No matter how hard we try to fight it, chaos wins out over order. It's true for astrophysics, and it's true for spice cupboards. Whatever system you use to keep track of your spices, chances are some day it'll get overwhelmed.
Before you know it, little bags of three year-old spices tumble out whenever you open the cabinet door. It happened to me recently, so I decided a spice audit was in order. My goal was to catalogue my spices, figure out what I really needed, and create a new organization scheme to ensure I actually used them. If you're looking to reclaim your pantry, here are some tips to get started.
1. Empty Out Everything. Really, Everything
"He who dies with the most toys, wins" is not a rule that applies to spices. It's more like, "he with the largest collection of worn-out bark and seeds gets killed in avalanche." The best way to get a sense of just how much you've accrued is to empty out everything to a visible space. You'll quickly get a sense just by sight of what you use frequently, what you want to keep around, and what you haven't seen in ages (oh hi there, chiles from that '94 trip to Mexico!).
2. Discard Anything You Haven't Used in the Last Year
If you're attached to your pantry goods, that may sound harsh, but I only say a year to account for spices that may only get used seasonally. Realistically, the lifespan of ground spices is only 8 or 9 months, so if you can't remember when you purchased a ground spice, chuck it. Whole spices last longer, but they do lose potency over time (even if they still smell like they should, the taste can be lacking).
Don't be afraid to be merciless here. The best spice cupboard is one you use regularly, not the largest with the most exotic stuff. And if you really, really need that dried orange peel, you can always buy more.
Now it's time to reorganize your spices so you can find and use them more easily. Some people alphabetize. I prefer to group by cuisine and use. Chances are, if I'm using coriander, I'm using cumin, too. If I want juniper, I probably want caraway as well. You can organize into groups right on the coffee table.
Indian spices all got grouped together, as did Chinese. Blends like rubs for meat or finishing vegetables were grouped together, as were specialty salts and sugars. Some unique spices that defy categorization or cuisine, like grains of paradise, are set apart so they're easy to find on occasions where I do need them.
I went one step further and created an A-team list of spices. My spice cupboard currently occupies two spaces: a small, easily accessible cabinet, and a larger, out of reach one. Everyday essential spices, like coriander, cinnamon, nutmeg, and specialty salts all made the A-team, which gets prime cabinet space. The rest, including larger bags of refill spices, sit on deck in the other cabinet, all in their own groups. With this method, the spices you use most often are within easy reach, while the rest are organized into easy to find groups.
4. A Note on Containers
Similar-sized containers are easy to store and easy to stack. Plastic baggies are hard to keep clean, and a few quickly become a pile ready to topple. To keep my pantry organized, I mostly use clear glass jars. It's easy to spot the contents from a distance and they can be re-used without carrying odors. Since I go through a lot of jam, old jam jars get repurposed for spices. Otherwise, you can get a set of glass jars here on the cheap.
Match your spice to your container. If you can move it to a smaller container, do. If you have a huge pillowcase of cardamom, as sometimes happens if you shop at Indian markets, consider a small jar to use in your A-team and keep the rest tightly sealed somewhere else.
5. Keep It Clean
Now that your spice collection is pared down, neat, and organized, it's time to keep it that way. Label newly purchased spices so you don't forget what's in them, and date your purchase so you know when it's time to restock. Take the extra couple seconds to reorganize your shelf after reaching for a spice all the way in the back. And if all else fails, you can always do another audit in a few months' time.
How About You?
Your turn, spice hunters. Any tips on keeping your spice cupboards tame? We'd love to hear them.
About the author: Max Falkowitz is a proud native of Queens, New York. He'll do just about anything for a good cup of tea and enjoys long walks down the aisles of Chinese groceries. He is known to make ice cream on occasion. You can follow his exotic spice- and ice cream-based ramblings on Twitter.