Photo: Vovantarakan (Shutterstock)
If you’re anything like me, you have, over the course of your adult life, collected an extensive supply of spices in your kitchen, many of which you purchased and then used exactly one time. Then one day, you look at your spice rack and notice a thick layer of dust on those bottles, and wonder: Do spices go bad? The answer is a qualified no.
Spices never actually spoil, but they do lose their potency over time, eventually becoming pretty useless for their original purpose (bringing flavor to your otherwise gray life). One simple way to tell if your spices are past their prime is to run them through the “sniff test,” which is just what it sounds like. Spices should have a sharp, potent aroma; if yours smell faint (or don’t smell like anything at all) they’re too old.
But when your thyme and bay leaves have become faded ghosts of their former selves, do you just throw them away? Not necessarily—spices actually have a lot of alternative uses. While it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction when it comes to hacking your old spices, here are a few ways to use them that are totally legit.
The simplest way to use your old spices is to use your old spices. Since spices never actually spoil, you can still use them in your cooking. If they’re a bit bland, use more than you normally would—you really can’t go far wrong, as your worst-case scenario here is needing a heavy hand with the table salt at dinner.
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An old hack is to toast your spices right before you use them in a recipe. Tossing some exhausted spices on a pan or grill for a few minutes and exposing them to heat can unlock the last reservoirs of flavor and scent locked in those old seeds and bark shavings, giving them one last boost right before you add them into your dinner.
Protect against pests
Bugs and rodents are often repelled by the odors of spices, so using your aged spice rack to protect your garden and your home can actually work—many gardeners will plant stuff specifically to repel pests. The caveat here is twofold: On the one hand your spices are old, so they’re not as spicy and thus won’t work as well as fresh spices when it comes to driving away pests. And two, these techniques will probably not work as well as commercial products. But! If you’re not dealing with a DEFCON-1 level invasion of vermin, some of the spices in your rack will do well to defend against them.
Mixing old cayenne with some dish soap and water can help keep aphids and other hungry insects off of your plants. Sachets of old bay leaves placed in the dark nooks and crannies of your house can help drive off roaches, and sachets of mint will drive away mice. You can also make mosquito repellent from boiled rosemary strained and poured into spray bottles. The good news is that even if these techniques don’t work gangbusters, they will leave you and your house smelling great.
Clean your house
Some spices have serious cleaning properties. Thyme, for example, contains the essential oil Thymol, which acts as a pretty effective antimicrobial. Thymol is used in commercial cleaning products, and you can whip up your own using the old thyme in your spice rack—just pour boiling water over your thyme, let it steep overnight, strain it into a spray bottle and add some rubbing alcohol. It will be a pretty effective surface cleaner around the house.
Another spice that’s useful for cleaning even after it’s aged out of other uses is cream of tartar. This spice can help you get rid of stains, scratches, and caked-on residue in your kitchen and even in your bathtub. Mix it with some baking soda and lemon juice to create a paste you can let sit on bathtub rings and other stubborn stains.
Upgrade your laundry
Spices smell nice, so it’s not a stretch to imagine creating some simple spice sachets from your old supply and tossing them into the dryer. Want your clothes to smell like lavender? No need for fancy dryer sheets, just load up a sachet with your leftovers. You can use just about any spice like this, and you can make sachets from just about any leftover cloth.
Mulled wine is a delightful treat on a cold evening. All you need is some red wine, sugar, and a load of spices (brandy or fruit can be added, as well, if you want to get ambitious). It takes about half an hour to have a nice mug of spicey, alcoholic goodness—and you can use a lot of different spices to create different experiences. Cinnamon and cloves are the most popular choices, but why not pick up a box of cheap red and spend the weekend experimenting with your old spices to see what works?
Your house has a smell. It’s a fact. You don’t realize it because you live there and have become nose-blind to it (and thank goodness), but your guests are totally aware of it. If you want to take control of that smell, you can use up some old spices to do it. All you do is bring a pot of water to a boil, add some spices to it, and let that steam do its work. The longer you let it simmer the further the scent will spread, it will last a surprisingly long time.
Start a spice garden
Your spices are old and busted, barely able to season your food—but some of them may have some hidden life in them. Many spices are seeds, after all, and you might be able to grow some actual plants from the spices in your rack. Coriander, ginger, cardamom, and mustard seeds are just a few of the spices that you might coax into new life.
Your mileage here will vary, because a) these spices are often processed in ways that limit their viability to germinate and b) they’re old already. Still, if you’re contemplating tossing your spices, putting them in some dirt and giving them some TLC might result in a delightful spice garden instead—and you can then harvest your own extremely fresh spices forever after!
Finally, if you’re a crafty sort, spices can be added to a variety of DIY projects to add a bit of zing. Make your own candles or soap? Toss in some old spices for a nice scent. Spices have been used to make natural dyes for centuries, so whether it’s your homemade clothes or dying some Easter Eggs, your old spices can bring the color. And making some simple sachets to hang in your closets can bring a lovely scent to your clothes and the spaces you occupy.
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