My family has certainly done its fair share of moving. We've gone from California to Philadelphia to Minneapolis, with a couple of points in between. Although I do not relish the moving process (only one of the reasons I am never leaving the Twin Cities), I do appreciate the opportunity to clean out the old and make way for the new.
There's no closet that's more worthy of cleaning out than the pantry. More specifically, the spice pantry. Spices have a short life, about a year. After that, the flavor diminishes and will simply not deliver when you need it most.
However, there are a few things you can do to ensure you get the full impact of a spice's punch.
First, always buy spices in their whole form if possible and then grind them yourself. Spices you purchase pre-ground tend to lose their flavor faster than do whole spices -- such as cumin or coriander seeds -- leaving you an even smaller window of time to use them at their peak. It's a bit like buying a brand new car and suffering a dramatic depreciation the moment you drive it off the lot.
A limited lifespan
Where you buy your spices can make a big difference, too. If whole spices only have about a year of liveliness in them, assume that they've already sat on the grocer's shelves for months. That's why it's important to buy from a place that sees a fair turn-around in its inventory. A store that specializes in spices is best. Buyer, beware: If you have to blow dust off the bottle to read the label, find another place to shop.
Another culinary tip for getting the most bang from your spices is to toast them before you grind them; use a dry skillet over medium-high heat. Swish them around in the pan for a few minutes, or until they're fragrant (careful, they burn quickly), let them cool and then grind. The flavor and aroma you get from that process is dramatically better than what you will get from a bottled ground spice.
Once you've done all you can to make sure the spices are fresh and full of flavor, play around with combining them into your own blends to add to burgers, veggies, chili or anything you like. You'll know they're going to give an extra dimension of interest to the dish, because they still have some life in them to give. I make blends in small quantities and keep them on hand for a number of uses. For a savory flavor, I have the Moroccan Blend and Chili Powder. The sweet blends, such as cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg, are used for holiday pies, quick breads and cookies.
Whether sweet or savory, you'll be amazed at the difference freshly ground spices make in your dishes.
Meredith Deeds of Edina is the author of "Everyday to Entertaining" and "The Big Book of Appetizers." Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @meredithdeeds.