How do I know if my spices are fresh?


​Is this ground cumin I bought five years ago still fresh?

The short answer? No, it’s not fresh. Throw it out.
If that sounds drastic, consider this: the goal of adding spices to a dish is to make it taste better, not worse. At best, adding stale spices won’t make your dish taste better, and at worst, stale spices will make it taste much, much worse. If moisture has worked its way into your spice container, it could even make you sick.
As a rule of thumb, whole spices can last up to three years if stored in the right conditions, while ground spices should be tossed after one to two years. Not every spice has the same shelf life, so take a sniff before adding any suspect spices to your recipe.
Dried herbs like parsley, chives or basil -- which we tend to think of as spices – shouldn’t be in your cupboard for more than two years.
It’s easy to accumulate a lot of spices you rarely use. If you make a recipe that calls for a spice you don’t have, it’s common enough to buy it, use it once, forget about it, then let it sit in the back of a cupboard collecting dust until you either move or replace the cabinets.
Here are a few things to consider when managing your spice collection:

- As a general rule, ground spices have a shorter shelf life than whole spices. Ground spices will lose aromatic compounds and flavour rapidly. The ground cardamom you bought a year ago doesn’t taste the same as the ground cardamom you bought yesterday.

- When you buy spices, make sure you write a date on the container so you know when you bought it.

- Before buying anything, think of what you could realistically use within a year.

- Purge yearly. Go through your spice cupboard in January or February every year, take stock of what you have, and throw out anything that’s been hanging around too long.

- If any of your spices get wet, don’t use them. If they’ve clumped, gone hard, or otherwise changed due to moisture, throw them out. Moisture is the root of all evil for food storage. Without moisture, things won’t grow in your spices. With moisture, if there are mould spores in there, they’ll grow and become potentially dangerous.

- To keep your spices fresh, keep them in a cupboard away from heat or light. Don’t keep them next to the stove or in clear jars on the counter (even though those are the most convenient  locations).

Now that you’ve cleared out the ancient spices from your cupboard, how can you prevent this build-up from happening again? Here are two easy solutions:
1. Seek out recipes that use spices you recently purchased. You bought a jar of nutmeg for pumpkin pie, but there are other uses for it. Use your favourite recipe website –, maybe? – to search for a specific ingredient, and see what results turn up. Nutmeg scones? Nutmeg mashed potatoes?  Chai tea? Peach cobbler? It’s a great way to come up with new meal ideas when you’re not sure what to make.
2. Beware of false economy, and don’t buy huge quantities of spices you could never conceivably use before they go stale. Yes, $6 for a tiny jar of ground cumin sounds like a high price, but resist the temptation to spend $9 on a jar that’s twice as big, even though it sounds like a better deal. You’re never going to use it up before it goes bad, and you’re going to feel guilty (and/or silly) when you have to throw it out.
Last updated on January 22, 2019