How should I store my spices and how much should I buy?
Buying larger quantities of spices saves money. However, buying too much of a spice and discarding it because it has been around too long is a waste. So I how much is the proper amount? And - how to maximize storage time?
There is no set rule on how long spices stay fresh. The government's guideline for freshness dating is 4 years for whole spices and 2 years for ground. Some people say six months is the longest spices should be stored. Since most spices are yearly crops, harvested just once a year, it does not make sense to discard them every six months. On the other hand, 2 years is far too long to expect a finely powdered spice to retain its flavor.
A good rule of thumb is to buy no more than a one year's supply of herbs or ground spices, and a one-two year supply of whole spices. Keep in mind that each spice contains hundreds of different flavor components. It is the quantity and balance of these components that determines the quality of the spice. These flavor components will dissipate at different rates. A top quality spice may be better at two years old than a low quality spice at two months. When in doubt about a spice, just smell it. If it smells strong and spicy, use it. If not, toss it.
Old spices never go bad, they just fade away: Spices must be stored properly to maintain strong, fresh flavor. Heat, light, moisture and air all speed the loss of flavor and color. Our new barrier seal bags are great for storage, as they don't let any air in (other plastic bags do). Glass or barrier plastic containers (such as those used at Penzey's) are also very good. Once the spice is in an airtight container, it is important to put that container in the proper place. DO NOT store your spices near a heat source: on top of the stove, dishwasher, refrigerator or microwave, or near the sink or a heating vent. The best way to avoid light is to put the spices inside a cupboard or a drawer. if an open spice rack is being used, make sure to place it out of direct sunlight.
Some folks say that all spices should be stored in the refrigerator or the freezer. Whole, crushed and ground chili peppers (including paprika) will stay fresh and colorful longer in cool storage, especially in the Summer months. Other than vanilla beans and extract, the flavor of spices will not be damaged by cold. The problem is that spices stored in the fridge tend to be used less. Out of sight, out of mind, or something like that. A cold jar can also get the spices wet if left open in a humid kitchen, as condensation will form. The best way to deal with these problems is to keep smaller quantities of spices out in the cooking area and larger backup supplies in the refrigerator or freezer.