, due to the dust that my mother had in her spice cabinet forever,until I tried fresh ground and realized that I do like it.

I also use a spice grinder at the table which is wonderful to have incredibly freshly ground spices. What do you think of those with ceramic blades? or even the cheapie ones that they sell in supermarkets?

2. by arbeck on May 20, 2009 at 2:37 PM PDT

Do you really not use ground ginger and cinnamon? I keep cinnamon sticks around, but I’ve never had success grinding them up. I prefer the ground stuff when it’s called for. I’ve also not had much luck we unground ginger.

Besides those two; I keep mustard powder, garlic powder, and onion powder around.

3. by Hilary Cable on May 20, 2009 at 2:41 PM PDT

Love your Indian spice boxes!

4. by Ivy Manning on May 20, 2009 at 4:21 PM PDT

Cool. I think that’s my spice arrangement you’ve got there. Works for me!

5. by Hank Sawtelle on May 21, 2009 at 8:00 AM PDT

@Jill- I have a crank grater for whole nutmeg; my life has never been the same. I use a ceramic hand grinder for wet sea salt; I think it’s overkill ($) for dry spices but I’ve never had a problem with it.

@arbeck - I don’t use dried ground ginger. It just doesn’t seem to do much. I usually mince fresh ginger and incorporate it somehow (depends on the recipe/dish). I do have a small amount of bulk ground cinnamon that I use sometimes, usually in desserts. I have never had a problem grinding toasted cinnamon (cassia really, but that’s another column) in my mortar, but it’s not as fine as the store-bought stuff.

6. by Savour on May 21, 2009 at 12:54 PM PDT

I think it’s also a good tip to know your spice supplier well. Who knows how long that jar of McCormick’s has been sitting on the shelf in your local supermarket? Try to find a supplier with high quality and high turnover. I’ve always been happy with penzeys and the spice house.

7. by Eddie Lakin on May 23, 2009 at 8:44 PM PDT

I find this hilarious. I have the exact same set-up for my spices, with those little metal canisters. Not only that, but this is how anal I am; I P-touched them all so they’re all perfectly, identically labelled!

Hank, are you stalking me? Why are you in my kitchen taking pictures of my spices?

8. by ailouron on May 27, 2009 at 12:03 PM PDT

After I figured out the wonder of small quantities of fresh spices from the co-op, I tossed the spices out of the grocery store jars I’d had lying around for years, washed them, and used those jars for the new fresh spices - no need to go out and buy fancy tins or new containers, OR have dozens of plastic baggies lying around.

9. by rozcummins on May 27, 2009 at 1:11 PM PDT

The clear top cannisters that stick to the side of the fridge are gorgeous, but I’ve always avoided using them due to the way that they expose the spices to light. Do those of you who use them find that it doesn’t damage the spices? I just keep my jars on a turntable in a cabinet.

I am fortunate to live in a town with a Penzy’s and it is so much fun to roam around the aisles in a store devoted entirely to spices! There are entire sections devoted to cinnamon and curry!

10. by carryboo on May 27, 2009 at 1:23 PM PDT

Hate to be a party pooper, but aren’t those tins as pictured a bad way to store your spices? Out in the open and exposed to light, plus heat, humidity, and steam from cooking (assuming the fridge is even somewhat near the stove), it seems like a recipe for zaazang disaster.

11. by Ivy Manning on May 27, 2009 at 1:42 PM PDT

I haven’t had any problems with my clear lidded jars (pictured). I cook ALOT, and don’t fill them all the way full, so I am using what is in them in about 1 to 2 months. I haven’t had the flavor fade on any of them. I store backup in the freezer in ziplock bags. And light sensitive herbs like saffron I store in a dark place. Works great!

12. by Hank Sawtelle on May 27, 2009 at 3:25 PM PDT

I’m sure the windows aren’t ideal for getting the absolute maximum shelf life, but like Ivy says they should be fine for a couple of months. Direct sunlight would be the real killer I think.

FWIW, I keep my spices mostly in re-used/recycled jars (like ailouron) in a drawer. The fancy magnetic jars pictured aren’t mine but they look better :)

13. by Savour on May 27, 2009 at 6:16 PM PDT

You can buy similar tins without the windows, which is what I use (I also store my spices in drawers, but that’s a space issue). They’re inexpensive and adaptable -- mine are just labeled for quick cooking. It’s not quite as pretty but it’s more functional.

14. by anonymous on May 30, 2009 at 3:01 PM PDT

I would think the main issue with keeping them on the refrigerator would be the heat. Around the refrigerator is warm (in my cold house, that’s where I put the bread dough to rise during the winter). If you really do use them in a month or two, it still, probably, wouldn’t be a big deal, tho.

15. by anonymous on Jun 16, 2009 at 11:11 AM PDT

The article says to use the smallest jars you can find. While trying to figure out how to fit an ever-growing variety of spices into my spice drawer, I came up with the idea to use skinny glass vials to store the spices that are used in such small quantities that I would never need a typical spice jar full of it. Works wonderfully. I bought the vials at a science store, but I’ve seen them online too.

16. by Hank Sawtelle on Jun 16, 2009 at 1:56 PM PDT

anon I love the vials idea! I may have to borrow that one.

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Ask Hank

Hank Sawtelle has engineering, legal, and culinary degrees, and an intense curiosity about food and cooking. Follow Hank’s blog, Sous Vide Jones.

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