IFAS answers questions about your Thanksgiving herbs and spices

UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences

With several holidays in the coming weeks, many people are also eagerly planning family gatherings and the meals that accompany them. Just thinking of those feasts may evoke the aromatic experience – rosemary, thyme and basil in savory dishes; cinnamon, nutmeg and clove in baked goods.

But as those herbs and spices wait in our pantries for their moment to shine, we thought there might be some important information to consider before adding them to dishes. Samantha Kennedy, UF/IFAS Extension family and consumer sciences agent, gives us some pointers on “use-by” dates, storage suggestions, and whether buying brand name marks any indication of its quality.

Think of the herbs and spices that make your favorite holiday dish – the basil, thyme or rosemary in savory entrees and sides; the cinnamon, nutmeg or clove in baked goods.

But how best to use these ingredients to ensure a delicious feast? Do I really need to pay attention to that expiration date? Can I save the herbs from my garden for later?

Samantha Kennedy, UF/IFAS Extension Wakulla County family and consumer sciences agent, answers some questions on the topic.

Q. Is there a difference between herbs and spices?

A. Yes. Herbs and spices come from different parts of the plant. Herbs primarily come from the leaves, stems and flowers, while spices primarily come from the roots, seeds and bark of the plant. Some plants yield both herbs and spices, such as cilantro, where the leaves are the herb and the seeds are the spice known as coriander.

Q. What does the expiration date on spice containers really mean? Am I going to ruin a dish if the date indicates it’s expired?

A. Expiration dates on spice containers are actually ‘Use-By’ dates. Use-By dates are suggested dates for how long food items will be at their best quality. After this date, the flavor, texture, and color of a product may deteriorate. Unless there are obvious signs of a potential food safety hazards – rancid smells, evidence of insects – the food should be safe to eat even after this date.

Keep in mind, the date on an herb or spice container is meant to indicate how long the food’s quality will last if the container is unopened. Once the container has been opened and the product exposed to air, even if the lid is kept tightly sealed, the flavor, texture, and color will deteriorate before the use-by date. For best quality, it is suggested that opened herbs and spices be replaced after six months. However, the shelf life can be extended by storing them in the freezer after opening. (But NOT the refrigerator, as herbs and spices will absorb the moisture and begin to clump and/or get soggy.)

Q. Is there a best practice for how and where to store spices?

A. Store-bought herbs and spices should be kept in their original containers for best quality. Bulk spices purchased in custom quantities and home-dried spices should be stored in food-grade containers with airtight lids. Do not store herbs and spices in direct sunlight, as this will adversely affect their color, flavor and texture. Dried herbs and spices may also be stored in the freezer to extend their shelf-life. Fresh herbs and spices may be stored in the refrigerator for up to 7 days.

Q. Some spices get caked up. Is there any way to prevent this, or any way to redeem containers that have turned?

A. Caked up spices should not be consumed, as the caking is an indication of a serious deterioration of quality. Spices that have caked up have probably absorbed moisture and/or have been invaded by insects, both of which can adversely affect the overall safety of the product. The best practice is to discard the caked spice and start over with fresh. Caking can be prevented by storing herbs and spices properly in a cool, dry, dark place. However, even herbs and spices that have been stored properly may begin to clump or cake over time. Caking and clumping can be a sign of age, as well.

Q. If I have an herb garden, what’s the best way to store an over-abundant harvest for future use?

A. The best way to store a bumper crop of herbs is by drying it. Dried herbs have a much longer shelf-life than fresh herbs. Dried herbs can also be stored in the freezer in airtight containers for up to a year before quality noticeably deteriorates. Fresh herbs can be chopped, placed evenly into ice cube trays, and covered with olive oil. Once the oils and herbs are frozen, they can be removed from the trays and stored in a freezer-safe zipper bag, ready to be dropped into soups, stews, and sauces for extra flavor in a snap. Also, homemade herbs and spices are a great gift for the foodie in your life!

Q. Prices for spices and herbs vary greatly by brand. Is there a difference? Or are you paying more for a name brand?

In general, herbs and spices, especially common ones, are pretty equal across brands. Brand name and generic basil will both work in a recipe. The prices of herbs and spices vary by brand, yes, but also by packaging. Herbs and spices sold in plastic bags are less expensive than those sold in plastic bottles, which are less expensive than those sold in glass bottles. Some name brands have a “premium” variety, which are sold in more expensive packaging but are more or less the same product as the “regular” variety. Bulk spices are generally the least expensive in most cases, since they can be purchased in custom amounts and tend to be cheaper by the unit (ounces or grams). Remember, anything marketed as rare, exotic or imported will almost always cost more.

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