"Once you get a spice in your home, you have it forever. Women never throw out spices. The Egyptians were buried with their spices. I know which one I'm taking with me when I go." --Erma Bombeck
It's so true! Why do we have such a hard time throwing out old herbs and spices? I joke (but it's not a joke) that my mother still has dried basil and minced onion from the 90's that she refuses to part with—just in case.
But the truth is, I do the same thing. Who knows, I might have an oregano emergency someday and be completely stranded at home, unable to reach fresh oregano! My old, faded, tasteless oregano would come to my rescue, and I'd still be able to follow my recipe, thank goodness. It could happen.
"When do herbs and spices become too old to use?" This is one of the questions I answer below, as well as "How much should I buy," "Where's the best place to buy them," "How should they be stored," and "Which ones should I use?"
I remember being frustrated with herbs and spices when I first started cooking. And now I view them as my colorful, flavorful paints that I add to my canvas when creating my latest edible art, usually my simple lunch or dinner.
Whether you're a seasoned artist or just starting to dip your paintbrush onto the herb-n-spice palette, I hope the following will answer any questions you may have when it comes to understanding the basics of herbs and spices in home cooking.
What’s the difference between an herb and a spice? Good question! Herbs are made from the leafy green parts of plants, and can be either fresh or dried. Herbs include basil, mint, and parsley. Spices, usually dried, come from the bark, bud, fruit, berries, root, or seeds of a plant, and are generally very aromatic. Spices include cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.
How much should I buy? In general, buy in smaller quantities so that you can avoid becoming the owner of a bunch of old herbs and spices. I buy bigger quantities of those I use most (granulated garlic and onion, oregano, cinnamon) and less of those I use more occasionally (curry powder, cardamom, tarragon; see chart below). The quantities you buy will depend on how much you cook and which herbs and spices you like and use the most/least. When I’m trying out something new, I’ll usually buy a small amount to test the waters.
How should they be stored? Dried herbs and spices ideally should be stored in small glass containers out of the light and away from heat and humidity in a cool, dry place. So that spice rack by your oven, even though convenient, will speed up the aging of your herbs and spices. Instead, keep them in a drawer or cabinet that is not adjacent to your oven. Also, to add to the longevity of your herbs and spices, do not shake them onto your food while it is cooking, since the steam can enter the jar, which can lead to clumping and faster aging. I also like to discard the plastic sifter that comes fixed to the top of most herbs and spice jars so I can dip my measuring spoon in easily (still keeping the jar away from the heat and steam).
If I’m not using a recipe, how much should I use? I used to use way too much and too many different spices when learning to cook, and I usually ended up with a dish that tasted kind of muddy. So, my guideline is to start off small and work your way up. So maybe use a ¼ teaspoon (if cooking for one) of spices, and ½ to 1 teaspoon of dried herbs, and then taste it, adding more to your tastes, keeping in mind that some herbs and spices are more pungent than others (i.e., cumin, rosemary, ginger, curry, cayenne); so starting out with less of these is a good idea. I usually use two to four different herbs and spices when cooking. Pretty soon you’ll find your own balance and it will become second nature (keeping notes as you experiment helps).
How do you know which herbs and spices go best together? Flavor profiles are endless, but some guidelines do exist. One is to use spices that are used together in regional cooking (Chinese, Thai, Indian, Italian, Mediterranean, Southwestern). You can easily find out what these are by reading the ingredient listings on your dried herb/spice blends or by searching “herbs and spice blends” or “herbs and spices for Thai (for example) cooking” online. Or buy pre-made herb and spice blends at the store or online. You can even create your own unique blends and keep them in small glass jars. I usually start off with a bit of granulated onion and/or garlic, a dried green herb or green blend, and then may add something else from there.
Where do you buy herbs and spices? You can buy them at grocery stores, however, most packaged spices have likely been sitting around for a while, so they will not be your freshest option. You can search out a spice shop near you. There are two spice shops in my town and it’s a treat to visit them (my idea of “kid in the candy store”). You can smell everything and buy a variety of sizes of herbs/spices, and the employees are very helpful. I find the herbs and spices at these shops to be more flavorful and fresh, but I also buy from the grocery store (health-minded groceries will have bulk spices/herbs as well). Additionally, you can buy online. One online store that I like is Mountain Rose Herbs, which sells all organic herbs and spices.
Why do you use whole nutmeg instead of pre-ground? It’s more flavorful and fragrant, and great on hot morning grains, such as oatmeal, brown rice, or quinoa. Grinding or grating certain whole spices (cloves, fennel, pepper, cardamom, etc.) will always provide bigger flavor, although you can easily find these pre-ground as well. A compact blender, spice grinder, dedicated coffee bean grinder, and mortar and pestle are all tools you can use to grind whole spices. Whole nutmeg is very hard so it's best grate it using a Microplane or spice grinder.
How do I know if my herbs and spices are too old? Dried herbs and spices don’t really spoil over time but they do deteriorate in flavor. The best way to tell if herbs are still good is to rub a bit between your fingers and smell them; if they don’t smell like anything, toss them out. With spices, shake the jar first then smell them to see if they still smell strong; if not, get rid of them. When properly stored, whole spices keep the longest (a few years), followed by ground spices (a year or two), then dried herbs (six months to two years, depending on the herb). I also like to write the purchase month and year on the jar or package. It’s hard to throw out old herbs and spices we paid good money for, but I urge you to anyway; your food will taste better and you’ll be more likely to look forward to your healthy meals.
What if a recipe calls for an herb or spice I don't like? The herb and spice police are not going to bust you, so go right ahead and substitute with the herbs and spices you like. Substitutions are totally legal; in fact, most people don't follow recipes exactly as written anyway, if they don't like an ingredient, don't have the one called for on hand, or just want to do their own thing, using the recipe as a starting point.
I don’t know much about cooking; which herbs/spices should I buy to get started? This will depend on your own tastes, but here is a general list, based on common home-cooking usage as well as my own. If you’re just starting to stock your herb and spice cupboard, I would buy some of the items under “Daily” and then add one or two from the "frequent" and "occasional" lists to experiment with.
I use these almost daily:
French green herb blend
Garlic, granulated, powdered, or minced
Italian green herb blend
Nutmeg (try the whole!)
Onion, granulated or minced
I use these frequently:
Garam Masala (a blend used in Indian cooking)
Other regional blends (Thai, Latin, Cajun, Indian)
I use these occasionally
Pumpkin pie spice
Here’s to keeping life spicy! If you have an herb or spice tip or question, please share it in the comments.