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The Expired Food You’re Probably Eating Every Day

Real Simple logo Real Simple 4/16/2019 Betty Gold
a refrigerator filled with food © Getty Images

Sorry to break it to you, but your seasonings are probably way out of season.

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Take a long look at your spice rack. Did you know that spices have expiration dates? Brace yourself for bad news, because chances are, nearly every seasoning in your pantry is several years past its date.

Here at Real Simple, we’re all in favor of doing anything possible to adopt a zero waste lifestyle, which of course includes limiting food waste. We’ve written about smarter ways to dispose of products, surprising parts of food you didn’t know you could eat, and how to limit food waste in schools.

Something else we love to talk about is what expiration dates really mean. So before we jump in, we’d like to reiterate that your age-old coriander and cumin aren’t going to kill you.

What they will do is completely lack in taste. Which is a real bummer considering the fact that spices are meant to do the exact opposite: they’re a vehicle for expressing and elevating a food or dish's flavor profile. Spices lose flavor and potency over time, and this period is significantly shorter than we’d like it to be. Most are considered shelf-stable for about three years, but your nutmeg won’t taste anything like proper nutmeg in a fraction of that time.

To make sure your dried spices taste as fresh and lively as possible, we recommend buying whole spices over ground whenever possible. Because they have less surface area that’s exposed to oxygen—the key offender in the spice degradation game—they’ll hold onto their flavor for longer. You’ll also find fresher-tasting spices at a specialty grocery or spice store versus popping into the corner deli. And because you typically only use a teensy bit at a time, avoid buying spices in bulk, or any quantity that’s greater than what you’ll need for the dish at hand. (That being said, if you put cinnamon in your oatmeal every morning, we’ll understand if you want to buy the big jar).

The harsh reality is that it’s nearly impossible to finish up certain spices by their use-by date, but that doesn’t mean you should throw away what you already have (or avoid trying that cumin-lamb stir fry recipe). If you’d rather repurpose than trash them, here are a few easy ideas for how to put your expired spices to work:

Make potpourri: Heating spices helps express their aroma. Boil a pot of water and add ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, or cloves. You can throw in citrus peels, too.

Craft your own bar soap: Spices smell wonderful in DIY soap, and the granular bits will act as a natural exfoliant.

Make spice sachets: Many spices, like sage, thyme, and oregano, have natural deodorizing effects. Pour them into a small sachet and hang in musty areas of your home, like the basement or garage, to freshen up the space.

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