If you’re one of the many people who enjoy cooking, you probably know that herbs are incredibly important. Just a pinch of garlic, oregano, and rosemary can turn a dish from boring into a flavorful meal. While fresh herbs are often used, dried herbs are always available. When you use dried herbs, you have access to them throughout the year.
This doesn’t mean that you can always rely on using any type of dried herb. How many times have you gone to use one and found that it expired years ago? Whether you make your own dried herbs at home or purchase them already dried, they all have an expiration date. To get the most from what you use, these are some general things to keep in mind.
The General Rule of Thumb
In general, dried herbs will last 2-3 years so this is a general rule that you can follow. The rule isn’t going to be relevant if you don’t store them properly. Heat, humidity, sunlight, and air are all going to have a negative effect on your herbs. They will break down the essential oils that give spices their flavor. Additionally, some spices can become rancid or moldy over time which means that you should discard rather then use them.
Not all herbs and spices follow this rule though. When it comes to what will last longer than others, a whole spice is going to keep for three years. The less broken down the spice, the longer its shelf life. This means that if you can purchase the whole spice, you should. They will not only be more potent but have a longer shelf life. You can grind your own spices fairly easily as well when ready to use.
Ground spices and dried herbs are generally only going to last you for one year. In contrast, poppy and sesame seeds as well as nuts and truffle products are the least long-lasting products. They are only going to keep for 3-6 months. Make sure that you always label and date them for the best results.
Finally, salts are not usually considered to be an herb but they are a type of spice. Salt will keep indefinitely but flavored salts are another matter. The salt content will keep for three years although the infused flavors may decrease over time.
There are a few spices that don’t follow this rule though. These are some of the notable exceptions for commonly used spices:
- Black pepper- whole peppercorns should last 5-7 years
- Whole cloves- last 4-5 years
- Ground sage- will last 3-4 years
- Dried thyme- both ground and whole will last 3-4 years
- Tumeric- usually sound in the ground version, will last 3-4 years
How Long Do Spices Last After Expiration?
When it comes to understanding expiration dates, you really don’t need to go by the date on the container. After all, the USDA defines spices as being a shelf-stable product so they never truly expire. What generally occurs is that the flavor of the spice will decrease. One of the simplest ways to determine if your spice has lost its potency is by removing a pinch and then rubbing it onto your palm. A spice that’s still good to use as-is will be fragrant while a spice that’s lost its flavor will be more difficult to smell.
If you purchase your spices or make your own, labeling and dating them is a simple way to determine their approximate age. Like mentioned above, some spices will be good for longer periods. In general, you should check your spices before you use them. If they haven’t been stored properly, they could develop mold so discard any spices that have this as a problem.
What do you do if your spices go stale though? This doesn’t mean that you have to discard them necessarily. They can still be used but you’ll need to adjust how much you use. If you’re following a recipe, you may want to double or even triple how much the recipe uses. Make sure that you are fairly certain your spice is stale though to avoid over-seasoning foods.
3 Ways to Know if Herbs Have Gone Bad
If you think your spices may not be good, then there are three primary ways that you can tell that they’re still usable or you may need to change what you’re doing. Use these three methods to get an idea of your herb’s freshness.
- Crush and rub between your fingers – it should have a strong smell. If your herbs do not have much of a smell, then they’ve probably gone stale.
- Check for Deep Discoloration. For example, pumpkin pie spice tends to be a bright orange. You can tell that it’s no longer fresh when you notice that it’s a dark brown. Other spices may darken over time as they go stale.
- Do a Small Taste Test- When you smell your spices, they should have a fairly strong smell. This isn’t always the case but your herbs should be notable without even removing them from the container.
What to Do with Old Herbs and Spices
After you’ve checked your herbs and spices and found that they’re past their prime point, what now? As long as they’re not moldy or rancid, spices that have lost potency aren’t going to harm you. There are a few options that you can use in order to get some value from your spices without having to discard them.
First, consider using a larger amount in recipes than is originally called for. When using old oregano, you can increase a teaspoon serving to a whole tablespoon if it’s stale. Increasing the amount of cumin and coriander will also increase the flavor and, if you like spices, you’re probably not going to go wrong by bumping them up.
If you don’t have much of any one particular spice, you could also consider making up your own spice bland. A grill mix is easy to whip up from small amounts of spices and you can add as much as you want when cooking.
Secondly, if the spices are really too far gone in order to use them in meals, then consider other options to get value from them. Non-edible options may be your best bet. If you like to make soap or candles, aromatic spices such as cinnamon, ginger, and cloves are all options. You can even use them in sachets to add a pleasant scent to drawers and cupboards.
Thirdly, you can also infuse the oils in the spices. Infusions are going to draw the aromatic compounds out of spices and herbs. Add the spices to a favorite oil for a few weeks and then filter out the solid spices. Grind your spices finely before doing this. Even adding a small amount of heat will help. Once the oil has gotten the flavor of the spice, you can use it in cooking or for other uses.
How to Revive Old Herbs and Spices
If your spices are past their prime but you don’t want to use one of the methods above, then adding a heat source may be your best option. Toasting spices works well to revive spices such as pepper and cumin although you can use this with other spices as well.
To use this, get a skillet that’s clean and dry and put it on medium heat. Put in the amount of spice that you’re planning to use in your cooking and toast for up to three minutes. Shake or stir the spice to avoid burning it. When you start to notice that the spice becomes fragrant again, then you know that you’re done.
Keep in mind that while this method works, it’s best to only use the amount of spice that you’re using at one time. Toasting the entire bottle doesn’t work as well. When you don’t want to buy new spices for cooking, use this method to give your older ones new life.
My #1 Tip to Make Your Dried Herbs Last Much Longer
Although you can find a number of resources on keeping dried herbs fresh for a longer period, there is one simple way to extend their shelf life. Simply keep them whole. Whole spices such as cinnamon sticks or coriander seeds are going to stay fresher for a longer period of time. Grinding breaks down the oils that give them flavor. Some chefs even avoid grinding spices until they’re ready to use them. Always buy them intact if possible.
Frequently Asked Questions
- How long do freeze dried herbs last? Since freeze drying removes most of the moisture content, this method will keep herbs in good condition for up to a year
- How long do whole cloves last? When stored properly, whole cloves should last about three to four years.
- Can dried oregano go bad? No, dried oregano will not typically go bad if not stored properly but will lose potency just like other dried herbs
- How can you tell if Basil has gone bad? If moisture is present, basil can go bad. Take note of a rotten smell, the presence of mold, or a moist texture.