How Old Is That Spice?

With the new year often comes resolutions to eat more healthy foods. For many of us this means reducing fats and salt, two items that add flavor and satisfy our hunger. The problem is that when you take these out you have a flavor gap. That’s where herbs comes in.

But wait! As you reach for the jars of herbs and spices are you sure they will deliver the flavor? I’ll bet you don’t really know how long they have been tucked away in a drawer or on a rack. Be honest – were some of them wedding presents? Are some of those jars the result of an enthusiastic, but brief effort, to cook some exotic dish?

Herbs and spices, like all other organic material, have a shelf life. Whole leaves, seeds, or bark will last 3-4 years if kept in a tightly sealed jar. Ground herbs and spices last 1-2 years. Spice mixes barely last a year. If you suspect your seasonings have lived a little too long in your kitchen, it’s time to employ  the “Look, Sniff, and Taste” Test.


  • Look — Is it faded? Do the jar contents cake together? Are there suspicious signs of insects? If so, out it goes.
  • Sniff — Open the jar and take a whiff. Can you smell the herb or spice? If there is no aroma, then it is probably devoid of the essential oils that provide flavor and should be discarded.
  • Taste — Take a small amount and put it on your tongue. If the distinctive flavor is still there, keep it. But if it tastes no better than cardboard or grass clippings, throw it out!

Now you know what to do. Find a time when no one is around (so you won’t be embarrassed – sheesh!) and use my Look-Sniff-Taste test. I know those jars originally cost $2-3 but if they can’t deliver the flavor, it’s time to let them go. Finally, make a list for your next shopping trip of seasoning you need to replace. I guarantee you’ll taste the difference in months to come.

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Gardening is an exercise in optimism. Sometimes, it is the triumph of hope over experience.Marina Schinz
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