How to Make the Most of Your Spices

Expert Tips on Buying, Storing, and Using the Pantry Powerhouse

Claire Cohen

Find yourself cooking more than usual lately? In order to avoid meal fatigue—how many times can you eat the same pasta?—you may be experimenting with new recipes, some of which call for using new-to-you spices. But charting into new spice territory can be intimidating. Should you invest in a $10 bottle that you think you'll use in two recipes max? To get us comfortable using our spices, we turned to some of our favorite experts to educate us about these all-star ingredients. Read ahead for tips and tricks to expand your flavor profile, grow your pantry staples, and add bold, complex dishes to your weekly repertoire.

First, What Exactly Is a Spice?

Do you know that the powder in your cabinet actually came from a plant? Or that peppercorns grow in bunches like grapes on climbing vines? “Spices come from the dried roots, rhizomes, seeds, bark, or fruit of a plant,” explains Meredith Chen, R&D Scientist for fair-trade and organic spice company Frontier Co-op. Herbs on the other hand “are from the green, leafy parts of the plant. They are consumed fresh or dried.” A good example of this difference is coriander versus cilantro. Both ingredients come from the same plant, but one is the seed and called a spice, the other is a fleshy green leaf and classified as an herb.

Buy Fair-Trade Spices

As with any agricultural product, purchasing from an ethical source is really important. “Keep in mind the same value system that you use for buying really good coffee or farmer’s market veggies,” says Ethan Frisch, cofounder of heirloom, direct-to-consumer spice company Burlap & Barrel. “Not only is it the right thing to do, but the flavor is far superior. “Buy from a company that can ideally give you some information about the farm and farmer. If you want a quality product, it’s important to buy from a purveyor who cares about that.”

Sadly, the unjust practices of the spice trade are still continuing today. “It created the commodity trading system for spices, which makes sure your spices change hands roughly 10 times before they find their way to you, meaning that the farmer earned a fraction of what they should have,” explains Diaspora Co. founder Sana Javeri Kadri. “Even "fair-trade" within the spice industry just means a mere 15 percent premium on the commodity price.” With her heirloom spice brand, Kadri pays her partner farmers anywhere from two to 10 times the commodity price. “So, you're not just paying for the most delicious, fresh, sustainable spices out there, you're also paying the true value of a spice that will allow a farmer to profitably do this work for generations to come,” she says.

Seek Quality When Shopping

While color can be deceiving when it comes to spices (it’s so easy to use artificial dyes), Kadri says aroma is a fantastic and foolproof indicator of both freshness and quality. “You really can't fake a delicious smelling spice,” she says. But unless you’re shopping in a spice market, chances are you’re purchasing spices that come in a sealed bottle.

For that reason, Frisch recommends buying from reputable suppliers. Price is generally a pretty good indicator of quality in spices too, he says. From all the ingredients, spices have the most bang for your buck in terms of flavor. They’re often seen as an afterthought, but they can change the whole way a dish tastes, so it’s a huge impact for that $10 spice. Ultimately, we’re talking about a couple of cents per serving,” he says. “It’s not that people should go out and buy $50 bottles of spices,” but avoid basement-bargain prices. “If you’re buying spices at the dollar store they will most likely be swept up off the floor of another,” he says. “There’s a whole sub-industry within the spice industry of companies that buy the waste from other spice companies, they literally vacuum it up off the floor, sterilize it, and package it.”  

Check the Date

While spices won’t go bad, they will lose a lot of intensity and complexity of flavor the longer they’re sitting around, “so buy small quantities, use them quickly, and then buy more rather than buying large quantities,” says Frisch. Also, unless your spices have a harvest date, mill date, or best by date on them, write the date you purchased them on the jar before you add it to your pantry, says Kadri. “This is a rule! The last thing you want is for your fancy cut of birthday steak to be rubbed in four-year-old spices.” Another tip: start asking your spice vendors and sellers for more transparency, she says. “The stale, nasty industry will truly only change if customers start demanding better, and requiring harvest dates is a fantastic start.”

Use Whole Spices

"Always buy whole spices and grind them yourself,” says Kadri. “Spices lose their volatile oils so quickly once they're ground, so the longer you want your spices to stay delicious, the more incentive to buy them whole. When I hear about pre-ground pepper and cardamom, I just shudder. What a loss and what a rip-off for the customer.”

