Spices & Herbs: A Quick Lesson

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As this terrific video by Consumer Reports shows, you don’t need to spend a lot of money on fancy spices. However, the key element is when spices get old. Ground herbs and spices are more exposed to air, and thus they lose their potency more quickly.

Spices vs. Herbs

First, its important to know the difference between a spice and an herb. A spice is any dried part of a plant, other than the leaves, that’s used for seasoning and flavoring. The leaves aren’t included because they’re referred to as herbs

For instance, cinnamon is made from the inner bark of a tree. Saffron is the stigma of a flower.  Allspice is a dried berry. Nutmeg is the interior of a seed. Cloves are dried flower buds. Common herbs — think parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme  — are all made from the leaves of plant. 

How Long Can Spices & Herbs Be Stored?

 Spices tend to last longer than herbs. In their whole form, such as cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, intact allspice berries or nutmegs, they can be kept around for years. But once they’re ground, their shelf life is cut to perhaps a year or two. Why? Because more surface is exposed to air and the oxygen breaks them down. Herbs keep their potency for about a year and then can drop off steeply. 

It’s difficult to give hard- and fast-rules about how long to keep spices in your pantry for a couple of reasons. Spices break down at different rates. Depending on where you buy your spices, they may have already been on the shelf for a long time.  “Dollar stores” often sell spices and herbs (and other food products) that have been cleared from other retailers. Spice jar sets that come already filled with herbs are often past their shelf life by the time you buy them. 

The only way to  tell is to smell them. Herbs and spices should have a strong smell. If, like a dying flower, they’ve got a hint of their original scent, then keep them but use more in recipes as the lack of smell indicates a loss of potency. If you detect little or no smell, it’s time to ditch them.

Buying Herbs & Spices

Buy spices in the whole form whenever possible. They’ll keep for much longer. Invest in a small mortar and pestle and crush as needed. This sounds like a hassle but it only takes a minute and it’s great to take your day’s frustration on some allspice berries. Alternately, you can purchase a small coffee grinder and just set it aside for spices if you think you’ll use them often. 

If you go to a big box store and you see those big packages of spices in bulk, stop yourself for a minute and think it through before you buy one. If you use a lot of ground pepper and you’re buying whole peppercorns, then all right, get it. But if you’re holding a huge package of ground cinnamon because you might use a bit in cookies or once a year on eggnog, put it back. You’re better off buying a small package. It will keep its potency and take up less space in your cupboard until that time when you finally throw most of it away.

As the video notes, you don’t have to buy the most expensive. One trick is to go through your cupboards and mark each of your spices with a line. In six months, revisit your spices and look to see how much you used of each one to get a realistic view of how much paprika or cardamon you’re truly going through each year.

I prefer to buy spices in small quantities, just buy an ounce or two at a time. Frontier has stations at numerous stores in which you can buy them from bulk containers; you can find a local outlet on their web site. There’s also mail order. I like both World Spice and Market Spice, both based in Seattle. They have terrific spice blends, too, and sell many of them in whole form so they last a long time. The minimum purchase on many of their items is just one ounce and prices start at $1.25 an ounce. If you live in an urban center, you may be able to find a similar store in your area.

Storing Herbs & Spices

No matter what you buy, be sure to store them away from heat in a cool place. This means not above the stove or in a cupboard or drawer next to the stove. The heat will break the herbs and spices down faster. Also, store them in airtight containers away from the light. Yes, that means glass jars on a spice rack on that sunny spot on your counter is sub-optimal. Consider putting them in a cupboard, or shifting them to whole spices if possible. 

Drying Your Own Herbs

The cheapest way to get nice, freshly dried herbs is to do it yourself. During those summer months when stores and farmer’s markets explode with inexpensive herbs, buy an extra bunch or two of each. Tie the end with kitchen string and then hook them up in a dark, dry place for about a week or so until all the moisture evaporates. Alternately, you can lay them on a cookie sheet in a low oven (200 F) for a few hours. For more tips, you take a look at this primer from the National Center for Home Food Preservation

Challenge: Tackle Your Spices

Grab a marker. Go through all of the jars of spices throughout your kitchen. Smell each one to determine if it’s still got some kick. Toss the expired ones, but keep the jars. Try buying a small amount of each in bulk, or in the case of herbs, try drying a couple of your own. With your marker, make a note of the date on each jar of the date and the amount in the jar. Then, put a reminder in your calendar to go through the whole process again in six months or next year. 

Note how much of a spice or herb you used during that time and use it as a guide to how much ou should buy in the future. 

About katflinn

Kathleen Flinn is the author of "The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry," "The Kitchen Counter Cooking School" and "Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good." All are published by Viking/Penguin.


  1. I just cleaned my spice cupboard! It was really interesting to pull everything out and mark the jars. And now that I know some of my high-use italian herbs can be the cheaper version, I will probably use more!

    • Great! I was also inspired to go through my spice drawer. Somehow, I ended up with two jars of rubbed sage and a big thing of celery seed, although I rarely use the latter. I had a whole bag of dried thyme and marjoram from the garden. So, I decided to make some poultry seasoning and put it into a dozen small packets and took it to my local food bank.

      Simply combine the ingredients and grind together with a mortar or pestle or a small food grinder. I set aside a coffee grinder for milling whole spices or mixes. Store in an air-tight container.

      1 tablespoon crumbled dried sage
      2 teaspoons dried thyme
      2 teaspoons dried marjoram
      2 teaspoons dried rosemary
      ½ teaspoon celery seed
      ½ teaspoon nutmeg
      ½ teaspoon fresh ground pepper

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