Reader suggestion: Shelf life of spices

After our post on Uncluttering your refrigerator’s crisper, reader Josephine sent us the following information to help with keeping spices uncluttered in the pantry:

Sure, [dried] spices last a long time, but they don’t last forever. Some spice companies have online freshness checkers: Durkee, McCormick (with a sense of humor, to boot!), and Spice Islands (registration required).

It looks like most dried spices maintain their freshness for one to three years. I love on the McCormick site where it says, “If it’s from Baltimore/a tin, it’s at least 15 years old.” Riotous.

25 Comments for “Reader suggestion: Shelf life of spices”

  1. posted by Steph on

    I use the smell test – if it doesn’t have a scent, it won’t have a taste. Throw it out.

  2. posted by Gayle on

    I don’t think they’re being funny, I think that means that they closed their factory in Baltimore 15 years ago.

  3. posted by Michele on

    I’m still sore that McCormick changed the formula for Old Bay crab boil seasoning when they bought the brand. 😛 I kept my last tin of Old Bay from the Old Baltimore Spice Co. for — well, let’s just say I kept it for a lot longer than McCormick would approve of!

    Neat links, though. Thank you for sharing them! Since it’s just me and my daughter in my household, my dried spices tend to last quite a long time before they get used up.

  4. posted by Jacki Hollywood Brown on

    When you get new spices store them in airtight containers in a cool, dark space. It is better to pay a bit more and buy smaller containers that will stay fresher longer. Don’t keep spices above the stove. The heat and steam from cooking can degrade the flavour quickly.
    When you buy spices (if they don’t have a best-before date) write the purchase date on the bottle with permanent marker for 2 reasons: you will know when to get rid of the spice and you will know how long it takes to use a package of spice of that size (you can then buy a bigger or smaller package depending on your need).

  5. posted by Mary on

    Along this line, we put all of our spices, vinegars, etc. into a box and stored it another room. When we actually needed one, we got it out of the box and put it back into the kitchen. A year later, we dumped the ones that were still in the box.

    Now we have a smaller collection of spices that we actually use and enjoy and another kitchen cabinet has been uncluttered.

    If I could only do that with our entire kitchen!

  6. posted by Jacki Hollywood Brown on

    addendum to previous comment:

    Here is a great website for tips on how to store spices. It also lists their approximate shelf life

  7. posted by Trish on

    This was a great link – I ended up tossing pretty much everything. I guess time flies even faster than we thought. Thanks!

  8. posted by Harlan on

    Jacki wrote:
    > When you get new spices store them in airtight containers in a cool, dark space. It > is better to pay a bit more and buy smaller containers that will stay fresher longer

    Actually, that’s not quite right. Buying small, prepackaged containers is the surest way to get spice that’s already lost most of its oomph. Some better solutions:

    1. generally buy thing that are whole instead of pre-ground, and grind them yourself (spice grinder, mortar & pestle, etc.)

    2. buy things in large quantities, as they’ll generally keep their flavor longer when grouped with more of the same

    3. stocking up more frequently, buying small amounts from bulk bins if you’ve got a high-end grocery that sells that way

    4. grow your own if possible

  9. posted by Nat on

    We’ve gone the buy in bulk route to replenish our own containers at home. I think buying an ounce or two at a time of any one herb and using it w/o waste within a couple of months saves us money in the long run.

  10. posted by Josephine on

    Yes, Gayle, your comment re: the closing of the factory is correct. In terms of humour, I was referring to the responses you get when you enter the code on a bottle. For example, comments similar to “you tossed the fanny back back in 1990 — time to replace the spice!”

  11. posted by Noah on

    Umm… many bottles from Baltimore. And this is after getting rid of the ‘older’ tins and bottles (yes, more than one or two) just a few months ago.

  12. posted by John Billot on

    Have a look at – they package spices in resealable foil packets and will post to the USA (my daughter’s in-laws live in Portland OR and order regularly). The spices are organic and I’ve always had very good service from them.


  13. posted by Mona on

    I finally convinced my mom to get rid of some her spices when we saw the same mccormick spice tins she’s currently still using in an antique store!

  14. posted by VeggieChick on

    Given the ‘Baltimore’ location on the bottle, and the area code, and the ‘1985’ printed on the side, I’ve got reason to believe this bottle of orange peel is at least my age.

    My poor, poor mother disagrees. ‘I didn’t bring that with me from the old house. It can’t be more than a few years.’

  15. posted by verily on

    My mother hangs onto all her ancient spice bottles. Squarish and made out of tin, probably from Baltimore. 😉 She treats them like they’re collectibles. I suppose they would be if she had some sort of kitschy display, but they’re just hidden away with the rest of her spices.

