When was the last time you opened that jar of paprika? Does it even smell like paprika anymore, or is it more like a fond memory of the smoky spice? We hate to break it to you, but you’re probably cooking with bad spices. In fact, your pantry is likely full of them. If you’ve ever wondered, do spices go bad?, well, yes, but the answer is more complicated than that.
Do spices go bad?
Yes, spices do go bad…sort of. They don’t go bad the way milk or meat goes bad, or the way the salsa in the back of your fridge has something sinister growing under the lid right now. Your giant shaker of granulated garlic from 1999 might have gone bad, but it’s not going to grow mold or rot in the same way that fresh, perishable food does. When we say a spice has gone bad, we mean it’s lost its flavor. And without any flavor, well, frankly, what’s the point?
All spices lose flavor over time, and you can thank oxygen for that. When a spice is exposed to oxygen, it slowly zaps the flavor away until you’re left with the shadow of what once was the best ground cumin of your life. Scientists call it oxidation. We call it pretty sad, especially if you spent a lot of money on that cumin. A good rule of thumb? The longer you’ve had a spice in your cabinet, the less flavorful it will be.
Can expired spices make you sick?
No, your bad, sad, flavorless spices won’t make you sick. Here’s the thing: Your spices might be bad, but they’re not really expired. The date on the bottle is useful for keeping track of freshness (and remember, freshness equals flavor), but you can still technically use a spice even if it’s past that expiration date. Because spices are dried, there’s no moisture to cause spoilage. They won’t grow mold or attract bacteria, and they won’t make you sick.
How can you tell if spices are expired?
Taste them! If a spice still tastes lively and fresh, go ahead and use it (even if it’s past that expiration date). This is the best way to tell if your spices have gone bad.
You can also sometimes tell a spice is past its prime just by looking at it. Old, oxidized spices will have a dingy, dusty color and lack the vibrancy they had when you bought them. Can’t tell if it’s cumin or onion powder anymore? Toss it.
When should you replace your spices?
It might come as a surprise, but for optimal flavor, ground spices should be replaced after three months. (Three months! We have spices that are so old, we forget when we even bought them.) Whole spices will stay fresh for longer, but should be replaced after about eight months, ten max. Like we said, use your taste buds as a guide. If it tastes like nothing, replace it.
How can you make spices last longer?
If you’re going to invest in good spices (which you should), remember these four principles:
1. For the best flavor possible, buy whole spices and grind them at home. (We like this KitchenAid spice grinder for the job, but you can use the bottom of a heavy skillet too.)
2. Store all spices in airtight containers or jars that are clearly labeled and You’re more likely to use them if you know what they are, right?
3. The higher quality spices you buy, the better they will taste, and for longer. Buying spices from a dedicated spice store means the inventory is replenished more frequently, which equals fresher spices. (Two of our favorite sources are Penzeys and Burlap & Barrel.)
4. Don’t buy spices in bulk or in a quantity you can’t cook through within a couple months. It’s a waste of money, and they’ll go bad before you can use them up. Instead, buy in small quantities more frequently.
Don’t believe us? Take out that 20-year-old granulated garlic and taste-test it against a fresh jar. We’ll be here all night.