With lots of broiling, frying, roasting and baking happening for the holidays, now is the time to review and organize your spices. How and where you store spices can help preserve their flavor, streamline your kitchen and make cooking easier.
“The more efficient you can be in your organization, the more time that will save later while you’re cooking,” says Alex Wilkens, director of product and sourcing for The Spice House, a Chicago-based e-tailer with four stores in the Midwest.
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In addition, “when you organize your spices and can see what you have, you are less likely to buy duplicates and can easily see what needs to be replenished,” says Eric Greathouse, an associate buyer for The Container Store.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to organizing your spices.
1. Evaluate: First, remove all of your spices from storage to review them.
Then check the expiration dates and toss out-of-date spices. “But that date matters less than how they smell or how they taste,” Wilkens says. “Open each container and if that scent doesn’t hit you strongly or the colors are dull, it’s time to get rid of it.”
In general, ground spices and blends are good for six to 12 months. Whole spices, like cinnamon sticks or peppercorns, retain their natural oils and usually last two to three years. Check spices twice a year to refill them and replace as needed, experts say.
2. Clean: After your spice evaluation, take advantage of the empty space to clean your storage area with soapy water or dust with a microfiber cloth.
3. Choose containers: Containers for spices come in various shapes, sizes and materials, including glass, plastic and aluminum. Wilkens recommends getting airtight containers with lids. He prefers glass jars with screw-on caps. Airtight containers also will deter some tiny beetles that like to feed on spices, especially peppery ones like paprika and chili powder.
Though not necessary, transferring your spices to new containers provides a more uniform look and helps preserve spices in bags or boxes. Stackable containers are great for organization, or have fun with small mason jars, recycled baby food jars, test tubes or magnetized containers on a fridge.
4. Label spices: It may be hard to tell dried basil from oregano, so make sure to label your spices if you move them to new containers. Consider writing the expiration date on the label or on the bottom of each container. DIYers can write on store-bought stickers or masking tape, use a label maker or devise their own color-coded system. Pinterest has lots of ideas.
5. Find a place for spices: “Choose your organizers based on the space you have to organize them in a visible way,” Greathouse says. “If you are limited on cabinet space but have drawer space, in-drawer racks are great. If you have cabinet space, a tiered cabinet solution [like shelf risers or a lazy Susan] help you see what you have at a glance without knocking jars over as you dig for something in the back.”
That’s what happened to Derek Bourcy, 52, of St. Paul, Minnesota, before he reorganized his spices after moving in with his partner. Now, he stores spices on a seven-tiered door rack in a hall pantry around the corner from the kitchen.
“When I cook I like to know where everything is so I can quickly grab [spices] on autopilot,” says Bourcy, a frequent baker. “I like having everything visible to see in one glance as you’re scanning for something.”
You still may want to keep spices you use frequently on a small tray or lazy Susan on the kitchen counter.
6. Protect: Keep spices in dark, dry places away from heat, direct sunlight and moisture to preserve flavor and texture. Avoid storing them above or near a hot stove. If your spices are on a kitchen counter or wall, shield them from windows.
“One common misperception is that spices will last longer in the refrigerator or freezer,” Wilkens says. “I would avoid that because it potentially creates condensation.”
7. Put spices in order: Arrange your spices, experts say, in a way that makes sense to you — alphabetically, by the most often used or by category, such as baking spices and hot spices (like red pepper flakes and cayenne). Consider shifting spices seasonally, so winter ones like cloves and curry are up front during colder months.
Sheryl Jean is a contributing writer who covers aging, business, technology, travel, health and human-interest stories. A former reporter for several daily metropolitan newspapers, her work also has appeared in the Chicago Tribune and The Dallas Morning News and on the American Heart Association's website.