Spices provide tons of flavor to just about any dish, and sometimes they even rightfully steal the show. What would chicken curry be without cumin? What would snickerdoodles be without cinnamon?

Many spices even have a number of health benefits — antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anticancer properties — thanks to their unique bioactive components (think: tannins, vitamins, flavonoids, and polyphenols).

But while spices have tons of positive attributes, they can be a puzzling pantry item when it comes to storage and life span.

So, what’s the deal with spice shelf life? Why do spices have those little expiration dates on their bottles, and will they lose their health powers after a certain amount of time too?

We’re here to answer all these spicy questions and more.

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Design by Yendi Reid; Photograph by Jupiterimages/Getty Images

Spices’ expiration dates aren’t “use by” deadlines, but they’re definitely helpful for tracking freshness (and freshness = flavor).

There are three simple ways to tell if your spices are losing their luster:

  1. The smell test. Look for a strong aroma. Fresh spices will smell very fragrant when you open the jar.
  2. The sight test. The color of fresh spices should be vibrant, not dull. Old, oxidized spices will appear faded and begin to lose their pigment.
  3. The taste test. Rub a tiny amount in your hand and taste it. Fresh spices will have a strong flavor, while older spices will taste bland.

If a spice has lost its freshness — including its scent, color, and taste — it won’t bring much flavor to your cooking. Time to toss it (or repurpose it) to avoid a recipe fail.

Unlike meat and dairy products, which have set expiration dates, spices won’t mold, spoil, rot, sour, or “go bad” in a traditional sense unless they’re exposed to excess moisture or something has gone horribly wrong (more on that below).

So instead of asking how long spices last, we like to ask how long they will taste their best.

A trip down the spice aisle will present you with dozens of spice and herb options. Dried spices are seasonings typically made from a plant’s bark, stem, or roots. Spices can be found whole or ground. Dried herbs are seasonings made from a plant’s leaves.

On average, dried herbs are at their best during their first 1 to 3 years, while dried spices are at their best for up to 4 years (less if they’re ground). Of course, this also depends on factors like storage, direct sunlight, heat, oxygen, and general use.

Whole spices are good for longer than their ground counterparts. This is because ground spices have more surface area, which means they’re likely to oxidize more quickly.

Here are some popular herbs and spices and how long they last.

Spice or herbBest for
black pepper2–3 years
Cajun seasoning2–3 years
chili powder2–3 years
five-spice powder2–3 years
cinnamon sticks3–4 years
crushed red pepper flakes2–3 years
curry powder2–3 years
dried basil1–3 years
dried bay leaves2 years
dried oregano1–3 years
dried rosemary1–3 years
dried thyme1–3 years
fennel seeds2 years
garlic powder2–3 years
ground allspice2–3 years
ground cardamom2–3 years
ground cayenne2–3 years
ground cinnamon2–3 years
ground cloves2–3 years
ground cumin2–3 years
ground ginger3–4 years
ground nutmeg2–3 years
ground turmeric3–4 years
Italian seasoning2–3 years
mustard seed powder3–4 years
mustard seeds2 years
onion powder2–3 years
saffron1 year
saltindefinite
smoked paprika2–3 years
vanilla beans2 years
vanilla extractindefinite
whole cloves3–4 years
whole nutmeg3–4 years
whole peppercorns3–4 years
whole star anise3–4 years

You’ll notice that, unlike many spices, vanilla extract and salt have an indefinite shelf life.

Consuming expired spices is very unlikely to make you sick. Generally, the worst that may happen would be a bland meal. This is because spices are dried and don’t grow mold or attract bacteria the same way foods containing moisture do.

So, while eating spices past their prime is not necessarily dangerous, it’s going to mean sacrificing flavor and potency.

This also depends on just how “expired” a spice is. If you sprinkle on some cinnamon that’s a week past the bottle’s expiration (freshness) date, it’s doubtful you’ll notice much difference. Using a spice that’s a few years past the freshness date? Best to make a grocery run to replace it.

But if you’re not too keen on throwing out old spices, try repurposing them instead.

And if you really need to use it, toasting or heating a spice (only while cooking with it) will perk up its flavor.

It’s best to store spices in airtight containers (glass or ceramic works best) and keep them away from heat (i.e., the stove) to avoid moisture. Glass jars will help spices retain more of their natural oils (where the flavor is!).

Also, store spices in dark, dry, and cool places. Spices like to be below 70 degrees, and they dislike humidity. Think twice before sprinkling them directly over a pan or heat source. Ever notice how spices can clump up in their jars? That’s due to excess moisture or heat. And it’s a flavor buzzkill.

But don’t freeze spices, as freezing can add unwanted moisture and condensation.

Minimizing moisture, air, heat, and light = maximizing shelf life.

You can also try your hand at making spice blends at home. But when doing this, make sure you’re using all fresh spices or grinding your own — you don’t want one bad apple to ruin your blend.

And if you have the time, buying whole spices and grinding them as you need them will make a difference, since whole spices last longer than preground ones.

Consuming spices past their prime probably won’t make you sick. But using them in your cooking isn’t the best idea unless you want a lackluster meal.

Use your senses as your best weapons for detecting a spice’s freshness and follow the expiration date for a generally good idea of its prime window. But remember that storing your spices properly is the best way to get the most out of them.

Now that you have the freshest of spices, do you need some inspo for what to do with them? Check out our ultimate guide to spices, and then whip up some of our favorite cinnamon-scented recipes.