The Life of Spice

Spices were prized long before recorded history.  Although they have always been used to flavor food and drink, throughout the ages spices have also been favored for a plethora of other uses including crowning emperors, making medicines and perfumes, religious ceremonies and burial accoutrements for the wealthy.  During the Middle Ages the demand for spices was so high they became rich commodities – a pound of mace could buy three sheep and the same amount of peppercorns could buy freedom for a serf.  Today they are readily available in all super markets but are they all the same?  Each spice contains hundreds of flavor components.  It is the quantity and balance of these components that determines the quality.  Freshness has a huge impact on the integrity as well.  This is often difficult to measure as there are many unknowns.  When was it stocked?  How long has it sat on the shelf?  Were the spices quality to begin with?  This is why I love to buy mine from a local company that specializes in dried herbs and spices.  I know this company has great respect for its product, is family owned and is socially conscious.  I am speaking of Penzeys Spices.  They say a top quality spice may be better at two years than a low quality spice at two months.  We are fortunate to have two store locations in our area but fear not, their superior products are available online at www.penzeys.com or by phone  800-741-7787!  They publish a very informative catalogue that highlights many recipes and often contain valuable coupons for discounts and free samples of new and featured products.  I urge you to get on their mailing list, sooner rather than later. 

I am frequently asked questions about purchasing and storing dried herbs and spices so I will share the wisdom of my favorite spice people.

  1. Buy smaller quantities especially of lesser used products.  A year supply is a good guideline as most are harvested annually.
  2. Heat, light, moisture and air are their enemies speeding the loss of flavor and color.
  3. DO NOT store near a heat source such as your stove, on top of the microwave, refrigerator  or dishwasher.  The best way to store is to put them in a cupboard or drawer away from these appliances and to avoid light.
  4. Glass or barrier proof plastic are the best vessels for storage.
  5. Dried herbs and ground spices should be replaced after one year.  Whole spices such as cinnamon sticks, nutmeg, peppercorns and allspice last longer, up to two years.  I date mine when I purchase them and periodically replace as needed.  When in doubt , just smell it.  If it smells strong and spicy, use it.  If not, toss it.

I know it may seem painful to discard a partially used jar but believe me it will pay off in the flavor of the dishes you prepare.  I have heard so many stories of spice hoarding I cannot even begin to tell them all.  Recently, a friend shared a conversation she had with someone regarding this issue and I was amused to hear the woman still had spices in her cupboard that she moved with her over ten years ago.  YIKES!  Why bother using them when the flavor has long ago gone down for a siesta.  Unlike fine wine and us, they do not improve with age. 

There is still time for spring cleaning so I urge you to have at it.  Check out my favorite spice source and start fresh.  Your friends and family will thank you and again be singing your praises as  kitchen royalty. 

Let me hear your spice stories.

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3 responses to “The Life of Spice

  1. I too, love the Penzey store and am delighted that one moved to the east side of Madison. One recent purchase that I like to use frequently isFox Point, a lght flavorful blend of shallots, chives, onion and green peppercorns, Do give it a try next time you’re in the kitchen! JB

  2. Thanks, Judy. Keep your comments coming. I too am happy for the Eastside store.

  3. Terri Schider

    Don’t you love browsing through Penzeys? Everything is so beautifully displayed. Obviously, I should go there more often since I do have in my possession some 20 year old nutmeg, stored in a glass container, that comes out once a year to top a Christmas Tom and Jerry. This is like True Confessions. Hey, it doesn’t taste as bad as you might think!

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