National update your parents' spice rack month
December 11th, 2012
06:00 PM ET
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Yo mama's cinnamon is so old, its UPC code is "1."

Yo mama's thyme is so old, they used it to season the Last Supper.

Yo mama's cloves are so old, the bottle has a Brontosaurus steak recipe on the side.

I'm sure your mother (or father, aunt, cousin or relative at whose home you might be spending some quality eating time this holiday) is a warm, lovely and gracious host. I also have a sneaking suspicion, based on perusal of my own friends, family and in-laws' cabinets, that their spices are rather past their ideal use-by date or are poorly stored.

That doesn't render them harmful at all, but does increase the likelihood that your dishes will taste like the ghost of rosemary, bay or nutmeg past, rather than robustly of the spice itself. I mostly blame the manufacturers for packaging such ambitious quantities of spices that are meted out by the quarter teaspoon, pinch or dash, and often doing so in glass bottles. They're lovely to look at, but they let light in, and that's not at all nice for spice.

There's also a human factor at play. If they're not arranged into a wall-mounted, light-sucking rack, spices are often tossed wherever they happen to fit - even if that's perilously close to a heat or moisture source.

Both of those will sap spices of their full flavor, as does being jammed in the back of a cabinet behind the baking powder and cornstarch and forgotten. If you've never ended up with multiple tins of cinnamon because the several you had were out of sight, you are a better human than most of us.

spice tins

So I'm declaring December to be National Update Your Parents' Spice Rack Month to ensure that they are living an optimally delicious life, and not just sitting on a Smithsonian-worthy heap of kitchen clutter.

First, see and sniff the spices. If the color is faded or you have to work hard to catch a whiff when you rub a little into the palm of your hand, toss them out. The flavor diminishes along with those characteristics.

Next, check the dates on the containers. Roughly speaking, ground spices are good for 2-3 years, whole spices for 3-4 years, blends for 1-2 years and dried, leafy herbs for 1-3 years and extracts (except for vanilla, which stays potent) for 4 years. If it's beyond that - or even undated and smell-free - your trash can will eat semi-deliciously today.

Some major spice producers like McCormick, Durkee and Spice Island and Sauer's share brand-specific information about informational codes on their websites.

Once the exorcism is complete and you're ready to restock, look for those sold on air-tight tins, or consider buying from bulk bins where you can buy only the amount needed for the recipe at hand. Keep a few empty food-grade small, lidded tins on hand, or wash, thoroughly dry and re-label newly-emptied tins to reflect the new contents and the date on which they were purchased.

If you'd like, you can get all Pinteresty and cute about where and how to store them, but location is crucial. Avoid spots near the stove or radiator (too hot), in front of windows (too bright) and near sinks and dishwashers (too damp).

This will ensure that holiday treats back home will taste like Christmas present and future - and not like old spice.

See Eatocracy's board of cool spice storage solutions on Pinterest.

*The picture at the top is my mother-in-law's spice carousel and the one in middle is of strays from the back. These were taken in 2011, not the mid-70s.

**If this works out, we'll try for National Sharpen Your Parents' Knives Month and National Stay Calm While Your Dad Teaches You How to Load the Dishwasher Properly Day

soundoff (130 Responses)
  1. ∞ Weeds ∞

    Your timing for this article is uncanny. Last week I was at my folks house and did some major house sweeping in the spice cabinet.

    December 5, 2013 at 6:33 pm | Reply
    • ∞ Weeds ∞

      I'd like to buy a hint. Which word put me in timeout?

      December 5, 2013 at 6:34 pm | Reply
      • ∞ Weeds ∞

        Spice? really? Spice?
        This is a food blog and it should have lots of comments about SPICE!
        i.e. Momma mea, ats a spicey meatball.
        And how can one have a conversation about Paprika without saying the s word?

        December 5, 2013 at 6:37 pm | Reply
    • Kat Kinsman

      Hmmmm - I'm honestly not sure!

