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Old Spice

March 6, 2012

ADS is more like a brother than a friend. We’ve been friends for over three decades. Raf I’ve known for almost a quarter century.

Old friends have old stories—tales that get told time and time again. They eventually become legends. Facts can sometimes change, but the heart of the narrative remains the same.

Today with the recent opening of Penzeys Spices in Albany, I’m inspired to share one of these with you from our college days, as it involves Raf housesitting while ADS was away with his folks, and an unsettling discovery Raf made when looking through ADS’ parents’ spice cabinet.

Raf wasn’t looking to be a dick. He was just looking for some seasonings to cook his dinner. But what he found was a cabinet full of antique tins of ground spices. Some of which were in containers he’d never seen before in his lifetime.

That was because the spices were older than he was.

In an attempt to be helpful, he pulled all the spices from the cabinet and left them on the counter with a note, which said as much, and suggested that perhaps it was time to buy new ones.

ADS reported that his parents were un-thrilled and Raf wasn’t invited to housesit again. I also understand that despite the note and the stark reminder on the age of the spices, the tins went right back into the cabinet, where presumably they remained unused for another decade.

We all had a great time with this story when we were younger. Ha ha. Silly old people. Who holds onto their spices well past the time they’ve lost their potency? Surely not us young food-loving sophisticates.

Flash forward twenty years and listen to my tale of shame and woe.

Before I confess to my sins, I need to make sure you understand something about dried herbs and spices. They don’t last forever. I know this. The most conservative measure puts the lifespan of ground spices at one year. Most people agree that six months is pushing it. And the most fastidious insist that spices begin to lose their potency immediately, a fact which I do not contest.

Whole spices last longer than ground spices, with some commentators placing their lifespan at two years. Peppercorns can even go further, lasting up to five years.

It’s not as if herbs and spices actually go bad. They are not going to make you sick. Rather, they simply lose their punch. That means a recipe that calls for a teaspoon of ground cinnamon may require a fair bit more if your spices are old and weary.

You can tell by using your senses. With time the vibrancy of their color fades, their aroma diminishes and may pick up off-smells, and their flavor dissipates.

I know all these things, and yet. I have spices older than I’d care to admit.

Part of the problem is the perception of the passing of time. Intellectually I know that we’ve lived in Albany for over four years. But it really doesn’t feel that long. It really feels more like a blur. And there were definitely some spices we picked up after the move that are now by all measures long gone.

But we also moved across country with some spices. Some of those were wedding gifts. This summer we will celebrate our eleventh anniversary. But other spices we got before we were married, and I fear they were old at the time they came into our possession.

Before she was Mrs. Fussy, my bride-to-be had an elderly admirer who we called GuRay. And I know that the jar of whole cloves and whole mustard seeds that reside in our spice drawer today, came from the set of seasonings he gave us in the years before he passed away.

They could indeed be twenty years old

Here’s the bottom line. If you think you don’t need new spices because your spice drawer or rack is full, you are kidding yourself. Most people have depleted seasonings that they just can’t bear to part with.

Take a look around your supply and find the one or two oldest bottles. Figure out if you’ll actually cook with them in the next six months. If yes, run out to Penzeys Spices to buy their replacements. You can hold onto the old bottles until you get home and conduct a Pepsi Challenge style showdown between the old and new spices. It’s going to be night and day.

Repeat as often as affordable, feasible, practical, and fun.

You may also want to label your new spices with a date, lest you have to go through this process again ten years from now. Just try to buy what you will need. And as much as you can, stick to whole spices that you can grind as needed in a mortar and pestle or spice (coffee) grinder.

Like good coffee, spices are significantly more potent and aromatic when ground fresh. And if you are looking for ways to dispose of old spice without wasting the precious stuff, I’ve found you this and this. Now get out there and shop.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. March 6, 2012 11:38 am

    Daniel: I must disagree with you about the “six month” rule (guideline?) regarding spices. And I get my information directly from Penzeys themselves. From their catalog:

    “A good guideline is to buy a one year’s supply of herbs or ground spices, and a one to two year supply of whole spices. The government’s guideline for freshness dating is four years for whole spices and two years for ground. Some people say six months is the longest spices should be stored, but most spices are harvested only once a year, so it does not make sense to discard them every six months.

    On the other hand, two years is too long to store finely powdered spices. Each spice contains hundreds of flavor components. It is the quantity and balance of these components that determines the quality of the spice. These flavor components will dissipate at different rates. A top quality spice may be better at two years old than a low quality spice at two months. When in doubt about a spice, just smell it. If it smells strong and spicy, use it. If not, toss it.”

    “Just smell it” is good advice for a lot of things, really.

    • March 6, 2012 1:12 pm

      I love Penzeys. I trust them. But there is an inarguable and qualitative difference between “harvested” and “ground”.

