Spices: Does Freshness Make a Difference?

Long ago and far away there was a store that sold spices on Bleecker Street. It was great because you could measure out how much of each spice that you wanted. We’ve all learned that you should buy small amounts of spices and use them within months. Not that anyone does that. With the death of small shops like the one on Bleecker, it’s almost impossible to find spices that aren’t prepackaged, generally in larger amounts than you need, even for favorites.

What you probably don’t know is that the spices that you buy in almost any store has been sitting around in warehouses, packing plants and store shelves for years, yes, years. So there goes the freshness option.

Recently there’s been an emphasis on where spices come from, how they’re grown, and ways to support small spice farmers to bring their products to market. People like Lior Lev Sercarz of La Boite in NYC have been doing this for a while, and more recently you can add companies like Burlap and Barrel and Diaspora to the mix.

I decided to do some early spring cleaning of my spice drawer and with some coaxing from the Burlap and Barrel Facebook group, ordered ginger, allspice and cumin. I’ll be the first to say that all my spices are more than a year old, since that was the last time I was in NYC and the ginger and allspice were pretty ancient. But would there be a difference? And would it be noticeable?

The quick answer is yes and yes! Wow!

If my spices had an odor, it was faint, with the ginger smelling more like cardboard than anything resembling ginger. The allspice had no odor and the cumin had a faint odor. When I opened the Burlap and Barrel spices you could smell them the minute the lids came off.

There was also a color difference, with all the B&B spices being darker in color than my pale wannabes.

But the taste was what was most amazing. If I thought mine had no odor, I shouldn’t have been surprised that they had no (or faint) taste. The new allspice smelled so good and tasted incredible. Frank said “I never would have guessed this was the same thing” when I gave him the two to taste.

The same was true for both the ginger and cumin—both much stronger and purer flavors than what has now been tossed. Now I’m inspired to go through the whole drawer and toss what’s been taking up space for too long.

While I would say the B&B jars are still a little bigger than I’ll probably use quickly, they do have the distinct advantage of having a wide enough mouth to actually fit a measuring spoon—something I’m sure we can all appreciate.



4 thoughts on “Spices: Does Freshness Make a Difference?”

  1. It’s up to you. Try some of the places in the article. I’ve liked what I’ve had from La Boite and B&B. Haven’t tried Diaspora yet. Penzey’s politics might not be for everyone but I like that he takes a stand. As for the handling in a pandemic, everything I’ve referenced is packed in jars by the sellers, so contact shouldn’t be an issue but it’s what you’re comfortable with. Hope that helps.

  2. We grow basil, cilantro, parsley, rosemary, thyme, sorrel, tarragon, red chilies for red pepper flakes,and dill.

  3. So what do we do? Are we never to buy spices in chain grocery stores? Should we only buy spices in small shops? Finding independent local retailers is challenging and time consuming. And in the pandemic era, how can we trust that few people have handled or breathed on bulk spices?

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