"Once you get a spice in your home, you have it forever. Women never throw out spices. The Egyptians were buried with their spices. I know which one I'm taking with me when I go."
- Erma Bombeck
Ms. Bombeck is right - Egyptians did get buried with their spices, but unlike the herbs and spices in our kitchen cabinets, their spices were freshly acquired.
How long do spices last?
While spices do not "expire" the way other perishable foods do, it is worth noting that flavors change over time and herbs and spices lose their potency, their umph, if you like, and become "not that great". Most containers have a "freshness" date stamped on them. Use that as your starting point when calculating the age of each spice. If the container does not display a date, best discard it.
According to McCormick & Company, Inc., the only items with an indefinite shelf life are salt and Vanilla Extract. Here are the general guidelines for other residents of your spice cabinet:
Whole Spices 3-4 years
Ground Spices 2-4 years
Ground or Leafy Herbs 1-3 years
Extracts (other than Vanilla) 2-3 years
Keep spices in their original containers whenever possible, although other airtight containers work well too. Store in cool dark cabinet, in alphabetical order for easy access. Stacked shelves or a turntable work really well. Avoid placing frequently use spices above the stove or in direct sunlight. Repeated exposure to heat and humidity will impact spice longevity and cause them to clump together or the colors to fade.