Thursday, May 9, 2013

Spice Cupboard Clean-out

By Ann

I can’t remember the last time I totally cleaned out the spice cabinet.  Maybe never?  That can’t be…. Or could it?  Regardless, it was long overdue.  I would often find myself purchasing a new container of a spice or herb because I didn't know what I had on hand.  To try to solve this problem, not only did I clean out, but while I was at it, I created an Excel spreadsheet listing the contents of the cupboard, sort-able by “baking, savory, or miscellaneous” categories.  If you’re wondering what ended up in the miscellaneous group, it was all of the ingredients in the cupboard that are not herbs or spices – the corn meal and starch, molasses, bread crumbs….  You get the idea!  When I replaced the items in the cupboard I kept baking spices together and the herbs in one the other side.  Let’s see how long that lasts!
I first pulled everything out and onto a couple of sheet trays

I then organized items alphabetically, which allowed me to catch any duplicates
Herbs and spices lose their potency with age; some more quickly than others.  Ground spices quickly lose flavor, which is why whole peppercorns last longer than ground pepper. To keep your spices fresh longer, store them away from heat, light, and moisture. That will help to preserve flavor and color, and prevent clumping.  When I looked online the guidelines for how long spices can be expected to last from the McCormick herb and spice experts:
  • Seasoning blends: 1-2 years
  • Herbs: 1-3 years
  • Ground spices: – 2-3 years
  • Whole spices (such as cinnamon sticks and peppercorns): 3-4 years
  • Extracts: 4 years (except for pure vanilla, which lasts indefinitely)
I have a hard time sticking to these rules of thumb, and prefer to think that the alternate solution to tossing and replacing is to just use a bit more of whatever ingredient might be past its prime.  If it is discolored or musty smelling, however, it’s time to go.  One of the things that I did toss was a package of paella spice mix that I purchased on a trip to Spain in 2001 (at which we ate paella almost every day).  Since numbers are universal, I could read the expiration year even though the rest the text was in Spanish – 2005, well past its usability even with my version of the rule for when things should be thrown away. I think I was hanging onto it more as a souvenir than an ingredient!   Other “tosses” included empty containers from about six or seven spices/herbs that I combined due to having two of, a box of old cake flour, and a few things that I knew I would never miss if I got rid of them.

Herbs and Spices as souvenirs?  Odd concept, but I've done it many times.

As you can see in the “before” picture below, we keep all of these ingredients in one of our upper kitchen cupboards.  I pine over custom made drawers and organizers for ingredients like these, but this is what I have to work with, and I shouldn't complain because my kitchen has lots of cupboard space.
I admit, the "before" pic looks very similar to the "after", but at least now I know what's in there!

Lessons I learned from my cupboard-clean-out:
  • Quit buying BBQ “rubs” and weird spice blends – I rarely use them!
  • No more hot sauce!  There were three unopened bottles that I put in the fridge and tossed what was open and who knows how old.
  • Donate salt and pepper shakers when I find a new set that I think I’d like better (there were 3 sets in the cupboard).
  • I need to make lots of brownies or other treats with the four packages of unsweetened chocolate squares and powder on hand.
  • Don’t buy bulk spices at stores like Whole Foods and label the bags with the number only.  (I may have an interesting “blend” of chili powder that I added #1156 to!)

Common sense would dictate writing more than just the number on the package of bulk spices....

Questions I still have:
  • Why do I have five varieties of cinnamon?  I smelled each one, and could find subtle differences, but I don’t think I've ever run across a recipe designating Ceylon or Tung Hing cinnamon!
  • Is there a difference between “ground” and “rubbed” sage?  (They don’t look exactly the same.)
  • Can I combine the “lemon spice blend” with the “lemon pepper” to get rid of one more jar?
  • Will it matter that one of the unsweetened chocolate packages has an expiration date of 2009?

In case you were wondering – even after weeding out, my spreadsheet had 77 entries.  I guess I’d better start cooking!


  1. Ann, Another trick I use is to place all items in 6x9 hard plastic drawer organizers by Rubbermaid and use a sharpie to label the name on top of each item. This way I grab the "tray" I believe should hold the item I'm after (I also alphabetize them!) and with a quick glance at the tops I've found what I'm after and am good to go. As well, when I'm finished w/the spice I just replace it in the "hole" in the tray. Such a time saver during cooking and when I'm checking for a particular spice I need for a new dish.
    Kisses, Edie

  2. Great idea! Your system sounds much more organized than mine. S