Mystery is the spice of life, or is it vice versa?

  • Thursday, March 27, 2014 4:04pm
  • Life

I was preparing for our annual holiday posole party and needed some chile molido. I knew I had some, somewhere in my spice cabinet. And sure enough, I did — after half an hour of frenzied digging, I found a half-dozen bags of different ground chiles (all unmarked, of course) in a sealed plastic storage container. And they all smelled the same: like nothing much at all.

How long had they been in there? I’m afraid to guess. But they all went where they belonged: into the garbage. And I resolved that as soon as I had time, I would clean out the whole spice cabinet. A recent rainy weekend provided the opportunity, and what followed was more archaeology than home organization.

I spent an afternoon sorting through both shelves. I opened every container and took a big whiff. Into a giant trash bag went anything that smelled dead (stale dried herbs all tend to smell like hay or alfalfa). By the end of the day, my trash bag was almost full.

Apparently I am incapable of walking down a spice aisle without indulging. And I get the feeling I’m not alone. How long has it been since you cleaned out your stash?

There’s no firm statute of limitations for dried herbs and spices, and maybe that’s why they accumulate the way they do. Generally speaking, herbs will last a year or two; spices twice that (and even longer if you’re buying them in whole form). The only sure method for testing is by smell.

Storing dried herbs and spices in the freezer will extend their shelf life somewhat, but if you’re like me, your freezer is already even more crowded than your cabinet.

Buying whole spices is a good idea, at least on paper. They last longer, and you can toast them before grinding to improve the flavor even more. But in some cases, it is impractical: When you need a half-teaspoon of ground cinnamon or a quarter-teaspoon of ground cumin, starting from the stick and seed is a pain.

For the spices I use all the time — cinnamon, cumin, cloves, etc. — I keep on hand both whole and ground. The rest I buy whole and live with the occasional inconvenience.

The exception to this is allspice, which is easily grated and really does seem much more potent when taken from the whole nut. (But why do spice companies insist on selling them a dozen at a time, when one nut will last any normal person at least a year?)

Whenever possible, buy dried herbs and spices in the smallest containers you can. That way you don’t have to rely on self-discipline to keep your stock fresh — a real bonus for indulgent cooks like me.

One of the surprising things I discovered in my spice cabinet excavation is that apparently I have an even greater weakness for salts than for herbs and spices.

I could have had an entire shelf devoted just to salts. There must have been at least 20. I had fleur de sels from everywhere from the Guerande in France to Malibu. I had salts flavored with fennel pollen, rosemary, black and white truffles and smoke. And then there were the rarities, with evocative names like Tidman’s Rock, Pangasinan Star, Grigio di Cervia, Amabito No Moshio.

Can you blame me for hoarding them? At least with salts, there is no sell-by date, except for the herb-flavored ones.

Still, I was on a roll, and at least half the collection joined the herbs and spices in that bulging trash bag.

I now plan to make a sweep like this once a year. Only time will tell how long this new and improved me lasts, but on the bright side, now I can go shopping for replacements.

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