Food

Are your spices really old? Here's how to tell if you should throw them out

When’s the last time the old spice rack was thoroughly cleaned? A week ago? A year ago? Never?

If you're not really sure, then there's no time like the present to start.

Get your spring cleaning routine on the right track by taking the time to carefully check each spice bottle, jar or shaker and toss any of those spices that have been sitting around a little too long. Some spices are known for providing powerful health boosts (not to mention, they also add great flavor to foods), so it's important to keep them fresh.

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But how should you start spring spice cleaning?

Last week, spice company McCormick took to Facebook to help customers find out if their dried parsley, oregano or onion powder was really, really old.

"When's the last time you took a peek into your spice cabinet? You should see 'Hunt Valley, MD' on McCormick labels. If you see 'Baltimore, MD,' the spice is at least 25 years old," McCormick posted. It's since been shared over 2,000 times.

The Maryland-based company, which has been selling spices since 1889, used to manufacture all of its products in Baltimore, where the company was founded. But they've since moved their production center to Hunt Valley, Maryland, a suburb of the city.

Another way to quickly tell if that McCormick spice is past its prime? If it's in a metal tin — dump it. With the exception of black pepper, the brand hasn't sold spices in tins for 25 years.

But of course many home cooks stock their cabinets with spices from different brands.

Chef James Briscione, the director of culinary research at the Institute of Culinary Education, shared his kitchen tips with TODAY Food on the best way to keep your spice rack in top shape.

1. New spice? Write the month and year on the label. This is a simple trick Briscione and his staff do every time a new spice is opened. This makes it much easier to keep track of how fresh something really is. Some spices in particular have a tendency to outlive others.

"Nutmeg is one," Briscione told TODAY Food. "You use it in small quantities and usually only during fall and winter. Five years can go by easily."

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Assorted spices in wooden spoons on a table.

2. Don't just look at 'Sell By' dates, take the cap off and smell it. "I think we're becoming more and more aware that expiration and use by dates can be used to the business' advantage and have an abundance of safety in mind," Briscione said. Since some expiration dates can be arbitrary or confusing, it's OK to use your best judgement. The spice should be bright and fragrant. If stored in a cool, dark place, it should be OK to use as long as it holds its vibrant color, while a spice stored in the light will show discoloration much more quickly and lose its flavoring power.

4. To grind or not to grind? Pre-ground spices might be more convenient but whole spices last the longest because the essential oils kept inside are where the "majority of the flavor is." Those can last three to four years. Once spices are ground, however, there is more surface area and they will quickly lose their "chemical compounds" that make them flavoring agents. Ground spices can last one to two years maximum and dried herbs can last up to three years.

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