23 June 2009

Storing Spices & Herbs

Storing Spices & Herbs

Why should I look after my spices & herbs carefully?


Nature in her bounty has given us an abundance of spices and herbs that offers us a massive range of natural smells, flavours, colours and textures that can liven up all your meals.  However, like all natural foods, you need carefully to store and handle your spices & herbs to ensure that you look after their natural aromas, flavours and colours.


This variety of aroma and flavour comes from the volatile oils – that is natural chemicals - that naturally occur in spices & herbs, albeit more delicately in the latter.  The adjective “volatile” indicates that these chemicals evapourate from the spices and herbs, hence giving off the natural aromas that you associate with particular spices.


So, for example, clove essential oil comprises eugenol (70 to 85%), eugenol acetate (15%) and β-caryophyllene (5 to 12%); eugenol is, also, found in bay leaves, cinnamon and nutmeg, and is similar in structure to vanillin, which is the main volatile in vanilla beans.


However, you want to control the release of those volatile chemicals to ensure that you get the maximum flavour into your cooking rather than generally to perfume the air.  Similarly, poor storage of brightly coloured spices can result in a rapid deterioration in the vibrancy of the spices – in fact, if your spices are left out and do not lose their brightness, you should chuck them out as they probably contain additives (it’s one of those ironies of modern life that, for example, we as consumers have become so brainwashed into thinking chilli powder should be consistently bright red, such that when it is orange we complain and so the industry starts adding colours to maintain our expectations etc etc).




What is the best way to store spices?


To reiterate: the flavours and aromas from spices and herbs come from the volatile oils within the products.  These volatile compounds evapourate into the air in normal conditions.


Spices and herbs must be packed in high-barrier, food-grade materials.  This will keep the flavours in the spices rather than perfuming the air and cross-contaminating your other products – try smelling many of the supermarket vanilla beans and you will note a delicate curry aroma on them!


We suggest the following ways of storing your spices and herbs:


·         Glass jars with good quality lids or hermetic seals (Kilner style jars)

·         Stainless steel or tin containers with good tight lids, eg an Indian spice dabba


We advise against storing your spices and herbs in thin plastic bags, cellophane packs or cardboard canisters, nor do we feel that ziplock-style plastic bags or aluminium foil containers are particularly good.  These packs are all allowing the volatile oils and, therefore, all those aromas and flavours to escape.  You will note that we have also shied away from plastic as we find that they can taint your spices & herbs, especially chillis and turmeric, nor are they genuinely recyclable.


When you get your herbs & spices, you should store them in airtight containers, out of the light and away from heat.  For our bulk customers, we recommend that they should be stored between 6oC and 17oC.  If they buy your spices & herbs in plastic, cellophane or aluminium foil bags, you should immediately decant them into a sensible type of container immediately.  If you want to display your spices and herbs in your kitchen, you should put the rack in an area away from direct heat or sunlight – it is best to put the herbs in a cupboard. 


In our kitchen, we have the spices and herbs that we use all the time close at hand with everything else hidden away in a cupboard.


How long should I keep them?


Firstly, do not keep spices, herbs, salt and sugar beyond their “best before” date – they are given for a reason rather than out of commercial necessity.  While they will still have some flavour after then, most of the volatiles will have evapourated and much of that complexity and depth of flavour will have dissipated.  We are often told how much stronger our spices & herbs are than our competitors – that’s because they are fresher.


Secondly, use your nose and your eyes.  To survive as humans, we have developed an excellent sense of smell and sight.  So look at the spices and herbs and give them a smell, if they still look okay and have a good intense aroma then they should be okay.  However, if there is little flavour left, or the colour has faded, or if there is a rancid or mouldy look and smell, chuck them out.


Finally, we blitz our store-cupboards at least once a year and throw out all those items that are old.  It makes one quite humble and improves on your general housekeeping to realise how much you have wasted!