Being able to whip up any number of dishes based the pantry staples you already have on hand is a great way to keep your grocery expenses down, and a well-stocked kitchen should include at least a basic selection of frequently used spices and herbs.
Like most things in life, spices and herbs are usually best when kept simple, and a budget-friendly spice rack means making sure you’ll actually be able to use the spices you keep on hand before they go bad. The truth is that most of us have way too many spices on hand, and we could probably all benefit from a nice big purge.
Believe it or not, most dried herbs and spices have a definite shelf-life and it’s actually not nearly as long as you think! Most jars come with a clear expiration date that usually falls within 1 to 3 years, if kept sealed. When opened, most spices last from 12-24 months, depending on storage location. Fresh herbs and spices can add a lot of oomph to your cooking, but old or expired spices may detract from or muddy an otherwise great dish.
Most herbs and spices should be added at the end of the cooking process. If you’re cooking up a freezer meal or making a crockpot dish, we find that the flavors turn out brighter and stronger when there’s a final round of seasoning added just before the dish is served, especially when using fresh ground pepper or herbs.
Spices & Herbs: Containers and Storage
Small jars work very well for spices due to their tight-fitting lids. Glass works well because you won’t transfer flavors. Plus, the jars can be reused and there are a variety of sizes available. Small mason jars are one possibility, or you can order a set of 12 glass jars like these ones for less than $15. I’ve also seen individual jars sold at The Container Store or Bed, Bath, & Beyond.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, spices should never be stored near your stove. Heat damages spices and weakens their flavor. Spices should be kept in a cool, dry, dark area of your kitchen, like in the pantry. Red-colored spices (including red pepper, paprika and chili powder) should always be stored in the fridge, especially in hot and humid climates. Seeds like poppy and sesame should also be stored in the fridge to prevent the oils from going rancid.
For easy access, store spices on a lazy Susan or on a staggered shelf so you can clearly see labels and quickly determine what spices you have on hand. A drawer works great as well, as long as you can clearly see everything and it all fits properly. In our kitchen, my husband used a few scrap pieces of wood to create simple drawer racks to hold the spice jars.
As you transfer your spices to jars, it is a good idea to include a sticker or mark the date on the bottom of each container. This ensures you don’t keep spices beyond their usefulness. As tempting as it can be to buy in bulk, only purchase what you can use within the allotted “freshness” time period—six months to a year once a jar is opened.
When it comes to herbs, nothing beats fresh. “Green” flavors just don’t dry well. A windowsill herb garden with a few basics like parsley and cilantro can really up your culinary game. Try a cool countertop pod like the Miracle-Gro AeroGarden to keep your herbs fresh and growing all winter long.
If you have a black thumb, freeze-dried herbs or herbs frozen in cubes (like these by Dorot) are great alternatives to fresh. You can also make your own by chopping herbs and storing them in broth or olive oil, then freezing them ice cube trays.
If you purchase fresh (sometimes pricey) herbs from the market, store in open bags with damp paper toweling to help them last longer. Prepara Herb Savor Pods help your herbs last three times as long in the fridge and they’re worth the investment seeing as fresh herbs often come in large quantities and are hard to use up in just a few days.
Building Your Spice Drawer
To keep it simple, you really only need to keep a few basic herbs and spices on hand. Storing them as whole as possible will help preserve their life and flavor.
- Salt (I love these Maldon Sea Salt Flakes, but any sea salt or kosher salt will work)
- Black Pepper (Peppercorns are even better!)
- Chili Powder (store in the fridge)
- Garlic Powder
- Minced Onion
- Ground Cinnamon
- Freeze Dried Dill (Litehouse brand, found in the produce section at Target!)
- Paprika (store in the fridge)
- Dried Thyme
- Seasoned Salt or Lemon Pepper
Add these extras if you…
Do a lot of baking:
- Nutmeg (purchasing whole will ensure a longer life and fresher flavor)
- Poppy seeds (store in the fridge)
- Pumpkin Pie Spice
- Ground Ginger
Like Mexican flavors:
- Crushed Red Pepper (store in the fridge)
- Cayenne Pepper (store in the fridge)
Like Italian cooking:
- Dried Oregano
- Freeze Dried Basil (Litehouse brand, found in the produce section at Target!)
- Crushed Red Pepper (store in the fridge)
Like Asian & Middle Eastern dishes:
- Yellow Curry Powder
- Sesame Seeds
- Mustard Seed
- Freeze Dried Ginger (Litehouse brand, found in the produce section at Target!)
At this point, you might be scratching your head and wondering, “What about parsley? Cilantro? Basil?” Unfortunately, many green herbs simply aren’t worth storing because they lose so much flavor. The exceptions to this rule are Thyme and Dill which both remain fairly potent, even on a shelf. But for common herbs like parsley, cilantro, basil, chives, sage, and mint, it really is better to use fresh whenever possible.
Once in a while, your recipe will call for a unique herb or spice, like Gumbo File Powder or Cream of Tartar, and offten it is that unique flavor that really “makes” the dish. In those cases, we recommend buying the smallest quantity possible from a spice retailer or the bulk foods section of your market. Often you can transfer leftovers from a bag to the smallest jar possible or simply only buy enough to use all at once.
Keeping it Organized
While it might seem a little overwhelming at first, overhauling and assessing your spice and herb collection doesn’t have to take all day. Simply follow these five simple steps:
- Check expiration dates and get rid of anything that:
- You don’t use regularly
- Looks discolored
- Looks like it’s caking
- Smells weak
- You’ve had open for longer than a year
- Find and assemble glass containers with lids that seal tightly, such as these or these.
- Create labels and expiration labels. (Try these chalkboard labels–so cute!)
- Assemble jars and fill with spices
- Store in an accessible corner of your fridge or pantry, away from light, heat and moisture
It can feel a little painful to throw herbs and spices away, especially when you know how expensive they can be, and it can also be a little scary to add new flavors to your collection if you aren’t sure how to use them. Even so, a well-stocked kitchen strikes a balance between flavor and waste.
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How do you store your spices?