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Everything You Need To Know about Your Spice Cabinet

July 14, 2020
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Everything You Need To Know About Your Spice Cabinet 

How many jars of spices do you think you have? Real question actually, I’d love to know. How many of those do you use? And how many of them still taste good? Spices are one of the ingredients that people often forget to check before heading to the store, so you either annoyingly run out mid-cooking, or you buy another jar “just to be safe” and then you find yourself with 3 partially used jars of ground turmeric. Amirite? 

Let’s start with what’s currently in your cabinet now. I love pulling everything out, cleaning the surfaces and lining up what you have. Once you can see it all, check if anything has to be thrown away. Spices should be fragrant and have taste. If you open the jar and can’t smell anything, and you can’t taste it on your tongue, it’s probably not worth saving. 

Additionally, anything that is clumped (typically from moisture), smells moldy, or smells otherwise off, should just go in the trash. Yes, this is food waste, but keeping it in your cabinet doesn’t help prevent future waste. As with just about everything (except infant formula) any expiration dates printed on herbs and spices don’t mean anything about the safety of the food – so rely on the taste, color, look, and smell.

Another bad sign is if the color is faded. If you see fading, taste and smell it first to decide whether to keep it or not. But, if you see fading, this means your storage space isn’t blocking light. 

 

The next step then, is to decide where to put your spice rack.

You want to find a cool, dry place that isn’t exposed to light. Many kitchens have strange small cabinets over the stove, but those are not a good option because heat and steam from the stove rises and will cause the temperature to fluctuate. Don’t forget that counter top ovens, InstantPots and slow cookers, and your dishwasher are all sources of heat and steam and ideally your spices shouldn’t be nearby. 

I use a regular cabinet for my spice shelf and I added a bamboo riser so that I can have 4 rows of jars visible. I have seen kitchens that have a wide shallow drawer that is meant for spice jars. This is also a great option, though sometimes it can limit the shape of the container used. You might end up with a second location for some different looking containers. 

 

Let’s talk containers.

The gold standard of spice purchasing is from spice sellers like Penzeys or Oaktown Spice Shop. You can choose which size jar you’d prefer and they’re all consistent. Even if you buy your spices from the grocery store, if you stick to one brand they’ll all come in similar jars. From a zero waste perspective, buying from a bulk store then refilling the jars you already have is the way to go! Or at least, look for the glass jars over plastic.

If you’re moving spices to new containers for any reason be sure they’re very airtight. Small mason jars are perfect for this as are recycled jars from other small goods like jelly, mustard, capers, etc. There are gadgets for spices that have snap on lids which do look organized but aren’t as well sealed.

If you have multiple jars of 1 item that can be married, do it. Don’t combine them however if the freshness and quality are different.

 

Now – back into the cabinet!

As tempting as it may be to alphabetize, there’s truly no need. This would put arrowroot upfront and oregano all the way in the back! Not user friendly. 

Divide the whole collection into 3 piles – use most often; use middle; use infrequently. (If you like, you can then alphabetize these piles). Sometimes I have a 4th pile of oddly shaped containers too. Load the spices back into the rack or cabinet putting the least used varieties in the back and the most used up front. I have a space off to the side for the oversized jars. 

 

Time to Go Shopping

When you can see everything and are restocking, it’s the perfect time to buy new herbs and spices. Make a list of what’s empty or that you had to toss out.

 

Maintain

To keep it up, remember to include checking your cabinet before you shop! If you keep a running grocery list weekly, it’s quite easy to remember to add a spice when you’ve used it up. Or, keep a list taped to the inside of the cabinet of things you may need to restock or check on before your next trip to the store. Every few months check in with your spices and if you have something to use up – plan a dish around using it. 

 

As a shelf life guideline:

Whole seeds 1-2 years 

Ground seeds ~ 12 months

Dried leaves (herbs) 1-2 years 

 

Remember, spices won’t turn bad overnight, it’s a slow tapering off of potency. 

Alison
Alison Mountford is the Founder and CEO of Ends+Stems, a meal planning service designed to reduce household food waste and stop the effects of climate change. Alison has been named a Rubicon Waste Fit Champion, was a finalist for the Spoon Tech Startup Showcase, and has appeared on many podcasts and radio shows, and works as a food waste consultant.