Here at chit.chaat.chai, we have a deep love for spices. Spices are inexplicably important to the creation and consumption of all of the food that we eat. Whether it’s spicy or sweet, to pungent and colorful—spices make food fun, delicious, and healthy! That’s why we had a chit-chaat with our neighborhood friends, John Beaver and Erica Perez, California spice gurus, and Oaktown Spice Shop owners, to tell us and our readers about everything pertaining to spice… and we mean everything. From how they’re made, to how to store them, to their general shelf life. We broke it down in the simplest way so that you can source and care for your spices in the best way possible.
Q & A with Oaktown Spice Shop
What are some key factors in determining the freshness of a spice?
Aroma, color and, of course, the taste will help you determine a spice’s freshness. Spices carry volatile oil compounds that impart aroma and flavor. The oils dissipate over time, eroding the potency. This is particularly true for ground spices.
Do spices spoil?
Most spices do not spoil; they merely become less flavorful. In some cases, such as our Marash Chile Flakes, oil is added to the chile flakes, meaning that eventually, the oil will become rancid, causing spoilage.
What’re the advantages of buying spices from your spice shop, compared to grocery store spices?
Freshness, quality and customer service. We make sure that you are always going to get something fresh — as opposed to something that may have been sitting in storage for a couple of years. That goes for whole spices and ground. We grind spices in small batches in our shops, meaning our cinnamon or ginger or cumin was ground a week or two ago — not months or years ago. There’s also a great variety in the quality of something like a peppercorn or cinnamon stick. We source the best version of each spice that we can find, choosing select grades that burst with flavor. And finally, we’re here to help you navigate our spice selection with customer service that you can’t find at the grocery store. We’ll help guide you, whether you’re looking to adhere to a specific diet or simply make dinner more delicious.
Is the shelf life for pre-ground spices different than whole spices?
Yes. As soon as the whole spice, such as a peppercorn, is ground, it begins to lose flavor more quickly. Generally, we advise people to use our ground spices within a year and our whole spices within two years.
What are the best ways to store spices?
We recommend that people store spices in glass jars, preferably away from heat and light. Flavors and oils will eventually permeate plastic bags. While tins work well for many spices, salt will corrode them. Heat and light are also the enemies of spice flavor and color.
Can the shelf life of spices be prolonged?
Storing spices properly will ensure that they last as long as possible.
Can you refrigerate or freeze spices?
We live in a temperate, dry climate so there isn’t any advantage to refrigerating or freezing. If you live in a place with high humidity, there could be an advantage to refrigerating. We don’t recommend freezing because of the risk of freezer burn. Also, using a jar from the freezer will attract moisture to the frozen contents. Water and spice don’t make for good long-term storage.
Are there some spices/herbs that have a very short shelf life compared to others?
Ground spices and herbs (such as basil, oregano, and thyme) have a shorter shelf life than whole spices. Some whole spices, such as whole nutmeg, have an extremely long shelf life. A whole nutmeg will last decades, if not indefinitely. Whole peppercorns also have a very long shelf life compared to ground, hence the popularity of the pepper mill!
What does one need to consider when wanting to make their own spice blend?
Start out with a simple base and add heat and salt carefully. You can always add more elements, but try to avoid the “everything but the kitchen sink” scenario. If grinding your own spices, try sifting them and regrinding the coarse bits to get a finer texture. Be careful when using spices that have a strong flavor, like cloves. Usually, a tiny pinch will do.
What are some unique spices, herbs or salts that every spice connoisseur needs to have?
Dried Pasilla de Oaxaca chiles — they make everything taste better. A good flake salt or smoked salt for finishing and also for sweets! Chile flakes such as Urfa or Marash from Turkey are great condiments for the table to add a bit of pizazz to dinner. Sumac is a fun one to have on hand for salads, meats and more.
Oaktown Spice Shop offers the freshest, highest quality spices and hand-mixed spice blends. Sold whole or ground fresh in their Oakland, and Albany, California shops, owners John Beaver and Erica Perez carry spices from all around the globe. Named one of the world’s best spice shops by Food & Wine Magazine, spice up your pantry with their fragrant and flavorful spices.