      December 5, 2013 at 11:08 pm | Reply
      • ∞ Weeds ∞

        Thanks for the reply.
        I didn't mean to come across harsh, sorry if I did.
        Sometimes it frustrating "playing a game" when you don't know the rules :)

        December 5, 2013 at 11:18 pm | Reply
  2. atlwmn

    It makes me more sad that there are people voting who have no spices in their home. You guys are really missing out, I'd hate to taste your food.

    December 5, 2013 at 4:01 pm | Reply
  3. 99mystic99

    moving my mil in late 90's we found spices from the 50's! and she about had a cow when we disposed of them, but now only has half a dozen or so in her cupboard when she realized she never used any of them

    December 5, 2013 at 12:19 pm | Reply
  4. Venkat

    Dude, I'm from India. Any more questions?

    December 5, 2013 at 10:36 am | Reply
  5. Sireena

    Well, according to author I would probably need to move my spices out of the kitchen coz in my cozy kitchen i can't find a place to put them which is not next to any of the elements mentioned. I am Indian eho cooks Indian food with a lot of spices. They do just fine. But thanks for the tips. Probably Italian spices behave differently.

    December 5, 2013 at 9:12 am | Reply
  6. Mia

    Once I found a 20 year old bottle of vanilla in my cupboard
    ... it does go bad!

    December 4, 2013 at 8:16 pm | Reply
  7. elissajung


    December 4, 2013 at 6:33 pm | Reply
    • Guest

      I got addicted to Penzey's extra-bold pepper. Once a year, I order a supply of peppercorns, and grind as needed. I give that pepper a lot of credit for weight loss. It makes even healthy food taste delicious. I miss living an hour away from a Penzey's store. :( I can get them mail order, but it's just not the same as walking into the store and smelling everything.

      I truly don't understand the people who cook without spices. They don't know what they're missing. And it's like leaving out any other ingredient in a dish - you ARE missing something.

      December 4, 2013 at 8:00 pm | Reply
  8. Edwin

    I use spices very often. They never get a chance to go past 2 months on the shelf.

    December 4, 2013 at 4:56 pm | Reply
  9. Ron

    Steak's dont need spices, a good steak taste's good by itself. Leave it to the liberal's to come up with a way to ruin a good piece of meat. I want to taste the beef, not some liberal fairy dust, put you're fairy dust in you're bean paste.

    December 4, 2013 at 4:44 pm | Reply
    • CJ

      I believe in everything you just said except remove the word liberal.

      December 4, 2013 at 5:25 pm | Reply
    • Guest

      I see you didn't get any of that liberal "education" fairy dust, either. :p

      December 4, 2013 at 8:01 pm | Reply
    • DAT


      December 4, 2013 at 11:51 pm | Reply
      • atlwmn

        DAT, you're being kind. He seems to think that every pluralization requires an apostrophe.

        December 5, 2013 at 4:00 pm | Reply
    • Eridun

      I beg to differ – one spice I'll always put on my steak is truffle salt. ;)

      December 5, 2013 at 8:52 am | Reply
    • *poot*

      trigtwit palin... America's favorite tard baby

      December 5, 2013 at 10:17 am | Reply
    • Burbank

      Why are you so obsessed with politics you even have to insert your hatred into a food blog? Do yourself and the rest of us a favor and go get therapy.

      December 5, 2013 at 3:09 pm | Reply
    • emma

      Obviously. you have never had a steak au poivre.

      December 6, 2013 at 9:27 am | Reply
  10. lean6

    First of all, males run kitchens in this world too.... Chances are that if the spices are THAT old and infrequently used in my kitchen, i'd buy new ones for a particular recipe while I was at the grocery store anyway, to be sure that I had it and wouldn't have to waste gas going back out. It was this practice that provide me with the experience of comparing a fresh container of reddish Paprika with a more brownish old one. Pretty dramatic change...decomposition happening on the spice rack day in and day out.

    December 4, 2013 at 3:58 pm | Reply
  11. Bob

    I like spice, yo.

    December 4, 2013 at 3:27 pm | Reply
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