Tuesday, February 1, 2011

How do you know if spices are expired?

Today I decided to clean out and organize my spices. I am getting tired of reaching into the spice cupboard, having to pull out 15 different jars before finding the one that I need, and inevitably causing 2 or 3 jars to tumble out of the cupboard onto the counter (or the floor, or my head, or into the pot I’m cooking in on the stove). My little plastic spice jars are currently stacked one on top of another in no logical order, other than trying to keep the ones I use most frequently closer to the front. This is driving me nuts.
What started out as a simple organizing project sent me on a much longer journey in which I learned more than I ever planned about spices. Finding McCormick spices in my cabinet should have been a clue to their age, since in the past few years, I have been buying Simply Organic or Frontier Organic brand spices. But there were still some old McCormicks in there.  
Some of the jars actually had expiration dates on the bottom. Oh, like… 2006. At first, when I saw 2006, I thought that was just last year or so. Then I had to stop and think. Oh, yeah. Five years ago. Time flies. 
Some of the spices didn’t have dates, they had codes. I figured these codes must represent expiration dates or lot numbers, so I went to the McCormick website, wondering if there was a way to decipher the codes.
Bingo! Right on the front page, McCormick has a “Fresh Tester” where you can enter your code and it will tell you when your spice was packaged/manufactured. On that page, it had a few tips, including: 
“If it’s from Baltimore, it’s at least 15 years old”
“If it’s in a tin, it’s at least 15 years old”
I thought “That’s crazy. Who has spices that are over 15 years old?” ((rolling my eyes)) 
Wouldn't you know it... the first bottle I looked at was from Baltimore. Over 15 years old. Yikes. 
I entered the codes from the bottom of the other jars… Turns out, I had spices from 1999… and 1992! And a few early 2000’s. The pattern seemed to be: if the jar had a code rather than a date, that was a clue that it was really old. I don’t know whether that’s always the case, but it was for me today.
How in the world did this happen??? First of all, I haven’t even been cooking that long- I can’t imagine why I even have these spices. Secondly, I’ve moved a lot in the past 10+ years, including two cross-country moves. Have I really been hauling expired spices across the country and state to state with me? 
Obviously, I don’t think these expired spices would be harmful. But from what I have been reading, they have probably by now lost their potency and are pretty worthless for cooking. To be honest, though, they all smelled fresh to me. They seemed fine. But, I tossed them anyway. Clearly, if I haven’t used them in (ahem) 15 years, I am probably not going to need them in the near future. (Of course, I dumped the spices in the trash and put the glass or recyclable plastic in the recycle bin) By the way, my trash can never smelled so delicious.
How do you know if your spices are fresh? Other than smelling and tasting them, here are some guidelines from the McCormick website: 
  • Spices, ground: 2-3 years
  • Spices, whole: 3-4 years
  • Seasoning blends: 1-2 years
  • Herbs: 1-3 years
  • Extracts: 4 years (except pure vanilla, which lasts indefinitely)
One last McCormick tidbit that may be of interest: Since 08/29/2007,  All McCormick single-ingredient spices are gluten-free*
*From McCormick FAQ: None of our single ingredient spices and herbs contain gluten. In addition, all of our extracts, including Pure Vanilla, are gluten-free. Some of our products do contain gluten. When WHEAT is the source, it will always be called out within the ingredient statement, and listed in bold.
We do not maintain a list of gluten-free products, as our formulas change from time to time.

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