Sunday, January 6, 2013

Spice girl

Living in a small space in New York, I do relatively well at keeping my clutter to a minimum.  I have a few ongoing hot spots that need regular maintenance, (front closet; drawers with workout clothes), plus a couple of other spaces that I really don't touch as often as I should.  On Friday, I decided to tackle the worst offenders in this last category, one of the kitchen cabinets and the bathroom medicine cabinet.

I knew I had some expired spices in the kitchen cabinet, but I wasn't really prepared for what I found.   I had expired spices, all right:  ALL of them, aside from two that I know I bought in the last few months.  While I don't think expired spices are harmful, they're not going to help me cook the way I want to because the flavors will have degraded.  In addition, just the thought of knowingly using expired spices is off-putting.  Most really weren't that out of date (I would use anything expired less than six months ago, since the food banks I volunteer at use that as a benchmark for safe consumption), but the worst offender was really, really bad:  It was black mustard seeds that I bought while traveling in Europe in . . . 1994.

Yep, 1994.  

In my defense, I haven't used the mustard seeds as well in so long that they might as well have not been in there for ten years or more.  Same goes for a couple of the other second-worst offenders.  There's no point in having them there in any case, though, so I tossed them along with all the rest and recycled the containers.  

I've decided that my strategy for spices will be to rely on fresh herbs when it makes sense to do so (i.e., when I can use the entire bunch without throwing them out), and otherwise rebuy dried spices slowly, on an as-needed basis, and in very small quantities, preferably in bulk.  I've read mixed information about whether keeping them in the freezer is beneficial or not.  I suspect moisture could become a problem, but as long as I keep them tightly closed, I doubt it'll be a major issue.  In any case, what I was doing before clearly wasn't a good use of cost or space, so this is an area where I need to make a change if I want to plug a financial leak.

The bathroom cabinet was more distressing.  When I have long-term prescriptions, I tend to reorder them as soon as I can, whether I actually need to or not, so that I can have the cost covered through that year's flexible spending account.  As my medical needs changed or failed to keep up with the amount of inbound medication, however, expiration became a problem here as well.  Expired medication I got rid of on Friday included prescription acne treatment (no longer needed), asthma medication (no longer needed), asthma inhalers (which I do need, but four out of six inhalers expired long ago), and stacks of cream for a bad bacterial skin infection I had quite a few years and doctors ago.   

The waste on prescriptions bothers me:  I have medical insurance and I'm grateful for that, but my co-pays are high for brand-name medicine, and most of what I described above doesn't have a generic equivalent.  Going forward, I can't think of any way around this other than not stockpiling beyond what I need for the next few months, regardless of what's left on my prescription.  In the meantime, I'm considering it an expensive lesson learned.

7 retorts:

Rachel B. January 6, 2013 at 10:45 PM  

My response to both those items is the same: are you SURE they're expired?

Last summer I was packing for a stint working in Africa, and I looked at the Cipro in my medicine cabinet (bought for a trip to South America two years previously, never used) and wondered how out of date it actually was. Turned out, not so much. After googling it, I found out that most medication is good for at least 5.5 years after its shelf life. This info is from studies done by the FDA and the US Department of Defense (here's an article from Harvard about it).

Same with spices. I have some old stuff in my cupboard, too ... but I agree with Casual Kitchen that "spice fade" is mostly a myth. There are exceptions, of course (dried parsley, anything in paste form), and of course fresh is preferably in lots of cases, but I'm cool with hoarding the saffron bought in Spain.

Certainly, I agree that if you're not using stuff, you should get rid of it. But I think expiry dates as printed on packages are generally just there per regulations.

frugal zeitgeist January 7, 2013 at 7:04 AM  

Thanks for the feedback - I did not know about the 5.5 year rule of thumb for most medications! I'll see what I can find out about my asthma inhaler. Two of the ones I tossed expired in 2010, and in fact I noticed fairly recently that I wasn't getting a good kick out of mine anymore, and I suspect it might have been of the same vintage. In any case, I really don't want to waste money like that again, so I'll check into it.

On the spice front, I think there's pretty wide variation about degradation over time. Whole spices like your saffron have a good shelf life, I think, but I've read that ground red and yellow spices break down faster than brown ones. In any case, I'll see what I can find out. Thanks again.

Cathleen,  January 7, 2013 at 11:34 AM  

For spices, the rule I use is if yu can't smell it, you aren't going to taste it. I don't pay attention to expiry dates, only what my nose tells me. Same thing with tea. By law it must have an expiry date, but if it's stored in a dry place it's not likely going to go bad.

frugal.zeitgeist January 7, 2013 at 5:59 PM  

Yep. . . I did the sniff test on a few spices before I passed judgment on the whole lot, and my nose was not impressed. Seriously, most of them were really old.

Marti January 7, 2013 at 10:14 PM  

I'm not sure how to tell how old my spices are. Older than that I'm sure. Eeeks, I never even thought of looking.

frugal zeitgeist January 8, 2013 at 7:16 AM  

It's been in the back of my mind for a while, just not a priority. When my inhaler started delivering a noticeably smaller kick, I decided to go through both spices and meds.

Some (not all) of my spices were marked with expiration dates. A few of the dates were in the 2010 range, but many were older than that. I had already started rebuying small quantities of a few things and keeping them in the freezer, so the new year seemed like a good time for a clean start.

silence January 11, 2013 at 2:00 AM  
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