Spices and herbs have had deep historical meaning on a social and cultural level, impacting trade and traditional knowledge. Nowadays, spices are regarded as the key component of adding aroma to your dishes, beckoning those nearby to indulge in the flavor. Whether your spice rack has always been bountiful or you are newly exploring flavor options and stocking up on every spice you can get your hands on, it can leave you wondering if expired spices can make you sick if they are not used quickly.
Unless moldy, spices will not make you sick as they do not expire in the sense that they are not rendered unsafe for consumption. Rather, spices can noticeably lose their flavor and aroma depending on age, storage method, and if the spice was whole or ground, thus impacting the quality of your dish.
A couple of things to think about if you have spices that have been sitting awhile are when you should toss them and how to dispose of them. While expired spices cannot technically make you sick, there are some indicators that it may be time to freshen up your stock.
Do Spices Expire?
You will notice that store-bought spices might have a best-by date indicating that, unless there is the presence of mold, spices that are kept for some time can significantly lose flavor and potency, hindering the potential of your dish. While this means that spices and herbs do not technically expire, you may still want to toss out those old flavors sitting on your spice rack.
When to Keep or Toss Your Spices
Herbs and spices do vary in quality based on how they are stored and if they were kept whole or ground. You can typically find that dried herbs and whole spices have a longer lifespan than ground spices. Typically, the breakdown for this is as follows:
- Dried, Leafy Herbs: 1-3 years
- Whole Spices: 4 years
- Ground Spices: 2-3 years
While this is the general rule of thumb, if you are unsure about a spice in your collection and it has been more than two years, it is advisable to toss it.
Can Spices Get Moldy
While spices do not generally expire, it is important to closely check for mold which can have carcinogenic effects if ingested. Mold is more likely to become present if your home is humid and warm. The risk of contamination is also posed to spices that can be purchased in bulk that have had more access to open-air and human interaction. It is best to purchase pre-packaged herbs and spices with a visible best-by date and store them well.
Buying and Storing Your Herbs and Spices for Freshness
While it is certainly not desirable to toss your spices, there are some ways to prevent having to do so while reducing potential waste.
Do Not Buy Bulk Quantities
Buy with freshness in mind, based on how much you think you will need over a short time frame instead of stocking up on a large quantity to last more than a year.
Buy and Store Spices Whole
Since whole spices have a longer shelf life, storing them whole and grinding them in small portions as needed can grant you the most out of your spices and herbs. Grinding your own spices in a spice mill also enhances the fresh aroma given off.
Store your herbs and spices in an airtight jar as exposure to oxygen and open-air increases the chance of mold growth and quicker loss of aroma and potency.
Store in a Cool, Dark Place
If you live in hot, humid conditions consider storing your spices and herbs in the fridge to prevent mold growth and also to maintain freshness otherwise, a cupboard or pantry with minimal heat and light exposure should do.
What to do with Old Herbs and Spices
Before throwing your old herbs and spices in the garbage, think outside of the box for other ways they can be used beyond cooking. Herbs and spices are aromatic but also have many properties that make them useful as body care and home items. Before trying any of the following ideas be mindful of allergies and the way some spices may react (for example, cinnamon and mint can make great infusions for body care but can also cause the skin to burn if too potent).
Make Potpourri and Air Fresheners
Spices like cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves can be boiled on the stove with orange rinds for a comforting and warm aroma to fill your house. These dried spices can also be packed in little muslin cloth pouches to place in areas of the home that might otherwise smell musty (i.e. the winter coat closet or in a gym bag).
Natural Bug Repellent
Mint and tarragon not only make a fresh body mist when infused in water but also act as a natural bug repellent.
A mint-based soap can be cooling in the summer, while a soap that smells gently of cinnamon and clove can be grounding and comforting in the winter.
Natural Scalp Oils
Rosemary and mint have been found to stimulate hair growth and when infused in a skin emollient oil like jojoba or almond oil, it can be a pampering way to treat your hair before a wash.
Natural Cleaning Products
Mixing baking soda with aromatic scents like mint and a bit of water can create a great-smelling powerful surface cleaner.
Natural Bath Products
Creating a pouch out of muslin cloth to hold rosemary and lavender then allowing it to steep in a warm bath like a teabag can have soothing effects.
These are just a few examples of ways you can repurpose your aged-out spices and herbs and it will certainly lessen feelings of guilt and remorse you might otherwise have with just tossing them in the garbage.
Expired spices typically cannot make you sick, unless there is the presence of mold but it is advisable to use fresh spices and herbs for cooking to maintain the robust flavor and aroma of your dish. Beyond cooking, there are many uses for herbs and spices so worry not about having to throw your aged spice collection away.