How to tell when it’s time to refresh your spice cabinet. And does it even matter?
It’s easy to forget about spices. We don’t reach for them until we need them. They’re often sold in inconvenient quantities. And they don’t show any obvious signs of deterioration like fresh herbs do. But do they ever go bad? The short answer is not really. Unless you’ve stored them in high heat and humidity to the point where mold develops, spices don’t rot or become unsafe to eat. They do, however, lose potency.
All spices derive their flavor from aromatic oils that easily vaporize and dissipate (hence why they smell so aromatic in the first place), and the longer a spice sits around, the more compounds dissipate. This is especially the case for ground spices, which have more exposed surface area and lack the protection of hard shells. Every spice degrades at its own rate—and depending on your source, it may not even be that fresh when you buy it—so for the most potent flavors, try to use up ground spices within a year and whole spices within two. And don’t feel too bad about chucking an old stash to restock.