Keep these cooking staples in your pantry, not on the counter.
If you can’t remember when you purged your spice rack or drawer, it’s time to get busy. Dried spices, herbs, oils and vinegars—all important staples to a cook’s pantry—go bad over time. Oregano that’s lost its potency doesn’t do your tomato sauce any good. Old chili powder can cause your prize-winning chili to taste just a little off. You can avoid recipe mishaps by following these easy tips for storing spices, oils and vinegars.
I like to start a new year with a clean kitchen and organized pantry. I set aside about three hours to purge, clean and organize. If you can do this and then stay committed to put things back in their proper places, it really will make a difference in your kitchen/s efficiency.
It’s funny what you can find shoved in the back of a shelf. This week, I found a partially used container of cream of tartar with an expiration date of July 2002! This thing was 20 years old, people!
Hey, we’ve all done it; purchased something for that special recipe only to have the remainder of that spice relegated to the pantry graveyard. When I recently went through my spice rack, if I didn’t see a “use by” date or if the label looked old, the jar was tossed. In the end, I had a plastic grocery bag filled with junk spices, and while I recognized the waste, I also felt a sense of accomplishment knowing what was left were spices I could safely cook with.
Similarly, I went through the oils, vinegars and other sauces in the pantry and refrigerator. There was less waste here (thank goodness), so the task was reorganizing these staples.
To help keep us on the right path in 2022, I consulted with Marianne Prey. Marianne owns a specialty food store—Extra Virgin, An Olive Ovation—in Ladue, Missouri. Prior to opening her store in 2007, she completed a course at University of California Davis that was all about olives and olive oil. If anybody knows how to store oils, vinegars and spices, it’s Marianne, thanks to her training and practical experience.
“Oils, vinegars, herbs and spices hate light, heat and air,” she said. “The worst place for all is a shelf above the cooktop. Pretty bottles on a sunny shelf are for decoration,” she said. “The general public is unaware and is cooking with a lot of ingredients that have no flavor or worse turned rancid years ago.”
Here are five tips Marianne shared for storing some of our favorite pantry items:
Store oil, vinegar, herbs and spices in the dark, away from heat and with a tight-fitting lid.
Wine vinegars can list about two years. Balsamic vinegar with a high natural sugar content can last many years. Ingredients should include simply grape must (freshly crushed grape juice) or must and vinegar, according to Marianne. Avoid brands with added sugar, corn syrup, caramel coloring and artificial ingredients.
The shelf life for dried herbs is usually six to twelve months. The finer the grind, the shorter the shelf life.
Whenever you can, buy whole spices to grate or grind as you need them. Whole spices, Marianne said, can last for years.
Oil can be frozen for long-term storage.
Photos below show how even a small pantry can be organized to work efficiently. My cleaned up spice rack is alphabetized. Items in the pantry are grouped together; I keep some groups in bins. Packaged items—cereal, rice, pastas—are in plastic or glass containers and are labeled.
It’s such a treat to shop at An Olive Ovation because I know Marianne has curated the finest oils, vinegars and spices from around the world. She also makes several in-house salad dressings that are wonderful. And she makes three spice blends that are terrific: the signature spice blend combines salt, paprika, garlic, pepper and more; traditional dukkah is made with hazelnuts, coriander, sesame seeds and a few more herbs and spices; and a ñora pepper blend contains dried ñora peppers, garlic, onion, black sesame seeds and ginger. Marianne said the latter is similar to a Montreal steak seasoning.
I also like Olde Town Spice Shoppe in St. Charles, Missouri. Their barbecue rub has won awards. I love their lemon pepper and orange pepper; and I appreciate there are options for small (4-ounce) or large (16-ounce) containers. A fixture on Main Street for more than 30 years, Old Town Spice interestingly is in a building that dates to 1811 in what was the home to some of the first physicians in St. Charles County.
Another fun place in the St. Louis area to shop for spices was mom’s favorite. Soulard Spice Shop in St. Louis’s historical Soulard Market sells 600 pounds of spices each week. Walking into this shop, which has been in business since 1914, is such a sensory experience. I still remember Mom filling her wire basket with beautiful spices, including the smoky paprika she used for her goulash, and holding a container near my nose to smell. We never visited the market without going into Soulard Spice Shop. Check out their web site for good tips about how to purchase and keep your spices.
Personally, I’ve found that buying spice and herbs in bulk isn’t a good strategy. That large bottle of Greek seasoning may seem like a good idea when you’re at the grocer, but unless it’s something you’re going to cook with almost daily, leave it there. Dry spices and herbs are expensive, but the smaller jars result in less waste for me.
Periodically looking at your spice drawer or rack also helps you keep a current inventory. I’m due to replace my smoky/Hungarian paprika. It’s an essential ingredient to Chicken Paprikash (paprika chicken), another of Mom’s recipes. It’s included in my cookbook, Three Women in the Kitchen: Recipes and Stories of Growing Up in St. Louis. Paprika Chicken must have been a dish she grew up with because she spoke of it often but made it infrequently. Maybe Dad preferred the goulash?
However, Chicken Paprikash is a great illustration of the importance of cooking with fresh spices. Putting extra paprika in a recipe if it’s past its prime will not yield the same result as using the correct amount of a fresher spice that’s been kept away from light.
But don’t let this deter you from trying this dish! Just visit your favorite spice merchant for quality paprika. The reward will be a fragrant kitchen and a delicious, warming main course for a winter supper. Jo étvágyat! (Yoh-ehrt-vah-jot), which is Hungarian for bon appetit!