We're probably not the first ones to break this news to you, but here goes: even the best quality turmeric or star anise doesn't last for ever, whether it's sealed in an airtight jar in the safest, driest, darkest recess of your cupboard or not. That's because as spices age, the essential oils that give them fragrance and flavour gradually evaporate, and the spices dry out and lose colour.
But it doesn't take as long as some people think— while your favourite chilli powder will be at its best within 6 months of purchase, most ground and whole spices will have at least a year's more flavour to give before you write them off entirely, and there probably aren't any health risks to old spices. As long as they still contain some flavour, you can simply increase the quantities you use for a dish, and keep tasting and adjusting to make sure everything's right.
As your go-to spice store, you might think it's in our interest to tell you to throw out & replace old spices. But we want you to treasure your spices as much as we do. To test whether a spice is still at its best, take a small pinch in your hand and rub it gently to release the aroma— if it still carries its own distinct taste and smell, you can keep using it in all your favourite dishes.
But if you've had jars of cinnamon and sachets of garam masala sitting at the back of your cupboard for half a decade, don't worry— you don't have to feed all those valuable powders, seeds and flakes to the garbage truck. Here are some things you can do with old spices, and none of that 'make some paints' or 'craft your own soap' stuff— no, here's how to use them in ways you can actually eat:
1. A spice might be too weak to use on its own, but it's a great opportunity to test out some new spice blends or adjust your favourite. Any blend of two, three or more spices can work— as long as you get the ratios right. People are usually afraid to taste dry spices directly, but there's no better way to get to grips with all their unique properties. Get all your musty old cloves and cardamom out and turn it into a tasting party— blend, taste, adjust. Once you've found a flavour combo you like, you can start thinking about what to sprinkle it on...
2. While old spices might not immediately reveal their fragrance to you, that doesn't mean it isn't there. It's too late to sprinkle old spices as a finishing touch, but try toasting them instead, and you'll be surprised at how much flavour is still in there, especially in those dusty old jars of ground cumin and coriander. Sprinkling over some toasted spice makes pretty much everything taste better.
3. If you make tarka regularly, you know what frying in hot oil does to even the creakiest, blandest old strip of cassia bark. But you might not want to waste a large amount of past-it spice on your best dishes, so why not whip up a larger batch of spice-infused oil instead? Whole spices are especially good for this, but whatever you've got, start heating it in oil from cold until it begins to sizzle, and then strain the spices out before they burn (make sure you're pouring the oil into a heat-proof container!) Congratulations, you now have a flavoursome, fragrant finishing oil that's perfect for drizzling over summer salads, grilled meats and pasta or noodle bowls.
We agree you shouldn't mix bland old spices into your best dishes, but don't let anyone scare you into throwing away some perfectly useful jars of goodness just because they no longer contain the tip-top, 5 star restaurant quality stuff.