What Is In Your Spice Pantry

Most of us can relate to the saying “Spring Cleaning” however for me Fall is the season to take inventory of my pantry, specifically my spice pantry. Yes, I do cook with spices year round and to the level of obsession sometimes, however fall and winter menus tend to require more dried herbs and spices than summer and spring dishes when fresh ingredients are more readily available. So as the colder months approach I want to be prepared with the best ingredients.

Here are a few tips to help you with your spice pantry.

  1. Storage – make sure your spices are well sealed and stored in a temperature stable area.  Do not store dried herbs and spices near your stove or oven as the temperature can get surprisingly hot and cause spoilage.
  2. Whole spices last longer than ground spices.  A general rule is to buy whole spices if available and grind them yourself (buy a coffee grinder for $12 and use it exclusively for spices). However this is not always the case.  Cloves for example are very difficult to grind, so I buy both whole and ground.  Good choices to grind yourself include cardamom, coriander, cumin seeds, and black pepper.  Nutmeg should also be purchased whole and grated with a grater as needed.  When spices are freshly ground, the oils are released and the aromas and flavors are at their peak, but unfortunately over time the flavors dissipate.
  3. Ground spices tend to lose flavor and spoil faster.  Ground spices should be purchased in smaller quantities and replaced more often than whole spices.
  4. Time – there is a lot of debate about how long to keep dried herbs and spices.  In reality, you can safely use spices long after their peak time of performance, however the final outcome of your dish will suffer.  Have you ever taken the time to conduct a  smell comparison of “old” spices to “new” ones?  If you can smell the difference you can bet that the taste will be different as well.  The only person who can safely guess how “old” a spice in your pantry is, is you… and if you don’t know then chances are it needs to be replaced.
  5. Date – if you have the time and the discipline to mark the date on your spices then ignore what your friends and family say about your OCD and do it!  If you don’t, then be sure to purchase smaller quantities and rotate your spices more frequently to keep the level of freshness up.
  6. Quality – In many of my cooking classes we do “blind tastings” to determine the best choice for a particular ingredient.  Spices are an excellent option for this as well.  If someone you know claims to have “the best…” challenge them and do a comparison.  I am always up for the challenge.  You win even if your current favorite loses!!

In closing, this is also the time of year to dry your favorite fresh herbs! Before winter sets in be sure to take clippings of your rosemary, thyme and whatever other herbs you (or your neighbor) has in your herb garden. Hang them to dry and then place in a sealed container.  You will reap the benefits all winter long (and save money)!


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