When I moved back into my house last year after a kitchen renovation, I saw it as the clean slate I needed for every single organization project I had been meaning to get done but never did. What can I say, the
years months just got away from me.
I decided to start micro, so the first order of business was my spice drawer. Plus, I finally now had a place for them to land. Their home was to be a long drawer, almost 4-feet long, that pulled out of a narrow gap next to the fridge. Uniformity was my end goal so I joyfully threw out all the crack-lidded IKEA jars of powdered cinnamon and red stained bags of annatto and put in a sizable order with my local spice mecca, World Spice Merchants. Order would be mine at last! I fantasized about dozens of perfectly matched jars and hunted around for my label maker, no doubt hiding from me after all these years.
As a recipe writer it is my job to find uses for many, many different flavors, so I've always been a bit of a spice hoarder. But my collector’s impulses wreak havoc on my yearning for uniformity. Just when I think that I’ve come up with a single container to house all my powders and seeds, I go and get something that just doesn't fit into the scheme. Saffron’s too small, Guajillo chiles are too big. The big bag of oregano I picked up in Greece this summer is altogether too much.
After some amount of internal wrangling, I decided that uniformity might not need to be the end goal: after all, I now had enough room and a cabinet door to hide any irregularities. In real life as well, I mix silver and gold jewelry all the time, so I don’t worry that the brass lids of my standard spice jars don’t perfectly coordinate with the steel of the chili jars. It works for me. I have a system of a few varieties of containers but there’s elasticity to it, which can handle the different scales of my many many spices.
I checked in with fellow spice collector Amanda Bevill, owner of World Spice Merchants, who’s comfortable with the idea of assorted storage: “There’s no one container that works for everything. I use it as an excuse to collect all sorts of interesting containers.” So in the end, I accept my role as a less-than-perfect spice disciplinarian. But things in the new kitchen are better than they ever were before, and in the process I have learned some rules that I believe can help you better organize your spices, whether you're a maximalist like me, or run a leaner operation.
Take stock of your arsenal
Emily Fleischaker, the former Bon Appétit and Buzzfeed food editor has a business, Kitchenfly, where she organizes home kitchens to help people hunt for things less, and cook more. Her first order of business is a little obvious. “When I first look at a client’s spices, I’ll alphabetize them, and throw away duplicates: You’ll be surprised how many people don’t alphabetize their spices.” I, dear reader, am one of those people, but let's address that in a bit.
When refreshing spices, I feel strongly that bulk spices are the way to go, both in terms of freshness, and in terms of avoiding the wastage involved in packaging. There is nothing more annoying than buying a whole, pricy giant jar of whole cardamom pods for the Swedish cinnamon buns you make once a year. In grocery bulk departments on the other hand, you can find almost every spice you need, and you can buy the correct amount of it for your needs: just a dash of dried ginger for baking, and a whole lot of fennel seed, if, you run through it like me.
There are no rules about where to buy your spices from. I pick the occasional spices up at the bulk section of my grocery store, but in general, I prefer shopping at a spice specialist, since the product is often even fresher, and they are more likely to have the more esoteric spices and blends I love (piment d’Espelette, the Basque pepper; Vadouvan, the French-influenced curry blend; and long pepper). Mail order is also great if you don’t live near a grocery store with a good bulk department, since spices are light and generally inexpensive to ship. Don’t fret about buying tiny funnels for putting bulk spices into containers: That becomes one additional thing you have to find the space to store. Instead, roll up a piece of paper into a funnel and use that to pour powders and seeds into their containers.
This is also a good time to sort through your spices to see if any have exhausted their shelf-life (five years can go by easily). The most straightforward way is the look-and-sniff test. Does the spice look OK? Or has it changed color? Next, smell it: Take a bit in your palm and take a whiff. Does it smell dull? Smell is a great way to detect freshness. And when in doubt, taste.
Pick a home
Growing up, my mother kept her spices in a Lazy Susan on the knee-high shelf of a 19th century armoire that served as our pantry. My rule is: If you can avoid kneeling to grab the cinnamon from your spice rack, you are already winning. In my kitchen, I chose the middle, just-below-eye-level drawer for my spices; it's the perfect height for me to be able to easily read the labels. If you need to get your spices in a narrow cabinet shelf, shelf risers can make labels easier to see. Or, choose stackable containers, though don’t let the stacks get so high they teeter over each time you grab some chili powder. Bevill of World Spice also offered common sense advice to keep spices fresh longer: Don’t put your spices in direct sunlight (no matter how pretty the backlighting is) and don’t use magnetized containers to stick your spices on a vent hood above the heat of the stove. Sounds obvious, but isn't.
The other bit of obvious advice is to let your cooking habits determine where and how you store things. Your kitchen is only as well-organized as it is efficient...so make it work for you.
Many people tend to prefer using identical containers, but with that kind of uniformity, knowing what’s inside and when you bought it is essential. My spices may not be completely uniform, but some repetition of form is helpful here. In my case, I opt for 1/2-cup square jars for spices I use all the time and in sizable quantities like fennel and cumin seed. The less-used spices get a smaller jar, similar in proportion to the grocery store spices. And I do keep a catch-all large storage bin for all my spice overflows, sample packets, and other items that defy categorization, like a nutmeg grater.
Airtight metal, plastic, or glass containers can all work. Just make sure they seal solidly and are cheap enough not to make you drag your heels about buying a few extras, because spice collections have a tendency to expand. Baby food jars are a good recycled option (if you have a baby to hand them off to you), and good old canning jars—especially the little 4-ouncers—are stackable, replaceable and cheap.
