When Taylor Morgan looks inside her spice cabinet, she sees ancient history.
There’s the star anise she inherited from her mother, who passed away in 1997. “This bottle is probably 50 years old,” she says.
There’s the “huge thing” of dried onions that goes back at least 10 years. “I’ve never used it,” she says.
Even spices she uses regularly — say, the oregano and basil for her homemade salad dressing — aren’t likely all that new, she admits.
“There’s no logical explanation for the fact I’m a spice hoarder,” says Morgan, a West Palm Beach, Fla., resident who runs QuenchTime, a restaurant subscription program.
Morgan can take heart in the fact that she’s hardly alone. We are a world of spice and herb hoarders, say food professionals and others in the culinary world.
According to Bon Appétit magazine : “Once you purchase spices, they will lose flavor (whether or not they’re ground). You shouldn’t keep ground spices for more than three months and whole spices for more than eight to ten. How do you know how long they’ve been hanging around though? You store them in airtight canisters that are labeled and dated with masking tape and Sharpie .”
Of course, this spice-hoarding issue is hardly confined to America. In 2014, a survey found that 13% of British residents had jars of herbs that were more than four years old. The study also noted that Britons were sitting on what then amounted to nearly $400 million in unused herbs and spices.
Given the far larger population of the U.S. and assuming that Americans and Brits have similar spice-saving habits, the dollar value of unused spices in the U.S. would be nearly five times that of the U.K.
McCormick & Co. /zigman2/quotes/206739653/composite MKC -0.21% , the prominent U.S. spice company, says it regularly fields inquiries from consumers who have McCormick products that are more than 20 years old.
Indeed, when McCormick once asked on its Facebook page /zigman2/quotes/205064656/composite FB +0.50% , “When’s the last time you took a peek into your spice cabinet?” it heard a range of shocking stories. Such as the 31-year-old woman whose mother kept paprika that predated her grown daughter’s birth by at least three years, based on the expiration date. The daughter said her mother came to the following conclusion: “I guess I don’t really use paprika.”
There was also the gentleman who held on to an old pack of Swiss Steak Seasoning Mix, a product that McCormick discontinued in 1997. “That seasoning is definitely vintage,” McCormick said on Facebook.
Americans may have another reason to take that look at their spice cabinets. McCormick recently announced that it was recalling some of its products — three Italian seasonings and Frank’s RedHot Buffalo Ranch seasoning — because of the possible presence of salmonella.
Americans have been buying lots of spices and herbs of late. Even before the pandemic, the seasoning market was a $13.8 billion behemoth in terms of annual sales, according to a study by Grand View Research. And the market was forecast to grow at a 6.3% annual rate through 2027.
The pandemic may only be accelerating the trend, as Americans report spending more time in the kitchen rather than dining out. For example, McCormick reported that its sales increased 11% in the quarter ending May 31 versus a year before.
Darren Seifer, a food and beverage analyst with market researcher NPD, adds that spice usage in the home has increased by about 28% since the start of the pandemic. He notes that with the rise of working from home, Americans have had more time to cook, which naturally leads them to seek out and use more spices.
But why the spice hoarding? Home cooks say they use certain spices and herbs for dishes they may make just once or twice a year, so the jars tend to sit largely abandoned in the spice cabinet. But given the cost of some of these seasonings, cooks are hesitant to toss them and purchase a new supply.
“Have you ever bought saffron? You might as well buy a diamond,” says Toni Arpaia May, a Jupiter, Fla., resident who admits to keeping jars of different spices that are a few years old.
Chefs and food-safety experts say it’s a good idea to routinely go through your spices and herbs and see if anything is out of date. The labels typically make it clear, but McCormick advises that ground spices, such as cumin and ginger, have a general shelf life of two to four years, while whole spices, such as peppercorns and caraway seeds, can last up to four years.
The issue is more quality, as spices and herbs lose flavor over time, than food safety.
Nevertheless, Martin Bucknavage, a senior associate with the Penn State Extension food-science department, says it is always important from a safety standpoint to make sure spice jars don’t come into contact with potentially problematic items in the kitchen during the course of preparing a meal.
An example he cites: juice from meat splashing on an opened jar.
The quality issue isn’t one to be taken lightly, however, say chefs — at least if you care about getting the maximum taste out of the dishes you prepare.
“You might not enjoy the meal as much,” warns Ari Bokovza, chef and partner at Dagon, a Mediterranean restaurant in New York City, of the use of out-of-date spices and herbs.
Even then, chefs say that for the sake of flavor it’s often worth using fresh herbs, such as basil from a plant in your home, over the dried and jarred variety.
Katy Sparks, a Massachusetts-based chef and food consultant, has one solution: “I don’t think there’s ever an occasion when a dried herb trumps a fresh herb.”