Discover a few ways to maximize the potency of your favorite seasonings.
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spices containers jars
Credit: Pernille Loof

Nearly every home cook has experienced one culinary crisis or another, from scorching a pot of chili to serving a holiday turkey that's dry as leather. (Pass the gravy, pronto!) Among the most frustrating? Following a recipe to the letter, only to wind up with say, tasteless Paprika Shrimp or bland Chicken Biryani, lacking the necessary heady scent of cardamom, cumin, and coriander.

So, what went wrong? Chances are, the spices that give your prized dish its distinctive flavor have long exceeded their lifespan—or you may not be storing them properly (or both).

How to Tell If Spices Are Stale

The telltale signs that your spices have gone south? "If the color is looking faded or you find yourself using much more than usual to get the same flavor, it's time to buy fresh spices. If you smell them and there's not much of an aroma, they probably won't have much flavor to imbue if you cook with them," explains Krissy Scommegna, owner and founder of Boonville Barn Collective, a Renegade-certified farm in Anderson Valley in Northern California. She makes farm-to-jar chile powders, including their signature peppery, sweet, and mildly spicy Piment d'Ville, inspired by the Basque region's renowned piment d'espelette.

Getting the most mileage out of chile powders and other essential seasonings requires the right storage. It also means letting go of the old and evaluating quantities when buying new. Learn more with these expert tips on spice storage.

How to Store Spices the Right Way

When storing spices, it's absolutely essential to put them in containers that seal tightly, says Scommegna; she generally opts for glass jars over tins. Boonville Barn Collective's ground spices are packaged in jars with strong seals on the lids, so the powders stay as fresh as possible, while its whole dried chile peppers come in resealable plastic bags, which can be left as is or moved to jars.

Reduce Air Space

"If you buy spices in bulk, transfer them to a jar and move a portion to even smaller jars, if you can. The more air space in the container, the faster the spices will go bad," Scommegna says. "If you have a few tablespoons of a spice left, for example, don't leave it in a big pint jar."

Choose Dark Jars

When doing a spice reconnaissance, opt for amber or darker-colored jars. This will protect spices from the harmful rays of the sun.

Identify Cool, Dry Storage Space

Where you store spices also figures into their longevity and flavor potential. Again, steer clear of hot spots and designate a dark, cool, dry space in your kitchen for your collection. "Spices will lose their flavor and potency if you keep them in sunny, hot corners of your kitchen, like next to the stove," says Scommegna. "Some folks store extra spices in the freezer, but this exposes them to a lot of humidity, which is not ideal."

Buying Whole vs. Ground Spices

A well-rounded spice pantry or drawer typically includes whole and ground options. Whole spices, left in their original state, retain their volatile oils longer, adding more heat or oomph to a dish. Ground spices are more convenient, especially when a recipe calls for a pinch of this or a teaspoon of that—so it's not a matter of buying one over the other.

But that doesn't mean that you should purchase spices by the truckload. "I wouldn't recommend buying a pound of whole dried chiles to grind into your own chile powers and flakes if they end up sitting in the back of your pantry for five years," says Scommegna. "Instead, buy a jar of chile powder and use it up so that you don't waste good chiles or your money."

Buying smaller quantities from bulk sections also works in your favor, flavor-wise, especially if you don't use spices very often. Here's a simple strategy to make liberal use of your collection: Leave designated spices on your counter for a week or so for easy access. Doing so might also inspire your to be more adventurous with your dishes.

How Long Spices Last

So, how long can you expect spices to last? This largely depends on how fresh they are when you buy them. It's best to purchase from spice companies that share vital information, like harvest dates, so you're more informed about the product's age, to begin with.

"Both whole chiles and chile powders should be flavorful for about one to two years post-harvest, as long as they are stored well (on your end and on the seller's end)," says Scommegna. That rule of thumb applies to other spices, too; ground iterations last about a year, while whole options should keep for up two or three years.

Label Spices With Dates

Your memory of your last spice purchase may be spotty. To keep tabs on freshness, grab a permanent marker and tape and label the goods with the date you opened them. Do this when you transfer your spice booty to jars, too.

Toss Spices Past Their Prime

While it may be frustrating to toss out the old, like the sumac you tracked down at a spice market in Jerusalem or the saffron you splurged on for a lavish, one-off bouillabaisse feast, remember this: Stale spices don't bode well for your creation.

Use Them Up

Proper spice storage and discerning curation have their benefits, namely the delicious outcome of your culinary labors. "Keeping your spices well organized, within reach, and well-labeled can also encourage you to use them more so they don't sit in your spice drawer for a year without being touched," says Scommegna.

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