Essential Kitchen Tips From an Obsessive Spice Organizer
A simple re-org of your spice drawer will help make you a better cook (and a happier one)—I promise. Here’s why organizing your spice drawer works and how to do it, from aniseed to za’atar.
One of the cardinal rules of good cooking is this: Keeping yourself and your ingredients organized will help make you a better cook. I know what you’re thinking: “She’s kidding, right? How could organizing my spices really help improve my cooking?” From one cook to another, I’ll let you in on a little secret: The day I finally organized my spice drawer—12 years after moving into an apartment with my dream kitchen and ironically 3 weeks before moving out (moving, I learned, seems to motivate all sorts of repressed organizational tendencies…)—my cooking prowess increased a notch. Not only did I toss out old spices that had lost their oomph over time (as most spices eventually do), I replaced the old ones with fresh ones and then labeled everything clearly.
Now I not only have an army of brightly-flavored fresh spices on hand (hello robust-tasting dishes), I’m also fully aware of what I have in my inventory (goodbye duplicate purchases) and can locate each and every one of them at a moment’s notice (no more rifling through my spice drawer mid-recipe, while I miss a step at the stove). Here’s how you can do the same:
Round Up a Few Helpful Tools
If you’re organizing spices in a drawer, you’ll want to label the top of each lid. Pick up some colorful washi tape and a black fine-tipped permanent marker. Have empty spice jars on hand, for bagged spices; keeping everything in uniform jars will help you maximize space. Hint: Double layering strips of washi tape before labeling helps brighten the color of your tape, which makes for best readability.
Clear Off a Large Work Surface or Table
You’ll need a large, flat space to sort through and put things in order before the labeling begins.
Toss Out Old Spices
Experts have varying opinions on what “old” means. I’m of the mindset that if it smells good, it tastes good, so I give my spices the “nose” test—and often a taste test, too. I also find McCormick’s freshness guidelines to be pretty accurate:
Seasoning blends (chili powder, za’atar, vadouvan): 1 to 2 years
Dried herbs (thyme, basil, rosemary): 1 to 3 years
Ground spices (curry powder, ground mustard, cumin): 2 to 3 years
Whole spices (nutmeg, cinnamon sticks, peppercorns): 4 years
Choose an Organizational Strategy
I organize spices alphabetically, which works well for me and anyone else who might cook in my kitchen. (BTW, it’s amazing how many spices begin with the letter “C”!) But you can also put spices in order by category (baking; spicy; savory, etc.); cuisine (Middle Eastern; French; Italian; Asian); or by most- and least-often used. Whichever way you feel will benefit you the most, try it. You can always re-organize later, if the first way doesn’t feel intuitive.
Toss Out or Give Away Anything You Don’t Often Use, or Make Yourself a Custom Blend
If you’ve got a spice or two that intrigued you at the store, but you find yourself never reaching for, it might be time to pitch it or give it away, or to try blending it with a few other spices you like. Your new signature blend might wind up being the secret to your best roast chicken recipe, or the best way to season a pan of freshly scrambled eggs.
If you haven’t organized your spices in a while, chances are good you might have a half-used duplicate or two in the mix. Put them together in a single jar if they fit, which will free up space (professional chefs call this “marrying”). Any extra jars you wind up with can be used for your bagged or bulk spices.
Put Resealable Zip Bags to Work
Group bagged spices that don’t fit into jars, and things like dried chilies, by category in handy resealable zip bags.
Group Tinned Spices and Salts
Spices like Madras curry, ground mustard, and smoked paprika often come in tins. And if you’re a salt geek (like me), you might have upwards of 10 or 12 types (smoked salts, pink salts, flake salts, etc.). Keep tinned things together in one area and salts in another.
Give Your Empty Spice Drawer or Cabinet a Good Sweep Out or Vacuum
With everything out of the way, now’s the time to do it!
When in Doubt, There’s Always Popcorn
Maybe you’re not using that Cajun spice blend a friend gifted you from her recent trip to New Orleans, or a BBQ blend you purchased on a whim. Before you gift (or re-gift!) these medleys, try sprinkling them on your next batch of popcorn or yeah, that pan of eggs. Along with being organized, experimenting with new things is another way to become a better cook.