      For the record, the “six month” rule isn’t mine. It’s merely a statement about the recommendations that are floating around. And hopefully the takeaway from this story isn’t to throw away all your spices. Rather, I want people to consider tossing the oldest of their spices, which I guarantee for most people is significantly older than six months and likely to be several years old.

      But you are right. The nose knows. And I bet Penzeys wouldn’t mind if you brought an old jar or two into the store so you could compare the smell of your faded spices to their new ones.

      • March 6, 2012 3:47 pm

        I recently replaced my old oregano with a fresh new supply from Penzey’s. The aroma difference was astonishing! The old oregano was probably only about a year old.

        Think about it: if you’re replacing six-month old spices, there’s a chance (a good chance, too, if you’re buying from the same supplier) that you’re buying the new stash from the same harvest as the old stash.

  2. March 6, 2012 11:45 am

    Can you freeze already-ground spices?

  3. March 6, 2012 11:46 am

    I totally just did the “Pepsi Challenge” with my spices last week! Once I got the email that Penzey’s was open I needed to make some room.. Shocked at the difference in my two allspice bottles… and oddly, I kept the older one. Go figure.

  4. Darren Shupe permalink
    March 6, 2012 11:59 am

    I couldn’t agree more with wendalicious. If a bottle of spices begins to take on rotten aromas, you need to toss it.

    My father was the Pacific region sales director for McCormick spices for a number of years in the late sixties and early seventies. As such, he brought home spices pretty much at will. He would never let a bottle reside in the cabinet longer than a few months – particularly with ground herbs and spices, you need to pay attention, because they degrade quickly. You’re a little better off with things like seeds and peppercorns – you can store them and grind them when you need their flavor.

    I’m heading up to the new Penzey’s tonight – need to replace a few things and augment my spice inventory. I’m simply happy that they’ve chosen to open a new store around here – even if it can’t be in downtown Albany (one of my pet peeves – that everything has to be out in the middle of nowhere, viz. Wolf Road). Thanks for the heads-up that they’re finally up and running.

  5. March 6, 2012 12:13 pm

    I’d like to check this place out, but I do NOT go to Crossgates.

    I’m torn.

  6. March 6, 2012 12:17 pm

    Oh, but yes, I’ve also been guilty of having spices around too long. I cut back on what I stock because of it. I used to have one of the big Dean and Deluca racks, and many of the spices sat around too long while others were depleted immediately.

    I need small amounts of a small number of items.

    Since everyone likes these guys so much, I’ll check them out on-line and see what kind of “essentials” packs they have.

  7. A Raf permalink
    March 6, 2012 12:20 pm

    How can you tell this story without mentioning the timeline Raf made detailing historical events corresponding with the age of each spice?

    • ADS permalink
      March 6, 2012 7:43 pm

      What I recall was that they were laid out on the counter in chronological order. In my mother’s defense, I believe she looked at the spices (as well as the rest of the kitchen) as essentially a decorative item, so the idea the spices would “go bad” was comical – after all, their existence in the house was something of a mystery anyway….

      • Raf permalink
        March 6, 2012 9:49 pm

        I put the spices on a piece of paper and made notes about important events that happened around the date on the spice (e.g. ADS born, Nixon resigns, etc.) Leaving someone a note telling them that their spices were expired would be dickish and not funny.

  8. March 6, 2012 2:45 pm

    Guilty, but recovering. I have found that buying whole (where feasible) and grinding my own on demand has helped the situation.
    Hopefully, the impetus of a new supply of fresh spices will decrease the overall age of the spices & herbs dwelling in Capital Region cabinets. We can only hope.

  9. March 6, 2012 4:32 pm

    I randomly caught a bit of that “Pioneer Woman” show the other week. She was recommending mixing all of your old spices/herbs together in a plastic tub and using it as a “spice mix……..”

    It made me want to puke thinking about all of the ill-advised haus fraus throughout the land be-sprinkling their meats and veg with all manner of horrid melanges and then inflicting on their unsuspecting families.

  10. March 7, 2012 12:11 am

    Ok, I’ll be the lonely voice in defense of expired spices. If they change taste or completely lose their taste, get rid of them. (Old rosemary falls into this category; unfortunately I have some which was old when I bought it, in one of the dollar jars at Ocean State Job Lots.)

    But if they simply become less potent, then simply use more of them. You will feel thrifty and the spices won’t feel abandoned and useless. It’s a good thing.

  11. Darren Shupe permalink
    March 7, 2012 5:12 pm

    Your great story about Raf’s note reminded me of going to my late grandfather’s place when I was a kid (this would have been 1981, I think). My cousins and I went through his spice/condiment cupboard, and we still laugh about the bottle of Lea & Perrins we found with a 1967 expiration date. Thanks for the nice chuckle this afternoon.

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