17 Essential Spices and Herbs Every Kitchen Must Have and When to Check Spice Expiration Dates

17 Essential Spices

Essential Spices and Herbs for the Kitchen

Have you ever bought a spice or herb for a recipe and only used a pinch of it only to add the bottle to your large spice collection?  It’s likely been years since you’ve really looked in your spice cabinet to see what old spices are lurking and collecting dust.

Fall is a great time to refresh your spice cabinet and toss out old spices as you prepare for holiday baking and entertaining.  Just as you want to ensure you use the best fruits, vegetables and meats for cooking, you want to be sure you have the freshest spices and herbs to enhance the flavors of the meals you prepare.

See the details of great deals on spices at Safeway for stocking up on your favorites for the season.

How to Check Spice Expiration Dates

All spices, herbs and extracts are labeled with a “best by” date, so you can quickly look to see if the spice is expired.  If you have a bottle that does not have a “best by” date and you don’t remember when you purchased the item, it’s likely stale and would benefit from being replaced.

To ensure your herbs and spices are adding the maximum flavor to your favorite dishes, follow these freshness standards:

  • Aroma should be strong.  If you rub or crush the spice in your hand, it should have a strong aroma if it’s still fresh.
  • Taste should be potent.  If the spice flavor is dull or muted, it will not add the best flavor to your foods.
  • Color should be vibrant.  If the color has faded, chances are the flavor has also faded.

If your spice or herb doesn’t meet these freshness standards, check the “best by” date on the bottle to see if it’s time to toss and replace.

See this infographic from McCormick as a guide for spice freshness.

spice expiration dates

Read more about spice freshness standards from the spice experts at McCormick here.

I went through my spice cabinet and found several really old spices that I will need to toss because they are stale.  In fact, the packaging was my first clue as to the age of the spices – they were really old, covered in dust and spice residue, so I immediately knew they needed to be replaced.


Where is the best by date on the spice package?

Depending on the age of the spice or herb, the best by date is located in one of two spots on the bottle. Check the label to see if the best by date is printed on the label near the cap.  If there isn’t a date there, then check the bottom of the bottle for a best by date.

McCormick Red Cap Spices have the “best by” date printed on the label near the red cap.


McCormick Gourmet (green-cap) Spices have the “best by” dates printed on a black label on the bottle near the top.

spice best by date

The Shelf Life of Spices

Here’s a rough guideline on the life of those seasonings in your kitchen:

• Indefinite: Vanilla extract, salt, and that’s about it.  Other extracts will fade in 2-3 years.
• Whole spices (not ground, such as peppercorns, whole allspice, caraway seeds, and more): 3-4 years
• Ground spices (such as cumin, ginger, paprika and chili powder): 2-4 years
• Ground and whole leafy herbs such as basil, oregano, rosemary and most seasoning blends: 1-3 years

All of us have a few jars that have been sitting in the pantry for over a decade. It’s okay to let these spices go.

If you have spices and herbs that are past their “best by” date, just toss them and restock your spices in your pantry.

Do extracts expire?

All extracts, except pure vanilla also have a best-by date you should follow.  I’ve found old extracts like mint can actually evaporate before they expire, so check your old extract bottles to be sure you have enough for baking season.  Check the packaging and smell the extracts and if they have a strong aroma then they are likely still good, but go by the best-by date to be sure.  Most will start to lose their potency after 2-3 years.

17 Essential Spices Every Kitchen Should Have

Once you go through your spice cabinet to determine if you have any stale spices, you can restock your pantry with the 17 essential spices every home cook should have.

I started my list with the essential spices that I use the most in my kitchen and cross referenced my list with Martha Stewart, Food Network and Bon Appetit.  Every list is different – but there are at least 17 that are common on all the lists.

  • Kosher salt
  • Black peppercorns
  • Cumin
  • Greek oregano
  • Bay leaves
  • Crushed red pepper flakes
  • Paprika
  • Thyme leaves
  • Cinnamon
  • Cloves
  • Allspice
  • Ginger
  • Nutmeg
  • Onion Powder
  • Chili Powder
  • Curry powder
  • Italian Seasoning

Not a dried spice per say, but a pantry staple:

  • Vanilla extract

While dried mustard didn’t make the list, I find that I use dried mustard a lot for making salad dressings in the summer, so I would add it to the list.


Re-stock your spices with McCormick Spice Coupons and Sale

Take advantage of a HOT Buy 2 Get 1 FREE sale and new coupons available through the Safeway Just for U app for McCormick spices, herbs and extracts to restock your tossed spices.  New offers will be available every week during the month of October – so it’s the perfect time to restock your spice cabinet!

See the full sale details here.


How to Store and Organize Spices

Store herbs and spices in tightly capped containers and keep away from heat, moisture and direct sunlight.  If you have the room, you can organize your spices by sweet and savory.  Or, you can try to keep them organized alphabetically like my mother in-law.  Depending on the space you have, there are several options for efficient spice organization.

1. Start with a wall shelf meant for spices for ease of use, mounted away from direct sunlight and the stove. This leaves everything in plain sight and easy to add to any meal, whether or not you are using a recipe. Spices will last longer in a dark cabinet, but if having them out in the open means they are used more frequently, shelf life might not be an issue.

2. Avoid putting spices on that little ledge at the top of your stove. Repeated heat is an enemy of spice longevity, whole and ground. And yes you can put salt there, but that’s it.

3. Test out a spice drawer. Some people love having a shallow top drawer where all the spices can lay flat for easy access. There are dividers meant for this setup so that the jars don’t roll around—this is preferable to storing them with the lids up, as it’s really hard to find the spice you want.

4. Stacked shelves or a turntable in the cabinet are also great options. There are short shelves for organizing spices within your cabinet, effectively extending your reach and visual options. After all, the spice in the very back of that cabinet shelf is going to be the jar you reach for the least. Keep your spices easy to access and your whole world gets more flavorful.


This post has been sponsored by McCormick to help educate you on the importance of cooking and baking with the freshest possible herbs and spices and to check “best by” dates to toss out old spices.  We appreciate and encourage your support of the brands that make this site possible.

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3 thoughts on “17 Essential Spices and Herbs Every Kitchen Must Have and When to Check Spice Expiration Dates”

  1. Nice article. it motivated me to check the spices in my cupboard. Found a small tin of whole bay leaves with a batch date of 1983! Not sure where it came from; so far as I can remember, I’ve only ever used bay leaf in a recipe was one time years ago for a stew. Oddly enough, when I opened the tin, the bay leaf smell was still very strong.

    I suspect that I am like most people, who end up buying a container of a particular spice for one recipe and then often end up never using it again. I have all the spices you list above (+ many more) and several of them I know I’ve not used in years (in particular cumin and curry powder), plus some that rarely get used any more (oregano and thyme, as I often just substitute an italian seasoning blend I like).

    Not on your list are four spices I use a lot: Rosemary (for various meats – not just lamb, and stews), Herbes de Provence (a blend that goes very well with lots of eggy things), dill (can be used as a salt substitute in many dishes and thus useful with restricted diets), and onion powder (no chopping!).

    1. Thank you Arthur! I added onion powder to the list because I use that almost daily and it should’ve been there to begin with. Rosemary is on all the lists – but I find fresh rosemary is so much better, that I hardly ever use dried.
      If your bay leaves are from 1983 – you may want to consider replacing them to get more flavor out of them in soups and stews. 😉 I did find some dried parsley that was old and there was an obvious color difference between the old parsley flakes and the newer bottle. You just never know!

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