A former chef in St. Louis opines on spices and spring cleaning
A friend told me a story about her mother-in-law, a peculiar buyer who often sold real estate. She wasn’t that interested in finding valuable furniture or uncovering rare vintage treasures. Instead, she negotiated the entire contents of orphaned spice cabinets and thought her jumbled spice mixture was a smart purchase. Over time, she collected endless bags, baskets, and cabinets full of mismatched glasses.
While you’re probably not a used spice hoarder, it’s probably been a minute since you last organized your spice rack, closet, or drawer, and if you’re like me your collection has some deadbeats in it. I decided to move my spices to racks on the wall from multiple cabinet locations. As I looked through a couple of jars of old, brittle, dried herbs and faded spices, I found that I had more to do than I originally imagined and that tough decisions had to be made. Now the time had come to get Marie Kondo the hell out of my spice cabinet.
If it’s been a while since you’ve tamed your dry spice collection, or if you’re not sure what exactly lives there, you may need to do a spice rack refresh. If you take the time to edit and update your spices, you’ll know better what you own. By making sure your spices are fresh, strong, and easily available, and by inviting them to use them more often, you will become a better cook overall. And most importantly, you can taste the difference in your food.
Just as there is no canon as to what spices a person should keep, there is no right way to organize them. However, there are ways to store them to optimize their shelf life and potency, as well as simple methods of organizing that will make it easier to navigate your spices.
Step 1: collect and evaluate
After emptying the two cabinets that I had stacked with glasses, I found that some of the cabinets pushed back were likely purchased during the Obama administration. I dug up spices I had no memory for and a couple of unlabeled jars the contents of which were a complete mystery. It didn’t matter if they were full; I knew they had to go. I had a couple of dried herbs that I only used once or twice. Summer tasty? When was the last time I cooked with dried summer savory? I gave each remaining jar a good visual inspection and set aside the spices that looked washed out. Next came the odor test. With a deep breath, those who had little to no odor joined the pale herbs and spices of the scrap pile, which at the time was larger than my “Keep” pile.
Step 2: list and let go
This is by far the hardest part. Herbs and spices do not spoil or spoil in a way that is not food safe, but over time the oils and flavorings they contain oxidize and dry out and lose their fragrance and taste. Different sources suggest that a spice stays fresh for different times. However, a reasonable general rule is one year for ground spices and two to three years for whole spices.
I grabbed a notepad, wrote down the list of spices with scrap piles, and threw them away after a quiet moment in which I remembered the glass of poultry spice I had bought with me. If this seems wasteful to you, old spices can be used to make soap, potpourri, or spice bags, but dead spices have no place in the dishes you take the time and effort to prepare.
Step 3: homing your collection
I had stored my spices in several places, with the ones I’d used most often in the cupboards above my range, which, while easy to get to, would dry out quicker from the heat. Direct sunlight, moisture and heat are the enemy of herbs and spices. My new racks would be better positioned, and since they would make my spices clearly visible on the wall in my kitchen, I bought airtight jars.
I was inspired to update my own spice rack after finding a large amount of tiny vintage brass buttons that I thought would be perfect for dressing up spice jars. I chose borosilicate glasses with capacities of 6, 8 and 15 ounces. Borosilicate is stronger than regular glass and can withstand very high heat, making it a great choice for a kitchen. They measure 3 cm wide and 3–8 cm tall; The above-average size allows me to have a ton of spices on hand that are suitable for large-volume cooking, which I still do professionally, as well as for family and friends. I attached both the brass handles to each acacia wood lid and the spice racks to accommodate their size from The Container Store. (Previously borosilicate glasses were only available to the medical and restaurant industries, but today they are more common and can be easily found online and in some retail stores that specialize in storage and organization supplies.)
Step 4: market, market, buy a new pepper
Next came the fun part. As I looked at my rejected herbs and spices list, I noticed the ones that were used regularly and those that were used less frequently but that I wanted to have on hand so I knew to buy smaller quantities.
There are several spice shops to choose from in St. Louis when it comes to replenishing, each with their own menu. Penzeys in Maplewood and Chesterfield Commons are well stocked stores selling hundreds of spices, herbs, and extracts. Here you will find different types of cinnamon, peppercorns and fresh vanilla pods. Jay International Foods on South Grand is a great spot for South and East Asian condiments, a wide variety of dried chilies, and Middle Eastern spices such as sumac and saffron. The Soulard Spice Shop is located in the Soulard Farmers’ Market and the Olde Town Spice Shoppe is in St. Charles.
Although McCarthy Spice and Blends Co. is a local resource for customers wishing to make custom spice blends for distribution, the company will also sell its 400+ spices directly to the public. If you’ve had a favorite spice blend that your grandpa made and kept top secret, but that you’d like to reveal at your next family gathering, McCarthy’s food scientists can likely help you recreate it, design a label, and package each blend Use anything from French sea salt to cinnamon imported from Saigon.
And if you want to pick up your spices while shopping for groceries, there are some quality options in grocery stores too. If your store offers spices in bulk, they are likely fresher than the packaged spices, and you can buy as little or as much as you need. Look for brands like The Spice Hunter that sell natural and organic products.
After buying all of the spices on my list, each colorful, fragrant spice was transferred to the freshly washed and dried jars. I use what I can see in front of me rather than what is hidden. That’s why I put waterproof labels on the underside of my glasses.
Step 5: order versus instinct
Like looking into someone’s medicine cabinet, the contents of a spice collection are personal, as is the way they order them. While the alphabetical organization for a Type A personality seems most logical to others like me, it doesn’t make sense to start with Adobo and end with Za’atar.
While reorganizing his extensive personal record collection in the movie High Fidelity, record store owner Rob is asked by one of his employees, Dick, what system he is using.
Thick: Is that chronological? It can’t be alphabetical.
Thick: Then what?
rob: It’s autobiographical.
Thick: No way.
While I’m not smart enough or crazy enough to organize my spices in the order they came into my life, I do organize them into groups based on how I use them. My chilies are grouped together. Indian spices have a specific place, followed by those I use in Asian dishes. All mixtures are related and herbs keep each other company. After all, baking spices are grouped away from everyone, like their own sweet versus savory clique.
Step 6: prepare for size
No matter how you choose to order your spices, nothing will inspire you to cook something delicious or experiment with new flavor profiles than having a clean, organized collection of vibrant, fresh herbs and spices.