By Linda Davey.
For some people, spring cleaning can be quite a chore, but I kind of like it—especially when it comes to my kitchen. Apart from the deep cleaning my kitchen receives a couple of times a year, spring is a time for me to reset and get ready for warmer weather cooking which often means different herbs and spices for me. There’s less nutmeg, allspice, and cardamom and more cilantro, dill, and tarragon. I also tend to use more fresh herbs in my warm weather cooking. This leaves quite a few open jars of spices in my cabinets and, if you didn’t know, they have an expiration date. Once purchased, dried herbs typically are good for one to two years, dried ground spices for two to three years. Whole spices can generally keep for up to four years if stored properly. So, this year, while you’re spring cleaning your kitchen, give your spice rack a refresher as well.
Pull out all those jars and containers of spices and look at the dates. If they’re well past their expiration date, or you haven’t shopped at the grocery store you bought them at in at least nine years (yes, there was something in my cabinet that wasn’t too far off from that), consider tossing them. However, before you do, there may be a few ways to get some use out of them. First, it’s important to understand what the expiration date on your spice bottle is telling you. Dried herbs and spices don’t really go bad, they just lose flavor, so you can still use them, but you may find you need to add a bit more to get the flavor you want. That being said, if it smells off, is oily, or just doesn’t look right, go ahead and toss it. (You could compost your discarded herbs and spices if you’d like.) If it seems okay, but you just aren’t sure and you don’t like to waste things, here are a few ways you can use up those older items.
Since we’re talking about spring cleaning, how about freshening the air? Your house has probably been sealed up tightly all winter, and it may not be warm enough yet to open windows, so a simmer pot is a great way to clean the air. To make a simmer pot, simply fill a saucepan with water and add the herbs, spices, and other ingredients and set it on your stove on low for a few hours. Be sure to keep an eye on the water level and replenish as needed. Some examples of simmer pots for spring include:
- Rosemary, lemon or lime slices, and vanilla extract
- Lime slices, mint, thyme, and ginger
- Orange peels and vanilla extract
If you’re not quite ready to let go of the winter, try one of these:
- Bay leaves, rosemary, and orange or clementine peels
- Coffee beans, cinnamon sticks, cardamom, and anise
- Pumpkin pie seasoning, cinnamon sticks, nutmeg, vanilla extract, and whole cloves
You can reuse your simmer pots three or four times. Store in tightly sealed mason jars in the refrigerator and replenish water as needed. They’re a great way to use up fresh herbs too.
Your old herbs and spices make great carpet fresheners too. Mix cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, dried thyme, rosemary, or lavender with baking soda and sprinkle on carpets. Let sit a few minutes and vacuum up. If you have pets, skip the nutmeg, as it is toxic to both cats and dogs, as are salt, cocoa powder, garlic, and onion.
Fungus and Insect Repellent
Cinnamon can be used as an antifungal for your garden plants. Mix some cinnamon into some warm water and let it steep overnight. Strain through a coffee filter into a spray bottle and spritz on plants as needed to help fight fungus naturally.
Other herbs act as insect repellents. Grind up (an old coffee grinder will do the trick) and sprinkle around the house where you’ve got some unwanted pests. Wondering what might work for you?
- Mint repels mosquitos
- Basil is disliked by flies and mosquitos
- Lavender has been used for centuries to keep moths, fleas, and flies at bay
- Chives will keep aphids away from your garden
- Rosemary will also deter flies and mosquitos, as will thyme, lemon thyme, or bay leaves
You could also try infusing olive oil with some of your older dried herbs. They make great gifts and can be used for cooking, marinating, and even homemade salad dressings. Ground spices don’t work well for infusions as they don’t strain out.
To make a hot infusion of olive oil (best for dried herbs):
- Make sure your herbs are dried thoroughly. Large pieces are fine. If you are using freshly picked herbs and not previously dried, rinse and allow to dry overnight before starting your infusion. (Be sure your herbs are completely dry before using to avoid the risk of botulism.)
- In a double boiler, heat your oil to 150 degrees (use a thermometer). Do not exceed 150 degrees as this can burn the oil. Remove from heat and add your herbs. A general rule of thumb is ¼ cup dried herbs per pint (2 cups) of oil. Stir and cover until cooled to room temperature. Taste for flavor. The longer you let the herbs steep, the stronger the flavor. Your infusions should not steep for longer than 6 hours (for food safety).
- Once at the desired flavor—again not more than 6 hours later—strain the herbs and store, tightly covered, in a glass jar or bottle. You can keep your infused olive oil in a cabinet or in the refrigerator. It will keep for up to a month. If it begins to smell off or become discolored, discard. Onion or garlic infusions always need to be refrigerated.
When choosing herbs to use in your infusion, try using one or two to start and work in small batches until you find a combination that you like. Try basil or rosemary-infused oil drizzled on focaccia before baking, or an oregano and dried chili pepper oil on pizza crust just as it comes out of the oven.
One more thing before I get back to spring cleaning my kitchen—plain salts of any variety can be used indefinitely, but if they’re seasoned, treat them like spices and check for off-flavors, smells, or oiliness.
Linda Davey is the Executive Chef at KAM Appliances where she finally figured out that the kitchen is truly her happy place. She loves to try and share recipes, cooking techniques, and generally play with her food.