The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Shelf Life of Spices

I have about come to the decision that I am no longer going to cook in the homes of friends and relatives. I'm getting older and I'm afraid my heart will no longer take the shocks I so often find in their kitchens. The latest jolt? Spice storage.

Erma Bombeck said, “Once you get a spice in your home, you have it forever. The Egyptians were buried with their spices. I know which one I'm taking with me when I go.”

A recent peek in a friend's spice cabinet revealed several familiar little rectangular tins of McCormick spices. What's so shocking about that, you ask? Mostly the fact that, with the exception of ground black pepper, McCormick hasn't put spices in little rectangular tins in more than fifteen years! Add to that the location of said antique spices......a convenient cabinet directly over the stove......well, I hope you can see why my cardiologist worries.

Spices never actually “go bad.” They don't rot, they don't spoil, they don't ferment. Like proverbial old soldiers, they just fade away. And when your spice has faded, it has the same flavoring potential in your cooking as a teaspoon of sawdust. Even the Bible says, “If the salt should lose its taste, how can it be made salty? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled on.” (Matt 5:13 – HCSB) You know, for a tax collector, that Matthew was a pretty savvy cook.

The dictionary definition of a spice is: “an aromatic or pungent vegetable substance used to flavor food.” And when your spices have spent more than fifteen years in your cabinet, I can guarantee you they are no longer aromatic nor are they pungent.

I know people who go to Sam's or Costco and buy enormous containers of spices because they are such a bargain. And that's quite true if you have a) a commercial kitchen or b) a very large family. But if you're an average home cook preparing meals for two or three or four people, what on earth are you really going to do with five pounds of Durkee Spanish Paprika? Technically, it will “keep” indefinitely, but by the time it progresses from a rich, vibrant red to a dull grayish brown, it's – how did Matthew say it – “no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled on.” Seriously, $22.62 is not a bargain for the few ounces you'll probably use before the rest of it goes stale.

You truly are better off buying the smallest possible quantities of most spices. Buy a little more of things you use a lot. I cook Italian, so I go through a good bit of oregano and basil and such. But Creole seasoning and curry powder are going to last me a long, long time.

And I can't say this enough; the place where you store your spices is just as important as the length of time you store them. More so, actually, because improper storage can shorten shelf life dramatically. Heat, light, and moisture are the deadly enemies of spices. So, will it be convenience or quality? You decide. If you have one of those nifty countertop spice racks full of nice clear jars that spend at least eighteen hours a day exposed to natural and artificial light, be prepared to replace their contents a lot more often. Same thing applies if you just have to have your spices in the cabinet right over or right next to your stove. All that heat and steam will reduce your spices to flavorless dust in short order.

If they still have some of their characteristics, you can get by with doubling up the amount you use in a recipe to achieve the same effect. But then you run into the visual unpleasantness of having teaspoons full of spices in your dishes instead of pinches or dashes, or worse, tablespoons instead of teaspoons. At some point, you've just got to break down and buy new stuff.

So when do you toss those old spices? Simple. When they don't do what spices are supposed to do anymore. I nearly came to blows once with a friend who insisted there was nothing “wrong” with her spices that had been gathering dust since Reagan was in office. Her oregano looked like it had been scooped from the floor of a sawmill – and it tasted like it, too. I produced a fresh bottle and asked her to compare colors. Mine was a nice dark green. Hers was light brown. Then came a sniff test. Mine smelled like oregano. Hers smelled like.....well, it didn't really smell like anything. And it had absolutely no flavor. I asked, “How long have you had this?” She replied, “I don't know. But there's nothing wrong with it.” Rule number one: if you can't remember how long you've had a spice, you've probably had it too long.

Remember, spices are, by their very nature, supposed to be brightly colored, richly aromatic, and bitingly flavorful. In short, spicy! And if they are not any of the above, what possible good are they?

How long will a spice “keep?” Unfortunately, there's no hard and fast rule. It varies from spice to spice. Some people advocate completely turning over your spice cabinet every six months. These are people with a) stock options in a spice company or b) more money than good sense. Six months is a little extreme. I can see evaluating your spice supply on a yearly basis, maybe right before the big holiday cooking rush. But not every six months.

The folks at McCormick & Company are one of the world's largest purveyors of spices, having been dealing with them since 1889. They have some storage and usage recommendations at their website, They say that whole spices – cloves, cinnamon sticks, nutmeg, etc. – are generally good for three or four years. With ground spices, give it two to three years. You'll get one or two years out of seasoning blends and one to three years from dried herbs. Count on four years for extracts, except for pure vanilla, which lasts indefinitely. All of this assumes, of course, proper storage and handling.

And, going back to rule number one, if you just can't remember how long you've had a particular McCormick spice, they have a “Fresh Tester” whereby you can enter the code found on the bottle and find out just how poor your memory really is. For some things, you don't need a code. Like the rectangular tins. Likewise, any bottles that say “Baltimore” on them are at least fifteen years old. And anything that carries the “Schilling” brand is at least seven years old. You may be able to sell these to collectors on E-Bay, but you probably should forgo using them in your cooking or baking.

Hey, they don't come any cheaper than me. I save outrageous things on the chance that I'll use them for something someday. And I know how much it hurts to pay good money – lots of good money – for spices and then face the prospect of tossing them while the bottles are still half full or more. But if you're really serious about the quality of your cooking, you've just got to bite the bullet and do it. Go on. Hit the kitchen. Look, sniff, taste, and toss. Then replace, using reasonable quantities. No more five pound containers, okay? It's not a bargain if you're just going to wind up throwing most of it away. And if you don't buy McCormick products with “use by” dates or handy little online age calculators, label your spices yourself. Write the purchase date on a little sticky label, or right on the bottle if you prefer. I know somebody who uses colored dots and color codes them. Whatever works for you.

Do it for yourself. Do it for your family. Do it for the sake of some old curmudgeon who might visit and stick his nose in your spice cabinet. Just do it! As Frank Herbert said in Dune: “He who controls the spice controls the universe.”

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