HOW MUCH SHOULD I BUY?
A good rule of thumb is to buy a one year’s supply of herbs or ground spices, and a one or two year supply of whole spices. The government’s guideline for freshness dating is four years for whole spices and two years for ground. Some people say six months is the longest spices should be stored, but most spices are harvested only once a year, so it does not make sense to discard them every six months. On the other hand, two years is too long to store finely powdered spices. Each spice contains hundreds of flavor components. It is the quantity and balance of these components that determines the quality of the spice. These flavor components will dissipate at different rates. A top quality spice may be better at two years old than a low quality spice at two months. When in doubt about a spice, just smell it. If it smells strong and spicy, use it. If not, toss it.
HOW SHOULD I STORE THEM?
Spices must be stored properly to maintain strong, fresh flavor. Heat, light, moisture and air all speed the loss of flavor and color. Glass and barrier plastic containers (such as those we use at Penzeys) are very good. DO NOT store your spices near a heat source: on top of the stove, dishwasher, refrigerator or microwave, or near the sink or a heating vent. The best way to avoid light is to put the spices inside a cupboard or a drawer. If an open spice rack is being used, lace it out of direct sunlight.
Some folks say that all spices should be stored in the refrigerator or the freezer. Whole, crushed and ground chili peppers (including paprika, as well as sesame seed and poppy seed) will stay fresh and colorful longer in cool storage, especially in the summer months. Other than vanilla beans and extract, the flavor of spices will not be damaged by cold. The only problem with spices being stored in the fridge is that they tend to be used less (out of sight, out of mind). So we recommend keeping smaller quantities of spices out in the cooking area and larger backup supplies in the refrigerator or freezer.