At one time, only royalty or wealthy people could afford to add spice to their food. Wars were fought over black pepper and other spices that today are taken for granted in developed nations, where supermarket shelves are lined with affordable flavorings.
Savvy cooks know that—in order to add taste and zest to their dishes—it’s important to keep spices and extracts properly stored and fresh. Here are a few tips from Erin Hatcher, spokeswoman for the C.F. Sauer Co. of Richmond, Va., a leader in the spices and extracts industry since 1887.
Storage: Since the enemies of spices are heat, light, moisture and air, proper storage is essential. Keep both spices and extracts in dark, dry, cool locations such cupboards or pantries and away from heat or kitchen appliances. Don’t store spices on decorative wall or countertop racks; sunlight can drain them of flavor and color.
“And don’t shake your spices over dishes in a steaming pan,” Hatcher advises. “Moisture and heat can cause clumping. Shake spices into the palm of your hand before adding them to food you’re cooking.”
Freshness test: Bottled spices don’t spoil but lose their strength over time. Many spices have distinct aromas when opened. If the aroma isn’t present, particularly for baking spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon, clove and allspice, the intended flavor won’t be imparted in your finished dish.
If you are unsure about the flavor remaining in your dried spices, you can pinch the spice between your thumb and index finger and rub gently to see if it releases the fragrance you are seeking. Another test is to place some spice in a teaspoon of warm water for five minutes and then taste or smell the product to check for flavor and freshness.
Guidelines: Here are Sauer’s recommendations for how long its products are useable:
• Pure vanilla extract has an indefinite use due to its percentage of alcohol;
• Two years for ground spices, blends, grillers, baking bags and seasoning envelopes;
• Three years for whole spices, grinders and food colors;
• Five years for sea salt grinders;
• Other extracts and flavorings may last four to six years.
Some exceptions exist, however. “Whole nutmeg, poppy seed and sesame seed all have a two-year shelf life,” Hatcher says.
Date codes: To aid consumers, many spice companies stamp sell-by dates on their products.
“If the sell-by date, for example, is January 2012, that means it was produced three years prior. Since ground spices have a shelf life of two years, that could be a problem,” Hatcher says.
The C.F. Sauer Co. stamps Julian dates on their products. Julian codes list production year first and then the number of days. It also can include a location code. If the code reads 9212R, the spice was produced on July 31, 2009, at the company’s Richmond plant. Thus, the 9 is for 2009, 212 is the 212th day of the year, and R is for Richmond. If the code has five numbers followed by a letter, the first two numbers are the year and the next three are the day of the year.
Catalog spices: Many home cooks buy spices for specific recipes that they make infrequently, making it harder to keep up with their spice inventory. An easy way to keep track is to catalog your spices. List your spices by production or sell-by dates, or the date you buy them, and tape the list to the inside of your cabinet or pantry door. Such a catalog provides quick reference when making grocery lists, and helps you know when to discard aging spices.
“A good rule of thumb: when time changes to Daylight Savings Time, check your cupboard,” Hatcher advises. “Check expiration dates and do sniff and taste tests.”