In today’s world, there is an increased focus toward more natural ways of both eating and healing. This is especially true of using more natural herbs, spices and other natural ingredients for cooking and as supplements for wellness. Often cooks and herbalists are asked about not only how to use these natural ingredients, but also the best way in which to store them and their shelf life. Like the plants before they are dried, they can suffer from too much dryness or damp or even an infestation by pests such as insects or other animals.
The three keys toward maintaining freshness of herbs and spices are air, light and heat. Ideally, herbs and spices are best stored in glass, air tight containers kept in a cool, dark place. This does not mean that they should necessarily be kept in a refrigerator. However, keeping them in places that keep these three factors in mind is ideal. It’s best if the herbs and spices are stored in a place that is kept below 70°F. It is also best to store them in a space that is away from the furnace or areas that tend toward dampness such as a basement where there is no dehumidifier to remove excess moisture from the air. Excess moisture will initially cause the herb’s taste to deteriorate and eventually this can also cause mold. Light will cause fading. When possible store your herbs and spices in dark amber or cobalt blue glass. If this is not possible, storing them in a cupboard or a drawer that is dark most of the time is fine. If you have nothing but sunlight penetrating every bit of space in your home, you can reduce light penetrating and damaging the herb by hanging up a curtain over your spice rack or cabinet.
The first thing to remember in purchasing any herb or spice is to check for freshness. Check the date that indicates when it was packaged or when is the optimal time for it to be used by. Is it well within the freshness date? You certainly do not want to buy something that will go out of date quickly. If you can, check the aroma of it sharp and fresh, or does it seem a bit mute? Is the colour of the herb faded or is it the colour it should be? Also, be on the lookout for webs, eggs, dirt or damage to the herb that might indicate an infestation of insects.
If you buy your spices and herbs in bulk at the natural food cooperative for example, and once you get them home, be sure to store them in clean airtight containers. Don’t use plastic containers to store your herbs in if at all possible. The reason for this is that plastic is porous and will allow the volatile and essential oils which are in the plant, even after it is dried, to lodge themselves within the plastic, While it might be nice to have a plastic container that smells of herbs and spices, not that it can be nearly impossible to remove. Make sure that the size of the container fits the amount of herb or spice that you have. Too much air left in a container will cause deterioration to colour, aroma and most importantly, flavour and efficacy.
The shelf life of an herb or spice is different for each type of herb, spice, tea or even for coffee. Most of the flavour of any of these plant materials comes from the volatile or essential oils that are contained within the plant matter. Volatile oils do have a tendency to oxidize or evaporate over time or when exposed to factors such as heat and light. When this happens, they lose their flavour than when they are in their whole form. When an herb is ground, the surface area of the herb or spice has been increased and therefore the chances of the volatile oils evaporating much quicker are increased. If you do find that an herb or spice has deteriorated in any of these areas, be sure to compost the old herb material and purchase fresher herb to replace it. The benefits to your cooking and enjoyment that you experience will be worth the cost.
Below is a guide for the estimated shelf life of various herbs, spices and teas.
Whole Spices and Herbs 1 year
Roots 3+ years
Seeds and Barks 2+ years
Ground Spices or Herbs
Leaves 6 months
Seeds and Barks 6 months
Roots 1 year
Black & Green 1 year
Herbal 6 – 9 months
Coffee 3 months
Ground (not vacuum sealed) 2 weeks
As you can see with coffee, pre-grinding it at the store is probably not a good idea unless you go through a great deal of coffee very quickly. Storing it in a freezer may slow some of the deterioration on taste, however, only grinding what you need as you use it insures the best taste.
When you use your herbs and spices, make certain to always use clean, dry measuring utensils in order to avoid introducing any moisture or contaminants into your spices. Use them to taste and enjoy your herbs, spices and teas often.
*(Note: This article has appeared before on Ezine articles under one of my other names)