Spice Saver

Expert advice on how to store spices for maximum freshness

Spices. They're miniscule but mighty—key to transforming chickpeas into chana masala and ordinary tomatoes into a rich and complex sauce. Without them, food would be boring, and that just won't do. If there's one thing that's sadder than a dish with no flavor at all, it's one with washed-out flavor due to played-out spices that have lost their potency. Don't let this happen to you.

To help retain as much of the potential in your spice cabinet as possible, we consulted a panel of experts from Sahadi Fine Foods in Brooklyn, Kalustyan's in New York City and Oaktown Spice Shop in Oakland, California. Take heed, friends.

It's all about the turnover.

A spice's flavor is concentrated in its volatile oils. And according to Cook's Illustrated, it's the aroma of those oils that broadcasts the flavor to you. But as the descriptor "volatile" suggests, the very nature of those precious oils is to dissipate. Whole spices have a shelf life of up to two years, while ground, they last for no more than one. So it behooves you to buy your spices as close to the time after which they were dried and ground as possible.

The best way to do that, Christine Sahadi Whelan says, is to buy your spices from a shop that sells a lot of spices quickly. If you buy off the shelf, choose the brand that appears to have the most turnover. "If you are buying from a store that packs their own, look at the quality," Whelan advises. "Are the leaves whole? Does it look pure? Are most of the berries unbroken? Are the packages clear or cloudy from spice dust? These are indications of how fresh the spices are when you purchase them and how they should keep. A good, fresh spice, stored properly, will give many months of flavorful dishes."

Buy in small amounts.

Since the shelf life of a ground spice is only about a year—and since you can't always be sure exactly when spices were ground—our experts advise buying enough to last you six to eight months. How much that means exactly depends on the spice and how often you cook with it, Erica Perez, who owns Oaktown Spice Shop with partner John Beaver, says. She explains: "Some spices, such as chili powder or curry powder, are typically used in relatively large quantities, sometimes use as much as two to four tablespoons in one recipe. In these cases, a half-cup jar is only enough to make two batches. For other spices that have very strong flavors, such as asafoetida, ground cloves or ground nutmeg, smaller sizes suffice."

So start paying attention to your spice consumption. Buy larger quantities for anything you go through quickly. But for those specialized ingredients you use once in a blue moon, you might be better off buying a little more than the recipe calls for, just before you intend to use it to ensure you're getting optimal flavor.

Handle with care.

It's no exaggeration to say that our desire for spices paved the way to globalization. (Remember learning about the Silk Road?) Once upon a time, peppercorns were as precious as gold. So handle your spices like the valuable goods they are.

All of our experts agree: Spices' top enemies are heat, light and oxygen. The best way to store them is to minimize their exposure to all three. Because ground spices have more surface area to release their volatile oils, it's important to keep them in opaque, airtight jars to minimize the risk of oxidation. But light and heat have more damaging effects.

According to our experts, the absolute worst place you can store your spices is above the oven or stovetop, where they're exposed to both light and heat. Instead, tuck them away in a cabinet that's a little further from your range. And, if possible, choose glass vessels, Perez says. Storing spices in metal tins works fine for some spices, but salt or blends that contain salt can corrode these containers, she says. Nor is plastic an ideal choice: "Don't store spices in plastic bags for more than a few weeks, because the oils in the spices break down the plastic," Perez warns.

Grind your own.

When a spice is whole, it has natural protections in place to preserve its precious oils, Perez explains. Whenever possible, buy whole spices and grind them yourself for ultimate flavor. Whole dried herbs are easy to crumble by hand, and the microplane rasp makes quick work of grinding whole nutmeg and woodier herbs and spices, such as lemongrass. Harder spices, such as cloves, can be whizzed to a coarse consistency in a coffee grinder, and, of course, there's the beloved pepper mill.

However, all of our experts admit that some spices are difficult to grind to the fine consistency you might want at home, such as cinnamon or cayenne powder. You're better off buying those preground. Still other whole spices, such as cumin seed and cardamom pods, are easier to grind after being toasted in a skillet, which just so happens to deepen their flavor.

Sounds like a win-win to us.