A Home Cook’s Guide to Spices…Like a Chef

In Eat, June 2021 by Bobby McFarlandLeave a Comment

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What does the inside of your spice cabinet look like? Let me take a guess—you have about three bottles of paprika (one of which dates back to the Obama administration); a few you bought for a specific recipe and only used once; and the last time you opened the cabinet to look for something, two bottles tipped over and one fell out. 

Over time, the spice cabinet can become an intimidating and unruly place. Even as a professional chef, I sometimes find myself scratching my head at some of the stuff that accumulates in my kitchen. This problem is inevitable for anyone who cooks at home, but, fortunately, the solution is simple. With a bit of cleaning and some thoughtful restocking, you can bring clarity to your spice cabinet—and a whole lot of flavor to your cooking.

Do Spices Go Bad?

Sure, even 2-year-old cumin still tastes and smells like cumin, but please trust me: The flavor is not all there, and your cooking will suffer by using it. Cooking is an act of love that takes effort, and using stale spices diminishes the results of your hard work. 

While there’s no hard rule for how long any given spice will last, there are a few factors of which to take note—the first being age. Toss any ground spice or dried herb that’s been open for over two years. Beyond that, trust your senses. Fresh spices still contain most of their natural aromatic compounds, and therefore have a darker-color and rich texture. Finally, the potency of a spice’s smell correlates directly to its flavor, so if it doesn’t smell like much, it won’t taste like much either.

Aroma Matters

Much like coffee beans, spices get their flavor and aroma from volatile oils. If you’ve ever ground your own coffee, you know the scent intensifies exponentially once the beans have been ground.  That’s because grinding increases the surface area of the coffee bean, allowing the volatile oils to escape more quickly.

Whether they’re ground at a factory or by you in your kitchen, spices immediately start to deteriorate in quality afterward.

Obviously, the best solution is to grind your own spices, but that can be impractical for some home cooks. If you’re not quite ready to venture into the world of whole spices, I advise you buy pre-ground in small quantities. Doing so will force you to buy fresh bottles more frequently, which will go a long way in terms of flavor.

A Fresh Start

Getting started on refreshing your spice cabinet seems daunting, and trust me when I say I understand the urge to indefinitely procrastinate a cleaning task better than anyone, but it takes less time than you think—and is so worth it.

First, pull everything out of the cabinet—including the stuff you want to keep—and put it on the counter. Next, separate the spices into categories to take stock, grouping as: ground spices, dried herbs, whole spices, salt and pepper, and outliers/spice blends (like Old Bay or BBQ dry rubs). 

Next, get rid of anything old—both beyond that two-year benchmark, as well as spices you haven’t touched in over a year. If you have multiples, toss the older ones. If you have multiples and they’re all old, toss them all. Remember: You’re doing yourself a favor by being ruthless here. 

Keep Them in the Dark

Spices are sensitive to light, so store your spices in a cabinet, drawer or some other dark place. 


4 Tips for Buying & Cooking With Spice

1. Take your time. There’s no need to immediately replace all of the spices you threw away. In many cases, you should wait until you come across a recipe that calls for a specific spice.

2. Buy quality spices. Spices off the supermarket shelf are fine—they come sealed to preserve quality right until you open them, and there’s usually good enough turnover to ensure freshness. That said, if you feel so inclined, you can do better than McCormick.

For the spices that you know you’ll use a lot, check out Savory Spice Shop in Lafayette Village, or order from Burlap & Barrel (one of my personal favorite online retailers) or Spicewalla. Spicewalla—which is based in Asheville—sells spices in small tin containers to eliminate light damage and maximize freshness.

3. Utilize premade spice blends. Spice blends like Old Bay or Cajun seasoning are great for quickly adding balanced flavor to whatever you’re whipping up. Identify some of your personal favorites and keep them around to sprinkle into eggs or popcorn, or to stir into mayo for a flavorful impromptu aioli.

4. Taste as you cook. Whenever possible, taste before and after you add spices. Training yourself to understand the flavor and function of spices will help you understand how to use them without a recipe, which is a true benchmark of being a good cook. 


My Most-Used Spices

Herbs and Spices

º Black pepper (whole, in peppermill)

º Cayenne pepper

º Chipotle powder

º Cumin

º Garlic, granulated

º Oregano, dried

º Paprika, sweet smoked

Blends

º Old Bay Seasoning

º Slap Ya Mama Cajun seasoning

º Sazón seasoning mix

º Garam masala

º Chinese five-spice

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