How to Clean Out Your Spice Cabinet and Organize It—for Good

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Get this craziness under control. [Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

In the realm of "things I'd like to do on a Saturday," cleaning out my spice rack ranks just higher than doing my taxes and washing my third-floor apartment windows. But keeping your spices organized and fresh matters. Doing so may not automatically make you a better cook, but it will make you a more effective one.

An organized spice rack means a spice rack you actually use, one in which each ingredient is more valuable because you see it and want to put it to work. It'll help you spice your food smarter and more often. If you put in the effort to buy high-quality produce and meat, well, your spices deserve the same degree of attention.

Do not confuse this post for a collection of cutesy tips on new ways to use Mason jars. Okay, there will be some jars, but clearing out a cluttered spice rack, one that's ready to topple over from the piles of stale, unidentifiable powder stinking up the cabinet, means going to war. You're about to launch the invasion of Normandy, and damn it, you're going to hold that beachhead and keep it. Follow along, and I'll show you how to keep your spices under control—for good.

As in any war, it pays to be ruthless. Sometimes that's what it takes to achieve a united, democratic Europe an organized spice rack. But with only a little effort, and even less bloodshed, you'll get there. So let's get started.

Take Stock

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Before you storm the beaches, you need to start with a plan of attack. Take a moment to ask yourself these questions:

  1. Which spices do you cook with regularly?
  2. Which spices do you need for everyday cooking, and which are just nice to have on occasion?

You're not doing yourself any favors by holding on to spices you never use. I know: You bought something to cook that one magical dish three years ago that everyone loved. There was that friendly spice vendor who gave you such a discount on The Most Authentic Cinnamon on your trip. You paid so much for that bag of cardamom during the Bush administration.

And you know what? I don't care. Because here's the essential truth I've learned about cooking with spices: If you don't cook with something now, chances are you won't in the future. Of course, there are exceptions, and nothing makes me happier than to watch someone discover the joys of asafetida or coriander seed and make it a part of their daily diet. But chances are your spice habits are fairly set in stone, and not much is going to change that.

Remember: You gotta be ruthless. We accrue clutter when we're not honest with ourselves about what we need and what we don't. Now's the time to break that cycle.

So make some mental notes, or physical ones, about the spices you use often, and prepare to distance yourself emotionally from the ones that you can live without.

Start to Purge

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I'm writing this post from my kitchen counter, because, for the sake of journalism, I'm going through my very own spice cabinet, which is well overdue for its own spring cleaning. I find that my spices fall into three major categories.

Stuff I Don't Recognize

Really, I have no clue what these things are or how they got into my kitchen. Most are anonymous powders in plastic bags that smell like...something, but they haven't seen the light of day in what must be years. The fate of these suckers is sealed: Toss 'em.

Stuff I Recognize but Don't Use Often

Oh hi, black cardamom and smoked cinnamon and saffron. Pleasure to see you again, months if not years after you last saw action.

Okay, so you know the war/spy/heist story trope of the grizzled, retired veteran called back into the field for One Last Job? That's how it goes with these rare players. Most of them are better off staying retired. If you see a spice and can't immediately picture two or three delicious things you want to cook with it, its days are probably done. You can always get a newer, younger model for not too much money if you buy it from the right place.

Toss them—or, if you're really feeling the pain of throwing food away, leave them on the counter for a few days, and let them taunt you. After staring at them for a week, bereft of inspiration for cooking with their aid, you'll likely feel better about putting them out to pasture.

But a few of those vets truly are worth bringing back into the rotation. Some are lavishly expensive, like saffron, or irreplaceable, like that killer spice blend you bought while traveling that made the best kebabs of your life. Others simply remind you how amazing they are. Remember mace, that nutmeg relative with a brighter, more complex flavor that's perfect for apple crisp? If it inspires you, keep it around.

(Of course, even the best spices have their own shelf lives, and some vets are just too old to make a comeback. More on that in a minute.)

The Keepers

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This leaves one more category: keepers. These are your everyday spices—your cayenne and cinnamon and finishing salt. You know what your regularly used spices are. But are they fresh, or is it time for an upgrade?

Spices don't really go bad per se, but, as moisture and volatile compounds dissipate over time, they become blander shadows of their former selves. For some spices, this is fine; I don't mind using a little more of an older spice to get the same level of kick. But in general, older spices, even when used in greater quantities, lack the punch of fresher versions.

There's no hard line on when spices "go bad," and the answer varies depending on the type of spice. Using your nose to decide what smells fresh is your best bet, but to help you sort through your keepers, here's a handy visual aid so you can decide what to keep and what you should replace.

A Spice Shelf Life Cheat Sheet

Click to enlarge! [Graphic: Vicky Wasik]

Most spice merchants quote around eight months as the shelf life of a ground spice, though fresher is usually better. Whole spices last much longer—more like a year or two—and some whole spices are so dense, woody, and intensely flavorful that they last for ages. Think nutmeg and star anise.

Other spices are really short-lived, and best tossed and replaced after, say, three months. Dried herbs, flowers, and zested citrus don't age well. Neither do semi-dried berries, like juniper or sumac. And some fine powders, like turmeric, black pepper, and ginger, lose all their punch in a flash.

If a regular spice truly is a regular spice, it's worth ditching your bland, stale jars and replacing them with fresh versions. Yes, you'll eat some cost on your next grocery bill. But if you shop smart, that cost won't climb very high.

Restock the Right Way

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With your purge complete, it's time to tend to the wounded and replenish your forces. As I stand in my kitchen, a good 75% of my spice cabinet is now in the trash. Hey, look at all this space I have now!

Make a list of the keepers you need to replace and a few fanciful, special-occasion spices you'd like to add to your collection. Now here's the important thing: Do not restock your spices at the grocery store.

