On Spice Fade, And the Utter Insanity of Throwing Spices Out After Six Months

Readers, a quick reminder: during the month of May I’ll be featuring articles from Casual Kitchen’s archives. Enjoy! As always, I welcome your thoughts and feedback.

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On Spice Fade, And the Utter Insanity of Throwing Spices Out After Six Months

The spice industry--as well as many misguided cooks, chefs and food bloggers--will tell you that if you have any spices in your cupboard that are more than six months old, you should throw them out.

Pure hogwash. This is just another example of how the food industry tries to get you to spend unnecessarily. Worse, it makes cooking at home more expensive than it needs to be.

However, by now every savvy Casual Kitchen reader should have a sixth sense that starts to tingle whenever companies "recommend" doing something that is both in their interest and costs us more money. Most likely it's not in our interest to obey.

That's why you should verify--with a high standard of proof--claims like "throw out your spices after six months." For example, have you ever done a side-by-side recipe taste test of a spice you bought a year ago compared to a brand new jar of that spice? If you did so, would there be a perceptible change in the context of your typical use? Can you actually perceive this alleged "spice fade" in a recipe?

I'd bet against it. Very, very few of us have palates that are that finely tuned, and those of us who think we do still probably don't.

But even if you actually can tell the difference, I have good news: You still shouldn't throw out your spices. Instead, keep reading. I've got a solution for you.

Half Lives
Here's another way to think about spices--think of them as radioactive isotopes, with a half life. (Seriously--stay with me here).

Spices will fade slightly with time. Remember, I'm not arguing that spices don't fade, I'm saying the degree of fade is tiny and barely perceptible. So let's take a hypothetical example of say, cinnamon, and let's pretend cinnamon has a half life of three years (hmmm, kind of like Rhodium 101).

What does "a half life of three years" mean? It means that in three years or so, your cinnamon should lose about half of its flavor and smell. After six years, it should lose another half, which means your cinnamon would be roughly one-fourth as strong.

Using this framework, then, what's going to happen in six months--when that all-important spice industry drop-dead date passes? Well, in six months, your cinnamon is going to be, oh, about 8% less flavorful.

Whoa. Better throw that puppy right out, right?

Again, these numbers are totally hypothetical and made up--although if you think about it, it's probably not unreasonable to think that three-year-old cinnamon might be half as flavorful as newish cinnamon. But just keep in mind that this is just an example to illustrate a point.

So, getting back to those unlucky souls who think they can detect an 8% decline in spice efficacy, here's your solution: use 8% more of that spice.

If your spice has a smell/taste factor that is 92% of what it was, then to bring it back to 100%, all you have to do is add another 8% more. (It's actually 8.7%, but nobody likes a math geek).

The point: if you detect a modest fade in the spices you use, you can always just use slightly more to compensate. Either way, even if you actually can tell whether a spice has a experienced any meaningful decline in flavor, you still should not automatically throw out your old spices.

Don't throw them out after six months. Don't throw them out after a year. Verify for yourself when your spices are truly past their prime. And even then, you can still embrace the solutions in this post to save yourself quite a bit of extra money.

Don't mindlessly take some expert's word for something--especially when those "experts" may have an agenda to get you to needlessly buy more of what they're selling.

Read Next: Should I Be Paranoid About Grocery Store Loyalty Cards?


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4 comments:

Mary McKitrick said...

I'm glad to see this articulated Dan! Never really felt the urge to throw out spices but always wondered if I ought to do it. I'm still working on the herbes de Provence I bought in Brittany 9 years ago :)

Laura said...

Great post! Do you have any suggestions for how to find out the half life of certain spices?

I typically just smell the spice and if the flavor is strong, I'll use it. I usually season to taste anyway, so I guess that automatically helps me add more if the spice is starting to lose its flavor!

Daniel said...

Hi Laura,
I don't really think there will be any hard numbers on this... part of the challenge lies in the fact that taste and smell are extremely subjective and vary dramatically from person to person. The "half-life" concept is really just a metaphor for how to think about spices and how slowly they fade over time.

In other words, I think you're doing fine: taste or smell the spice and make your best judgment. But don't throw it out!

DK

Marcia said...

Ha ha ha!! Now you are speaking my language - as a math nerd AND a former nuclear engineer. :)