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Nov 21, 2008 08:23 AM

Spice carousel archaeology

Picked up pith helmet and pickaxe today, and commenced excavations in my spice cabinet.
It is a veritable museum of packaging styles, starting with today's red-lidded plastic jars, going back through glass jars, to white metal tins. I know where I lived when I bought the chervil, which makes it over 35 years old. Some mysteries spun out of the inner depths of the carousel....why do I have a tin of fennel, which I loathe? And not one but 2 newer plastic jars of cumin (for Indian recipes I settle for garam masala or curry powder instead, because I don't want to buy spices I'll rarely use, and don't cook southwestern dishes). I chucked the decades-old asefoetida and the Molly McButter, but the fennel and the tall jar of 20-yr old nutmegs - did I mention that if there's more than a pinch of nutmeg in a dish that's all I taste AND that there's also a bag of 6 nutmegs that's "only" 10 years old? - went back into the inner sanctum.

I've read all those "toss your old spices....mascara....toothbrush...etc." articles but am skeptical that these are merely manufacturers' ploys to boost sales. I think most people my age had the same toothbrush from the time our permanent teeth came in until we were paying our own rents. As long as there's still some aroma in the spice, I'll just add more when it's old. I also notice that the old stuff in the glass jars retains potency better than the plastic-jarred spices, so I'm keeping those old glass ones and transferring newer spices into these. Am I being frugal, or just inconscionably cheap and pack-ratty?

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  1. If you've really had spices for 35 years you are seriously due for an update.
    I agree that glass jars do help keep spices and dried herbs "fresher", for want of a better word, and I've kept rarely-used spices for 2 or 3 years with no ill effects, but at this point, and for safety reasons, why not just toss them all and stock up anew at Penzey's? They sell bulk in plastic bags and smaller amounts in glass bottles. Toss it all and buy fresh. Some spices have oils that can go rancid--don't take a chance on 20 year old nutmeg.

    1 Reply
    1. re: iluvcookies

      Toss 'em, not because of safety reasons, but for reasons of flavor/taste. They will taste awful and will ruin the flavor of anything you use them in. I used some dried dill last year that wasn't all that old, failed to sniff the jar first and it made my tuna salad taste like dust!

    2. I recently saw an ad from McCormick's that says if you still have spices in cans, (and I did), they are at least 15 years old. I think that is also true for any jars that have a Baltimore address for the company

      1 Reply
      1. re: FriedClamFanatic

        I saw that same link, and found two jars of spices, nearly full, that were over 15 years old, and at least a half dozen that were over 10 years old. I can only assume that I bought them because a recipe called for a tablespoon of __________, and I never made those recipes again. But that gave me an excuse to purge my spice shelf, which I did quite happily.

      2. A few years ago I went to a Mario Batali book signing. He spoke a bit and the first thing he said was "throw out all of your spices and buy new ones". I laughed and went home and did just that. That's when I learned about Penzey's from Chowhound. I ordered all new spices it was unbelieveable what fresh spices will do.

        Then last year I was at my parents place in Florida and I offered to cook fajitas for dinner. I took out my mom's spices, which were probably about 25 years old, and used them since that was all there was. I might as well have been cooking with sawdust. Those fajitas has absolutely zero taste.

        Toss them, buy new ones. It's not such an investment, treat yourself!

        2 Replies
        1. re: valerie

          What's the point in replacing old spices? If you haven't used them in 5 years, what makes you think you will use the replacements in the next 5?

          Tossing out old stale spices makes sense, but there's no harm in checking them for smell and taste before doing so. I have a jar of fenugreek seeds that still smells of maple. Just because I don't remember when I bought them doesn't mean I have to toss them - unless I am short of space. Often it is possible to make up for loss in flavor by just using more.

          But, as others have observed, whole seeds keep a lot better than ground. Besides the fenugreek I have old whole black mustard seeds, black cardamom pods, and achiote seeds. Achiote is still useful for coloring.

          1. re: paulj

            "What's the point in replacing old spices? If you haven't used them in 5 years, what makes you think you will use the replacements in the next 5?"

            Nobody said to buy things that you never use. I don't buy obscure spices until I am ready to use them for a particular recipe, and then I just buy a very small amount.

        2. Definitely agree with previous posters and the conventional wisdom that the unexplored spice drawer is only good for laughs and gasps, and not for cooking. The best surprise was my mom still had some kitchen bouquet that was older than I am, i.e. over 35 years old.

          Dump out the spices and save the old spice tins and jars to hold odds and ends like tacks or paperclips. As for the mascara and toothbrushes, they harbor bacteria, so they DO really need to be tossed.

          1. By all means, save your old spices -- NOT to use in cooking, but to compare to your new, fresh spices. The difference will astound you! I replenish some ground spices every few months, because even in that short time, there's a noticeable difference. Whole spices stay in peak condition considerably longer.

            1 Reply
            1. re: Channa

              That was another thing I learned from small quantities so that you go through them faster and are buying fresh spices more often. This way there is less time that they are hanging around in the cabinet.