If you like fresh-tasting, high-quality ingredients, the supermarket spice aisle is literally the last place you should go. Spices can linger on shelves—exposed to harsh, flavor-destroying light—for months before they're purchased, and your choices at the supermarket are by and large restricted to a small set of preground spices.

If, on the other hand, you prefer more flavorful spices that last longer and cost way less money, put down the car keys and open the laptop. Buy your spices online.

Doing so means you can buy from dedicated spice merchants that put quality first. And the costs are often a fraction of grocery store prices. Vendors like The Spice House and Penzeys will sell you as little as an ounce or two or as much as a couple pounds. You don't have to buy more than you need, and the bulk packaging costs far less than glass jars.

These merchants also sell a wider variety of whole spices, which will last you way longer at home. I like to buy four ounces or so of a spice at a time, and grind up small batches once a week in a coffee grinder I use just for spices. If you want to stick to preground spices, The Spice House grinds most of its stock itself, which means the cinnamon it sells you truly is freshly ground, as in that week. Yes, it's my top spice vendor overall, and no, The Spice House doesn't pay me to say that.

If you're still not keen about shopping for spices online, check out local ethnic grocery stores. Indian, Latin American, and Thai markets, for instance, sell spices that are generally cheaper and higher-quality than their supermarket equivalents, and with faster turnover, so they're fresher. But you may be locked into buying bulk bags so big they look like pillowcases. Me, I'll stick to online for most of my spice shopping.

Assert the New World Order

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You've purged and restocked. Now comes the part where you keep your spices organized. After talking with many a spice hoarder, some well organized and some less so, I've come to accept that there's no one right solution for everyone. But there are a few general things to keep in mind.

Basic Tools

Heat and light degrade spices fast, so your spice collection should be kept clear of the stove, fridge, and the path of direct sunlight. If you've bought a bunch of whole spices to grind yourself as you need them, do what I do and get yourself a grinder that you use only for spices.

As for storage containers, little plastic bags turn sticky and grubby quickly. You can splurge on matching tins or jars, but I just save all my jam, salsa, and herring jars and use those. They let you see all your spices at once, they're stackable, and, most importantly, they're free. Not as pretty as those moddish wall-mounted displays, but just as functional.

Make Your Kits

When it comes to organizing spices, I'm a big believer in the kit approach. You probably use cloves in the same dishes as allspice, and cumin in the same recipes as coriander. These commonalities form the basis for your "kits," and the spices they contain are best grouped together for easy access.

Some kits are organized by cuisine; other kits may group together similar ingredients, like chilies. Many South Asian cooks go so far as to organize their "kits" in actual kits, called masala dabbas—essentially consisting of little tins, each containing its own spice, that get grouped and sealed into one larger, disk-shaped tin.

As I restock my own spice cabinet, here are my kits:

  • Baking spices: cinnamon, allspice, vanilla, nutmeg, mace, clove, and star anise
  • Chilies: Aleppo, paprika, Urfa, maras, cayenne, dried Thai bird chilies, and chipotles
  • South Asian: cumin, coriander, asafetida, fenugreek, mustard seed, garam masala, vadouvan, and cardamom
  • East Asian: white and black sesame seeds, Sichuan peppercorns, fermented soybeans, shichimi togarashi, and medicinal orange peel
  • Middle Eastern: za'atar, saffron, sumac, dukkah, and dried mint
  • Finishing salts: sel gris, red clay salt, smoked salt, lemon salt
  • "Weird" spices: juniper berries, long pepper, grains of paradise, and other things that come out to play only rarely

This isn't everything, but you get the idea. Kits are flexible concepts, and hey, if you need some cinnamon in your Middle Eastern kit and your baking kit, fill two small jars, and keep them in two sections.

Kits are best made using small containers. If you've bought other spices in bulk, store larger bags in another part of your pantry.

Develop Your Spice Inventory

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"What I really want," Daniel told me the other day, "is a spreadsheet with an inventory of all my spices and how old they are." And he's not the only one; Maggie says she wants the same.

I'd like a digital inventory, too—if someone else set it up for me. But you may very well find that a spreadsheet listing all your spices and tracking when you bought them is invaluable for recalling what you have at home while you're out grocery shopping. You can even group or tag spices by the kits they belong to.

You may also want to consider setting calendar alerts when you place an order for spices. Set them three, eight, 12, or 24 months from your date of purchase according to the shelf-life guidelines above, to give you a reminder to discard and restock.

I prefer the analog, "in sight, in mind" approach. My most frequently used spices occupy the front row of my spice cabinet, with lesser-used ones toward the back. Every spice gets a label with its name and date of purchase, so, as I'm looking through my cabinet, I can automatically pull out jars of stale stuff. They get left on the counter and aren't allowed to leave until I place an order for more. (For a neat freak like me, there is no more exquisite form of motivating torture than this.)

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Some inexpensive tools can also help. You may want to invest in some masala dabbas to organize your kits, or pick up a couple lazy susans that let you see your back-row spices much more easily. Working with a larger pantry? Do what we do at the Serious Eats office: Buy some cheap plastic food service trays, and place your spices on those trays. Then you can pull whole trays off your shelves to investigate their contents easily.

Here's the more important thing, though: Continue to be ruthless. Cleaning out and reorganizing your spice cabinet is a great victory, but the real test of a war is the occupation that follows. Do not be afraid to sacrifice stale or neglected spices along the way. Doing so may feel like throwing away lives money, but the real monetary cost is small, and it's for the good of your greater spice society. So purge regularly. It will be much easier the next time.

Aesop once remarked, "A tyrant will always find a pretext for his tyranny." The pretext here is clear: a more organized kitchen, and more flavorful dinner.

So go ahead. Be a tyrant. It's more fun than you think.