Organizing Spices in the Kitchen

September 22, 2011

by Margaret Cabaniss

Have you looked in your spice cabinet recently? I mean, like, really looked — not just fumbled around blindly for the red pepper flakes with one hand while stirring a pot with the other. I happened to clean mine out the other day, and it was not pretty. Expired jars, multiple jars of the same thing, jars whose contents I couldn’t even recognize…yikes.

Even after I tossed all the old spices, I was still left with the mishmash of jars, bags, and bottles above. Just looking at that makes me feel all twitchy. Time to get organized!

A few tips to keep in mind, if you’re in the same boat:

Spices expire.

I’m not going to get all Martha Stewart on you and say you must change all your spices every six months, but those expiration dates are on the bottles for a reason. Spices will eventually lose their potency, so do a quick smell test to make sure they’re still packing a punch. What’s more, they’ll expire more quickly when exposed to light and heat, so the traditional cabinet-above-the-stove storage method (which, I admit, is where I kept my spices until recently) will only speed up the process.

Spices are cheaper — and usually fresher — in bulk.

If, after tossing your too-old spices, you find you need to replace a number of them, consider going to a specialty store where you can find loose spices in bulk. There you can buy as much — or as little — of any given spice as you want, depending on how often you use it. That way you’re not shelling out $8 for, say, a full bottle of grains of paradise, which you will only ever use in that one apple pie recipe that one time. (Ahem.)

Or consider going online. I’ve mentioned before that I’m a big fan of Mountain Rose Herbs; they have a huge range of organic spices at a fraction of their cost at the grocery store. And the flavor is incredible; I immediately noticed a difference in my cooking when I switched. Better than anything I ever bought in the store. (And now that I’ve piqued your interest, be sure to come back this afternoon and check out Zoe’s giveaway!)

Of course, this brings us back to that “spices expire” thing, and just how much sage can I use in the next six months anyway? Split an order with a couple of friends, though, and everyone walks away with a cost-effective stash of the good stuff that will last for months.

Spices are easier to use when you can see them.

Once you’ve tossed your old spices and replaced them with varying quantities of new ones, you’ll be back to that jumble-of-bags-and-bottles stage, which isn’t terribly organized. When nothing fits together in the cabinet, things are constantly getting lost — or throwing themselves kamikaze-style off the shelf and into my soup. Not cool.

And, of course, even when you can find them, some of those store-bought bottles make it impossible to see what’s inside; I don’t know what genius came up with this packaging model, but I’d like to ask him to pick out at a glance the nutmeg from the cloves from the cayenne pepper below:

Yeah. You can’t do it, either.

Decanting spices into your own containers solves all these problems at once: Rows of uniform, clearly identifiable jars makes everything easy to see and grab — and all the pretty, identical containers will make the OCD among you feel less stabby. (You can keep extra or little-used spices elsewhere, if you don’t have room for them all in your jar of choice, so they’re not taking up valuable space in a high-traffic cabinet in your kitchen.)

You can always buy spice kits at kitchen stores, but it’s usually cheaper (and more customizable) to buy your own jars — or, better yet, put those old baby food jars to work — and add whatever labels you like. Adrianna of A Cozy Kitchen bought some jars at the Container Store, painted their lids with chalkboard paint, and wrote the name of their contents right on the lid:

Genius.

After that, it’s just a matter of where to store your new collection — back in the cabinet is fine, though if space is at a premium, consider the cabinet door, like Anna of Door Sixteen:

Some flat-bottomed watchmaker’s tins and a few strips of Velcro would do the same trick, I think… Or try a little-used drawer, like Frugal Décor Mom:

A little effort goes a long way toward bringing some sanity into your kitchen. Other ideas? Share ‘em in the comments!

Images: Margaret Cabaniss

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1 Karen September 22, 2011 at 8:55 am

I currently have baskets that hold similar type spices (one for baking, one for mexican style cooking, one for Italian, etc.) It makes it easy to take one basket down when I’m cooking, knowing that everything I need for that recipe (mostly) will be in there. Although, we do have the mishmash of containers and they get jumbled up in the baskets. I love the idea of using jars and chalkboard paint! Actually, I love just about any idea lately that uses chalkboard paint. Heh.

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Margaret Cabaniss 2 M.C. Cabaniss September 22, 2011 at 10:45 am

Grouping by type in separate containers is a great idea, Karen — particularly if you do a lot of particular kinds of cooking. I find arranging things alphabetically works best for me, but as long as you have a system that works for you, it makes cooking dinner a much saner affair!

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3 Tara S September 22, 2011 at 1:23 pm

Oooooo I love it!

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4 Sarah S September 22, 2011 at 11:07 am

My countertop spice rack is alphabetical, but as you suggested, I’m phasing that out. Most of mine are stored in a large behind-the-pantry-door shelf, and they’re roughly grouped as Karen suggests – baking spices one shelf, soup and stew spices next shelf, all purpose seasoners next shelf, etc. Oh, and one shelf just for those gorgeous, square sided Costco containers. Mediterranean Sea Salt, or Saigon Cinnamon, anyone?

Oh yeah, and it’s cloves, nutmeg and cayenne. Just sayin’. (I’m expert, don’t try this at home).

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Margaret Cabaniss 5 M.C. Cabaniss September 22, 2011 at 11:36 am

I bow before your superior spice-spotting skills.

It’s true, too, that cooking for 8 rather than 1 may necessitate slightly larger spice containers than those dainty baby food jars…and if you have the space for them (what’s this “pantry” of which you speak?), I say take advantage of it.

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6 Coffeemom September 22, 2011 at 12:47 pm

Great. Now I spice lust too…. A tiny teeny form of house lust. Geez.

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Margaret Cabaniss 7 M.C. Cabaniss September 23, 2011 at 9:40 am

Hey, at least spice lust is a cheaper fix than house lust! ;)

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8 Elissa September 22, 2011 at 1:21 pm

I use baby food jars, too, but I keep them on a thrift store spice rack that I painted hanging on the wall. I used a white paint pen to write the name of the spices right on the glass, repeatedly around the whole jar in a circle so I can always see the label.

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9 Sara M September 22, 2011 at 7:03 pm

I use old baby food jars and keep them in a shallow drawer in my kitchen. My family is big though, so I buy in bulk and keep the larger containers (Costco spices- yes! Saigon cinnamon!) in a large lidded container in my pantry.

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10 EML September 22, 2011 at 8:30 pm

I did this recently to my spice cabinet. I bought some matching jars, used some old mason jars and my label maker to bring order to my cabinet. Now when I need to get something I know exactly where it is and don’t waste my time hunting for anything.

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11 Judy September 22, 2011 at 9:22 pm

Magnets are good too, glued to the bottom of the jars. That way you don’t even have to use a drawer or cabinet. Just stick them on the side of the fridge – but remember, not on the stove side (if that’s where your fridge is).

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Margaret Cabaniss 12 M.C. Cabaniss September 23, 2011 at 9:41 am

You guys are all so crafty. Loving the suggestions!

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13 Michele October 11, 2012 at 9:09 am

OMG I’ve been on your site for 5 minutes & I’m hooked!

I’m finding spice racks to be shockingly pricy (for $40+ you only get a holder for 15-20 spices–I have quite a bit more than that!) & the idea of buying separate & identical jars @ the Container Store is terrific and I’ve never heard of blackboard paint but it sounds brilliant!

Thank you!

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