    My own clutter problem is that I have millions of little bulk spice packets. Currently, they’re stored in a plastic container but that doesn’t make them very accessible when I need a particular spice. Does anyone know of a good spice rack that is wall mountable and can hold a good sized number of jars? I probably have enough different spices to fill up 40ish containers.

  16. posted by fdsajkl on

    I was just looking at a spice bottle storage solution yesterday when I came across a website that sells smaller single use portions of spices. It makes sense given that it is always recommended to keep spices away from heat, air and light. I hate buying expensive bottles of spice that always get old before being used up. Such a waste. Using the portion packets would guarantee freshness. Here’s the website:

  17. posted by Becca on

    Uh oh. I have a feeling that most of our spices are from my toddler years. That’s a little unsettling.

  18. posted by Calgary on

    Earlier there was a great suggestion by Harlan about buying in larger quantities and as whole as possible. I thought I would add that I get a superior spice significantly cheaper by going to ethnic shopping markets or the ethnic aisles of the mainstream supermarket. The quantities are larger so I do have a tendency to split the purchase with my sisters (we also share our recipes with one another).

    Verily asked about a good spice rack/bottles. I use the Lee Valley tools (mail order / catalogue store in Canada and US) has metal containers. I just glue a magnet onto the side and keep them in a cool pantry. I don’t have a normal rectangular walk in pantry instead there is one wall that is at a weird angle. Attaching a metal sheet to the crazy wall allows me to finally use this space and not sacrifice precious shelf space.

    The metal container has a million and one uses for other things and it does have glass opening in the lid so you can peer into it.

    The magnets have another use when I’m doing a huge weekend of cooking – the bottles can be fixed to an old cookie sheet in the order needed and easily moved back and forth.

  19. posted by Elsie Kahan Saepoff on

    I found this website very informative and funny to read. I threw out all my old spices and bought new ones. I’m sure my spices are at least 10 years old. Thanks

  20. posted by Ellis Godard on

    This deserves it’s own entry and discussion, but…

    Fresher spices aren’t uncluttered. And the wide variety of spice racks, shelves, and lazy susans won’t help either: The label is usually 1/3 or more from the top of the container. In the example above, where “Sage” is barely 1/4 from the bottom! And the top of each brand’s containers look identical unless your containers are all full (and if they are, what’s the point?)

    It’s easy to fix, as I did: Make labels for all the lids:

    But it’d also be an easy way for a spice maker to distinguish itself. Among three of four brands, that don’t vary greatly by price, I frankly pick the cheapest – but I’d pay a few cents more for (and replace my outdated spices with) containers with usefully labeled lids!


  21. posted by Linda on

    I have spices that I still use (occasionally, obviously) that are at least 20 years old!

    Spices don’t “go bad”, they do, however, lose potency. Save your money and simply use a little more or replace if they are tasteless.

    Spices are expensive. Of course the companies want you to replace/buy more. Not necessary. We are so duped in this country about our “dangerous food”.

  22. posted by Linda on

    P.S. We Americans have more money than good sense regarding some things. We waste more than some people in the world ever have in their lifetimes. Shame!

  23. posted by Erin Doland on

    Actually, spices can go bad. The minute you open up a container of spices, you let in microscopic elements that can contain bacteria, bugs, and foreign chemicals. Additionally, if you’re using metal storage containers, the chemicals in the spices can react with the metal over time. And, if you’re using plastic storage containers, the chemicals in the plastic start to break down over time and interact with the spices.

    I agree that we in the developed world have very high standards for health, but we also typically have longer life expectancies as a result. Food-borne illnesses play a large role in these differences of life expectancy. Just because the developing world does it one way, doesn’t mean that it is the healthiest way.

  24. posted by Linda on

    Explain to me why I am not sick or dead. I have a kidney transplant and have had a suppressed immune system for the last 18 years.

    I continue to use those spices and herbs and also my refrigerator door is full of condiments that are equally ancient that I also continue to use.

    Condiments are full of salt and vinegar which in earlier times were the preservatives of choice.

    I feel I am one of the best “guinea pigs” you will ever have to test how “bad” certain foods are.

  25. posted by Erin Doland on

    There aren’t any spice or condiment police who are going to come and force you to clean out your pantry and refrigerator of expired items. If you want to eat expired foods, eat expired foods! Remember, though, the fact that you haven’t had food poisoning in the past isn’t an indicator that you won’t have it in the future. Eating any food past its expiration date is always a risk. It might be a negligible risk, or it could be a serious one, but there is still a risk. Also, even though you don’t think a food tastes bad doesn’t mean that it isn’t bad. For instance, chemical poisonings from degraded plastics in your food can take years to present themselves. Why risk accidentally poisoning yourself over something as silly as an expiration date on a food item?

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