It's all about keeping the most flavor.

By David McCann
October 16, 2019
Photo: Greg DuPree

I have a challenge for you. Go to your spice rack. Open any random bottle of ground spices and take a whiff. Is there even a vague memory of the smell of cinnamon, or cumin, or black pepper? If your ground spices are over six months old, I’m sorry, they are almost not worth using.

Don’t freak out. You can probably get a little something out of ground spices up to a year old. But anything beyond that? Toss it. Seriously. (And while you’re at it, get all of your dried herbs and spices away from light and heat. Yes, that means that the spice rack you have near the stove/oven needs to move. Best of all, store the spices in a cool drawer or pantry, in a tin, not glass.)

I realize you don’t want to hear any of this. You have a strong emotional attachment to those spices that came with the rack when you got married, or went away to college. But the point of adding herbs and spices is to add flavor to dishes, and if they have no flavor… you see where I’m heading.

Watch: Sumac Is the Spice You're Not Baking With But Absolutely Should Be

There may actually be some point to using some of the spices you have. But only if they’re whole, unground spices. Granted, even these will lose aroma and flavor after a while. But grinding or microplaning a whole nutmeg, even if it’s older, will still knock your socks off compared to the beige dust you usually reach for. Here’s a little game to play: Either reach for a can of ground black pepper or buy a small can at the store. Grind some fresh black pepper and pour out some of the canned grey dust. Taste both, on something bland that you put pepper on normally. This little taste test should explain all of this better than my words can.

Why is all of this true? The flavor and aroma of spices come from the volatile oils inside. These oils begin to degrade when exposed to air, light, and heat. And grinding exposes them to a lot of air. So, if you can train yourself to crush, grind, or shave only what you need, when you need it, you will be rewarded with real explosions of flavor.

And now for the hardest part, especially for an inveterate cheapskate like yours truly. Even if the new spices you buy are whole, resist the temptation to buy in bulk. Buy small amounts and use them up within a year or so and then replenish your stash.

Now that you totally believe me and will toss out the old and load in the new, the question becomes how to utilize whole spices when you’re used to powder. For something like a nutmeg, a microplane is the solution. For smaller spices, like cumin seed, or fennel I’m very fond of the Japanese mortar and pestle called a suribachi. Or you can certainly buy an inexpensive coffee grinder that you will forever dedicate to only grinding spices (curry flavored coffee is not a fun surprise!) To clean your grinder, just run some raw rice through it and wipe clean with a barely damp paper towel.

Of course, you must have a good pepper grinder. (Don’t ever forget the horror of the can of grey dust!!) Then there are the few spices that are so hard and fibrous that they do not react well to grinding at home: cinnamon, galangal, ginger, etc. Just accept that you’ll need to buy small amounts of those ground.

A whole world of brighter, stronger, deeper flavors awaits you. Yes, it may be a little more trouble. But when you’re taking the time to cook for those you love, this little bit of extra work (that will result in exponentially more flavor) is really worth it.

Advertisement