Fleischaker is not a fan of jars. “I prefer to keep spices in little boxes, not jars, which are harder to get the spice out of them. You can’t dip a tablespoon, you can’t pinch into them.” The 4-ounce boxes she prefers also have a low profile that’s good for many drawers, and they can stack well, too.
Way better than spice jars! These rectangular boxes are easier to grab a pinch from, dip a spoon into, and store in a more space-efficient way. 👏🏻 . This #kitchengoals spice drawer is the work of Rotem Raffe @uzidoesit , a talented baker and the creative director behind @shortstackeds cookbooks. 🙌🏻 . I took this photo a few months ago at her place for a summer BBQ because I am a creep who pokes around people's kitchens (doesn't that make you want to invite me to a BBQ at your place 😜) looking for genius like this, especially when they are members of the #foodilluminati like Ro and her husband Nick @fauchald. . Hoping they'll let me come back for more snooping. Thanks to their cookbooks, long careers in food media, and jobs in restaurant kitchens, they're both excellent cooks and work their kitchen hard--so it's full of delights. . #kitchen #organization #kitchencabinets #spices
A post shared by KITCHENFLY (@kitchenfly) on
If your cabinet space is limited, you may decide to put your spices out in plain sight. It’s a bold move, but can be appealing if you keep things organized. If you’re an infrequent cook and only need a handful of spices on hand, I’ve seen some sweet little displays using glass test-tubes. Test tubes won’t accommodate spoons well and you may end up spilling a good bit of spice when you use them, but you can get test-tube portioned spice refills easily online.
For open-air spice solutions: Magnetized containers can be an appealing way to organize spices in plain view on a fridge or a mounted steel plate. If you go this route, really mess around with the seal on the containers: I tried storing salt once with some cute metal containers, and it corroded the threads of the tins and made a huge mess. This hex jar system nests together in a fun way and lets you play around with patterns.
This modular system snugly fits jars from haute epicier La Boîte on your wall: It would be a good way to showcase your most precious spice blends.
I used to be pretty lazy about this but the truth is it’s hard to tell cumin from caraway from ajwain on a quick glimpse, so when I moved in, I made sure my jars were labeled on the front, but more importantly, on the top. I just scrawled with Sharpie on the lids. You can, of course, take a more elegant route with a label maker or these free chalkboard spice jar label printables. Or for maximum flexibility, use a Sharpie on some masking tape—you can also use painter's tape—as I did with my chili jars. Experience has proven that tape or Sharpies make for better labelling compliance.
Establish a hierarchy (alphabetical or otherwise)
I have seen and admired several online spice organizers who have neatly labeled their spices in 1/4-cup mason jars, arranged them alphabetically and then mapped the location on the shelf liner in the drawer so that each spice has a distinct parking spot. This is a gorgeous solution, but too constraining for my impulsive spice buying. Fleischaker points out that alphabetizing is especially helpful when there's more than one person routinely using the spices. I’m currently the only regular spice-user in the house, so my organization is far less rigid. I place my most-used spices towards the front of my drawer, and the more occasional ones farther back. Chiles go to the right, under the same system. A happy middle might be to have your most-used spices in the front, and the more esoteric ones organized alphabetically at the back.
Brinda Ayer, Food52's managing editor, says she usually organizes by type of cooking. "All my baking spices and powders go in one basket, as do spices for Indian cooking, and all-purpose/everyday spices, and so forth," she explains.
Food Editor Emma Laperruque divides her spices into three categories: spicy spices (red pepper flakes, black pepper, ground mustard, etc), savory spices (fennel seeds, caraway seeds, cumin seeds, garlic powder, bay leaves, etc), and baking spices (cinnamon sticks, cloves, nutmeg, ground ginger, etc). "Inevitably, there's a lot of cross-over—I use cinnamon for coffee cake, but also tomato sauce. But an imperfect system still helps me find ingredients a lot more quickly than no system at all," she says.
Think beyond the cabinet
Traveling further along the frequency principal, I also like to have a few of my most commonly used spices right next to the stovetop along with olive oil, ghee, and sugar. Usually the little tins contain some Marash pepper, some fennel seed, and the dishes contain the remains of whatever spice blend I most recently put together. If you’re a bare-counter enthusiast, you might see the tray as clutter, but I see it as a pretty opportunity for a little still life with a mix of containers and dishes.
Another option? Get one of these countertop risers. This wired organizer rack is built for one thing and one thing only: clearing up the counter. Corral your oil bottles and spices on a tray and give them the high-rise treatment.
If you crave something contained, you can also try a masala dabba, a stainless steel Indian spice tray that holds mini-containers and typically has a lid to cover up the palette when you are not cooking.
Let your spices travel with you
As I talked to Bevill about spices. I asked if she had a good solution for traveling—it’s a bad idea to count on good spices, or even salt at a rental. She thought a moment and laughed and said, “Maybe one of those pill organizers.” Genius! I ordered one immediately along with some “film canisters” (turns out that film canisters are still a thing, even as film itself is an endangered medium). I proceeded to fill them, and I think they are going to be a great addition to my standard travel kit: I look forward to the days when a beach house BBQ sauce or a post-skiing bean stew will be a lot better off thanks to her great idea.
This post originally appeared in March, 2018, but we've refreshed it because our spice cabinets could use the help.
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