Spring comes early for me every year. No, I don’t have access to a different calendar than anyone else. I just like to do my spring cleaning in January. I’m stuck in the house anyway; with or without the polar vortex, it’s always chilly this time of year, so I might as well clean a cabinet or two.
I always make sure I clean the cabinet that holds my spices. Old spices won’t do your dishes justice, as their flavor lessens with time. That’s why it’s important to go through the pantry and toss any dusty bottles that have been sitting around for years.
Here are a few tips for keeping your spices as fresh as possible:
• In order to know when the time has expired on my spices, I try to remember to jot the date I bought them on the label as I’m pulling them out of my grocery sack. As they age, spices don’t go bad and they aren’t likely to make you sick, but they will lose potency.
• If you haven’t recorded the spice’s purchase date, don’t worry, you can figure out a lot with your eyes and your nose. If the color of the spice has faded, its flavor probably has, too. If you open it up and you can’t smell it, there’s another sign it’s time to toss it.
• Avoid the dreaded “caking” of your spices by limiting their exposure to moisture. That means storing in airtight containers and not opening them over a steaming pot where they’re sure to get damp. And make sure the lids are back on tight after using them.
• Heat and direct sunlight can also cause premature aging. A cool, dark place is the best place to store spices.
• While buying in bulk is great for paper towels, unless you’re baking a ham or gingerbread every day, it’s hard to use a pound of cloves in any reasonable amount of time. Most home cooks find it’s a better deal to buy in small quantities.
Of course the standard advice about always buying your spices whole is still good, as whole spices stay fresher longer. If you’re grinding your whole spices yourself, make sure to maximize their flavor by toasting them lightly in a dry skillet first.
Cooking with spices always makes the house seem warmer, so this is the time of year to spice up your menu. This Moroccan-Spiced Meatball Tagine will certainly do the trick. Tinted with turmeric and heavy with the fragrance of cinnamon, cumin, coriander and ginger, and packed with fresh vegetables, this stew is much easier to make than the ingredient list would make it appear. Most of the ingredients are probably already in your pantry — properly stored, of course.
Meredith Deeds of Edina is the author of “Everyday to Entertaining” and “The Big Book of Appetizers.” Reach her at meredith@ meredithdeeds.com. Follow her on Twitter: @meredithdeeds.