Frisch agrees: “Whole spices are going to taste better, taste fresher, and they last longer.” He recommends getting a few inexpensive pepper grinders and adding the whole spice you use most often to those grinders. “So if you love cumin, put cumin in a pepper grinder and grind the whole seed as you use it rather than buying ground cumin.” Another bonus: “You’ll find that you need a lot less than you’re used to because you’ll get so much more flavor from something that’s fresh,” he says.

Avoid Shaking Spice Bottles Directly Into a Steaming Pan

It’s a cooking habit we’re all guilty of, but one that might be harming your spices. “For one, you’re at risk of over-spicing your dish if the shake is too enthusiastic,” says Chen. “But more importantly, it introduces moisture into the jar which leads to caking and spoilage of the spice.”

Toast Your Spices

“Give your whole spices a light toast before you grind to get the most pungency out of them,” says James Beard-nominated chef and founder of small-batch spice company Spicewalla, Meherwan Irani. To do so, Irani says to place your spices in a dry pan over medium heat and toast for two to three minutes. “You'll start to smell them and the spices will darken just a little bit,” he says.

Experiment With a New Spice?

If you’re cooking with a spice for the first time, Frisch recommends using it in a dish that you’re pretty familiar with already. “So if you love making pasta with tomato sauce, try some cardamom one time and coriander the next and really look for those flavor differences,” he says. “That will help you understand how to use different spices and the impact they’re going to have on your cooking.”

Don’t Pigeonhole Spices to Certain Cuisines

Try not to get stuck on specific cuisines and spice combinations, says Frisch. “Cardamom is used a lot in Indian cooking, but it has so many applications. It’s great in sauces, stews, meats, granola—anything with a little sweetness, cardamom really elevates it.” His advice: to be open and experimental and try spices in dishes you already like to cook rather than feeling you have to learn a new cuisine or follow a really specific recipe. Kadri agrees, “I use our chilies as much in Italian cuisine as I do Indian cuisine and I use our turmeric across all cuisines. Filipino food, Iranian food, Thai food—everything gets an earthy hit of turmeric.”

Make Your Own Spice Blends

If you have a favorite store-bought blend, just look at its ingredients, buy those individual spices and DIY at home says Irani: “You'll save a fortune since blends tend to be marked up.” To make up your own blend, he says to experiment with your favorite spice flavors. Add equal parts of whole spices that you’ll roast and grind and 1/3 less for really strong spices such as turmeric, cayenne, cinnamon, and clove. 

Make Your Own Spice Mix

Here's a quick and easy rub for steaks, chicken thighs, and pork chops that Irani made up based on flavors he likes on steaks and pork chops:

1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon red chili flakes (if you can get a whole ancho or guajillo dried pepper that's even better but chili flakes are a fine sub).
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon Spanish paprika
1 teaspoon kosher salt

Dry roast the whole spices in a pan (fennel, rosemary, peppercorns, red chili flakes) and salt. (The salt absorbs the flavor of the spices when roasted with them). Cool and grind (Irani uses a dedicated cheap coffee grinder for his spices), and add the garlic and paprika.

“I usually make this fresh for when I'm grilling or pan searing,” he says. “It only takes five minutes if that. If I have some leftover, I store in a tin or glass jar in a cool dark place and use it within a week or so so that I have maximum freshness.” 

Store Your Spices Properly

“The volatile oils and active compounds in several spices are heat and light sensitive when exposed for longer periods, so protect your spices,” says Kadri. This means storing them away from the stove and in a cabinet with their lids on. “If you use your spices quite quickly, I'd recommend a wide-mouthed glass jar because that's the easiest way to see what you're reaching for, and easily reach your spoon in and out,” she says. But if you're a slower spice user, use a tin/opaque container. “The traditional Indian masala Dabba is truly one of the smartest inventions out there and the most user friendly.” 

But How About the Fridge and Freezer?

 “Spices are most stable at room temperature, kept out of sunlight, humidity, heat, or areas of frequent temperature change,” says Chen. While the expert says it is possible to store bulk spices in the freezer, there are some strict conditions to do so. “Spices can actually go stale or lose flavor faster in the freezer if not completely vacuum-sealed,” she says. “Any air trapped with them at freezing temperature can cause the spices to lose their flavorful, aromatic oils into that headspace. Not to mention, frequent removal from the freezer to measure out a teaspoon means a cycle of freezing and thawing that can increase condensation and caking.” Spices should never go in the refrigerator, she says. “Even in a humidity-controlled drawer, fridge humidity is just too high. Spices stored in the fridge are at even higher risk of caking and staling. Not to mention, they can mold under these conditions.”