Spice secrets

Ever had a snickerdoodle that blew you away, or an eggnog with a hint of something delicious you couldn't quite place? Often, the difference between a good recipe and a memorable one is a good-quality cinnamon, freshly grated nutmeg, or another full-flavored spice. Learn all about buying and storing spices so their flavors can shine in your favorite holiday recipes.

By Tanner Owens

Photo: Shutterstock

What makes a quality spice?

Volatile oils (or essential oils) give spices their flavor. And even though spices don't really "go bad," they lose flavor as those oils evaporate over time. Oil content is different for each spice; percentages may even differ for the same spice from different regions. How quickly a spice fades depends on how it is processed and how much it is exposed to heat, light, or air.

What should I look for when buying spices?

Because freshness matters, it's smart to choose airtight packages and to shop at a high-volume grocer or spice store, where spices don't linger on the shelf. Some brands include a "best by" date right on the label. Some list country of origin, too, so you can tell if it's a spicy-sweet Vietnamese cinnamon or a mild, citrusy Ceylon cinnamon from Sri Lanka.

Anything to watch out for?

Check the ingredients list for preservatives, additives, or artificial colors, which can dilute the flavor and make a spice appear fresher than it is. And watch for caking, which can indicate a broken seal or moisture damage.

What's the best way to store spices?

Put them in airtight glass or amber jars to help keep flavor in and freshness-stealing air out. Jot the opened-on date on the jars to help you gauge their age later. And tuck them in a cool, dry, dark drawer or cabinet away from the stove. Get more tips for storing herbs and spices, and learn how to DIY an easy spice drawer.

Should I buy whole or ground spice?

Whole spices like nutmeg last longer than ground. Because they are intact, they have less surface exposed to air. Of course, you have to grind or grate them yourself. So they're a little like coffee beans: If you're using a lot quickly, you might want to buy the already ground product. If you're using a little occasionally, you might opt for whole and grind as needed. But it takes only a few seconds to grate fresh nutmeg using the finest holes on a box grater or a special nutmeg grater.

How long do spices keep?

It depends on the spice and how it's stored, but whole spices can last up to four years, while ground spices and herbs degrade in one to three years. To tell if your spices are still potent, give 'em a sniff and a taste. Good spices will be full of aroma and flavor, while old spices will smell and taste dull.

This article originally appeared in the December/January 2020 issue of Allrecipes Magazine.