Buying & Storing Spices

Spices are best when they are fresh and once you have tasted food prepared with the very best quality spices you will never again ignore the importance of quality when purchasing them.

Many people prefer to buy the whole spices and crush or grind them as needed. This is not a bad idea if you're not sure of the quality and freshness of ground spices or if you're an infrequent user. Spices and herbs contain aromatic substances called "essential oils", which are held in their cell structure and are responsible for the aroma and much of the flavor. Whole seeds, bark, and buds keep their flavour far longer than their powdered counterpart but even so they will also deteriorate over time, as volatile oils will evaporate and the aroma and the flavour dissipates.

The shelf life of spices varies depending on the particular spice and the climate: the warmer the climate, the shorter the shelf life. Both whole and ground spices will suffer if subject to light, warmth, or moisture. That is why proper storage methods are important and it will help each spice maintain its peak flavor and aroma. On average, whole spices, when stored properly, will last from one to three years, while ground spices will start losing flavour after twelve to eighteen months.

It’s best to store spices in airtight containers in a cool, dry, dark place away from heat, moisture and direct sunlight, preferably in a cupboard in a cool part of the house.

A screw-cap container is better than a flip-top container because it can be tightly resealed. Keep them away from heat. Do not store near the dishwasher or refrigerator, and they should never be stored near the stove or oven, even though it may seem more convenient.

When cooking with spices and herbs avoid shaking or pouring the contents over a steaming saucepan. Steam will go inside the container and moisture will make the spice or herb go hard or mouldy.

To determine whether or not ground spices are still viable gently shake the container with the cap on. Remove the cap after a moment and smell the container and if you can detect some aroma and pungency in your ground spices they should be alright.

To check the freshness of whole spices, you will need to either break a piece of it (like cinnamon sticks or cloves) or for a spice like nutmeg, scrape it with a knife or grater to release the aroma.

When buying spices look for those that are packed in high-barrier packaging. This may be either clear laminate plastic with a re-sealable zip seal, or glass jars. Never buy spices and herbs in cardboard or cellophane packs. Yes, they maybe cheaper, but the spices and herbs in these packs losing their flavour and aroma quickly, as they allow the volatile oils to escape and oxygen to get into the product. The result is an inferior flavour and shorter shelf life; they are already deteriorating by the time you take them home.

Avoid buying spices in bulk at discount prices. This is fine for the professional caterer who will use such an amount in a relatively short space of time but for the home cook the money saved in the short term will be lost as the spices lose their quality through lack of use

Guidelines for shelf life of spices and herbs if they are kept as we have discussed will be as follows:

• Whole spices and herbs leaves and flowers will keep 1 - 2 years.
• Seeds will keep 2 – 3 years and roots will keep 3 years.
• Ground spices and herb leaves and seeds keep 1 year.
• Ground roots will keep for 2 years.