Check Your Spices – 10 Minute Project

By Carolyn Shearlock © 2012 • all rights reserved

For great flavor in your food, check your spices periodically Here’s a quick 10-minute project — checking your spices and organizing them.  I always put this off and then am pleasantly surprised at how little time it actually takes!

When I was a kid, accepted wisdom was that spices were good for only about 6 months, then began losing their flavor.  These days, there’s no hard and fast rule, but if your boat is in a warm and/or humid climate, spices will lose their flavor much faster than in an air conditioned house.

So every 6 months or so, I take a few minutes and check the contents of all my spice containers.  It’s also a good time to see what you’re low on, clean things up and straighten out your spice compartment.  Many of my spices are in a bin, and labeling the tops — and setting them all upright — makes it much faster to just grab what I need.

I open each spice jar and take a quick sniff; for many herbs, you’ll need to pour a bit into your hand and crush them a bit.  If there’s not much “smell,” the contents are not going to add much flavor to your food and it’s time to pitch them.

When I went through mine today, I found two long-forgotten jars of chili powder that had fallen out of the bin — and now had all the scent of a piece of paper.  It hurt to throw them out, but frankly it would have bothered me more to use them in a pot of chili and have it lack flavor.

Last time, I discovered that my garlic powder was pretty dead, explaining why the shrimp scampi a few nights before hadn’t been quite what I had anticipated.  If you try a new recipe and aren’t that impressed — as I hadn’t been — make sure it’s not the spice that’s gone bad!

For the longest life, store your spices in a dark locker that’s dry and cool (well, at least relatively cool).  Those wonderful spice racks that so many boats have above the stove and next to a porthole are about the worst place that you can put spices!

Both heat and moisture are the enemies of herbs and spices.  And yet, I know that I would often just open the top of a spice container and sprinkle some into a pot.  That’s about the worst thing I could do for the remaining contents of the jar, as it’s hot and steamy over the pan!  My solution is to remove those little shaker tops whenever I can, forcing me to use a measuring spoon and scoop out some of the spice . . . away from the pan.  I’m getting a lot better.

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  1. So you leave your spices in the containers? Are they air tight enough for sailboat conditions? I was wondering about putting spices in zip locs or at least in a lock and lock. Just wondering…

    • Thanks for the question!

      The spices I use all the time and that are in pretty tight-lidded containers, I leave there (McCormicks are usually pretty good) — but I’m using them every day. My “stock” that’s not in use is in a Lock & Lock buried under spare Sunbrella under the floor. Things that come in cellophane pouches and so on get put in Ziplocs or tight-lidded old spice jars (same “flavor”). All the foil pouch things (taco seasoning, for example) definitely go in Ziplocs — usually I double bag them.

      I’m sure that some things would probably last a bit longer if I kept the jar in a Ziploc, but it would also be harder to store them that way and harder to see and grab what I wanted, so it’s a bit of a tradeoff. The summer we spent in El Salvador, where it was MUCH more humid than in the Sea of Cortez because of the daily rain, I did put some of my less frequently used spices into Ziplocs.

      It’s a harder call if you are using the boat just on weekends — both because spices don’t get used up as fast and the closed boat will get hotter. I’d probably tend to have fewer spices and hopefully use them up faster . . . and live with the fact that I might have to throw them out before using them up.

      Buying small amounts of spices helps, but it’s rare that you have a choice. I think that moving my spices to a drawer that was low and away from the stove, as well as re-training myself not to sprinkle spices into hot pans from the jars, did as much as anything to make them last longer.

      Hope that helps!

  2. Debbie Wasserman says:

    I’m a weekend sailor who loves to cook aboard. The built it spice rack on the galley bulkhead is pretty and convenient. If I move the spices, do you have any clever suggestions for how I can use the rack?

    • Hi Debbie!

      They are really handy, aren’t they? At various times, I used it for combinations of sunscreen, bug spray, hand sanitizer, and napkins. Often kept a small bag of dog treats there, too — even before we had a dog! (Several friends did and we had many guest dogs aboard). Also a good place to keep a flashlight, and for a while we kept a waterproof “cigarette” case filled with boat cards there so it was easy to grab when we were going in the dinghy.

      Enjoy your weekends!


      • Debbie Wasserman says:

        Thanks for your reply and suggestions, Carolyn. Naphins, both coctail and regular are a brilliant suggestion. I think my spice rack is too shallow for much else. Thanks for the forum…..Debbie

  3. Deb Perfitt says:

    Here is something I do now to keep my spices fresh. I have a recipe box, you know the old fashion one? It would hold index cards so its pretty compact. I fill the snack Ziplocks with the herbs and spices, label them, then “file” them alphabetically. I keep the whole box in my fridge on board. It keeps them handy and fresher.
    When buying the herbs and spices I try to get them at a Bulk Barn type store, bringing my Ziplocks with me so I don’t overbuy or if I can’t I find someone to share a jar with me.
    Might work for other boaters.
    Keep bringing these great ideas to use everyday items. I love them thanks.

  4. Now you tell me. Lol. I just mounted a couple spice racks ( ) on the bulkhead just above the fridge on our Catalina 27. We only weekend sail right now and about the only things on the rack are salt and pepper (grinders), a jar of liquid Stevia, and my favorite burger seasonings.

    I will say, however, they are also handy for holding flashlights and are convenient as they are next to the companion way and easy on your way out.

  5. Glad to hear you are home safely. How’s Paz?

  6. Good advice. Need a Paz update

  7. And expiration dates on medicine. –We have old cold medicine, but I’m afraid to toss it– we haven’t had a cold since we bought it!

  8. We’ve been using Penzy’s Spices for the past 4 years now:
    They have brick & mortar stores, plus sell through Amazon. Their spices are especially good. They come in glass jars– I know, you’d think not a good idea for a galley, but the small jars are surprisingly bulletproof. I’ve dropped a few on our tile floor at home, with no issue. The taller jars, not so much, keep those ashore. We will recycle the jars when empty. Penney sells in a bulk size that comes in plastic bags. We’ll keep those at home and will refill both boat and home jars when needed. But we only buy the bulk sizes for the stuff we use the most. One other tip, when recycling the jars– when empty, we’ll peel the label and wash thoroughly. When refilling, we use a P-Touch Labeler for the spice name. The P-Touch has a date/time function, so a second label goes on with the date you fill it, which is a great help– in addition to your nose– in identifying spices past their prime. I have not done a price comparison between Penzeys and store brands, but their quality is so much better I really don’t care! The little glass jars are well sealed for the marine environment. One final tip in any kitchen to further preserve your spices: NEVER shake from the jar directly into your pot! The steam and moisture goes right into the jar, shortening the shelf life. Instead, shake it into the palm of your hand… And then into that delicious pot o grub!

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