Storage Tips

How to Organize Your Spice Rack So You Don’t Lose Your Dang Mind

All the advice you need—whether you lean towards perfection or mix-n-match.

April 24, 2020
Photo by Rocky Luten

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.

My narrow and deep drawer. Photo by Sara Dickerman

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.

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“I have more than 60 herbs and spices in my kitchen and over the course of a year I use them all. Bung in bulk saves money, and I often am able to share about half with my local food kitchen for their efforts to feed the homeless...Good for both of us. ”
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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.

Choose containers

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.

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.

Get Labeling

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.

My go-to spice station. Photo by Sara Dickerman

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.

Always be prepared. Photo by Sara Dickerman

How do you organize your spices? Share your tactics with us below!

This post originally appeared in March, 2018, but we've refreshed it because our spice cabinets could use the help.
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Sara Dickerman is the author of Bon Appetit: The Food Lover's Cleanse and Dried and True, and her new book The Secret of Great Second Meals.

41 Comments

FrugalCat November 29, 2020
A couple of years ago, in a burst of productivity, I decided to alphabetize the spices at work. When I got to Crushed Red Pepper, I was lost. C? R? P? I just gave up!
 
Kata May 15, 2020
I don’t believe film containers are safe for storing food which spices are. Generally if a plastic container contains non-food items when it was first manufactured, it is not suitable to store food items in subsequent storage. The numbers underneath the bottom of the container tell the tale. If you find the numbers 2 or 4 or 5 in a triangle on the bottom of the container, it is food safe. The film containers that I have do not have any of those numbers on them. Check yours to see if you have the correct numbers to store food/spices in them.
 
Stephanie A. May 15, 2020
Not sure that numbering system was in place when they were manufacturing film canisters...
 
Matt G. May 6, 2020
How to clean the glass see through on my stove? Looks like debris on inside?
 
caroline0ne May 6, 2020
Do let me know the answer. I have the same question.
 
Beth May 6, 2020
Me too! It looks as though some oven cleaner dripped down in between the glass. ??
 
cosmiccook April 29, 2020
My philosophy for kitchen organization is economy of motion. My goal was to be able to reach for that utensil, spice while cooking w/o having to step away from my cook top. Spice drawer is two drawers down from cook top w knives and other handy items first drawer underneath. My spices are grouped according to type or cuisine. I have the round magnetic cans which I HATE. After 15 years the seals are either no good or so tight you can't open. The magnet sticks to and spice come out when you pull up due to above said loose sea. This drawer fits 120 plus herbs, spices. I use them all! A few different sizes of containers. I like those honeycomb ones--will have to see how many I can get to a row.
 
Fidelma April 29, 2020
I can understand the theory of dark glass for spices, however, my spices are in a dark cupboard, only brought out for a limited time. Does that count?

Brilliant 'hack' for travelling. I always bring my own spices in snack ziplock bags but
I do like the large 'pill' box idea. Darn I've thrown away all my old film canisters.

Love articles like this, Thanks Food 52 Team
 
Stephanie A. April 29, 2020
@Fidelma - A dark cupboard sounds great, as long as it is kept closed all/most of the time. The old photo canisters are a really good idea! I Googled whether they would be food safe or not and, apparently they would have to be, because film is very sensitive to any toxins and would be ruined quickly, if the plastic leached. 👍
 
Theresia A. April 28, 2020
I have a very simple way of organizing my spices: I put the jars in my drawer in alphabetical order. Starting with allspice, bay leaves, chili powder, caraway, etc all the way down to turmeric and thyme. I can quickly find any spice any time that way. And I have lots of spices.....
 
nalivia November 19, 2019
My husband created this drawer spice kit after we had sticker shock on custom-made spice drawers. Now we sell it because we like it so much! Feel free to check it out: https://etsy.me/2U8Pf3b
 
nalivia April 29, 2020
Updated site: www.etsy.com/shop/LifeofSpiceDesigns
 
Adrienne B. September 8, 2019
I have limited storage and a strange landlord that will not allow the tenants to put anything up on the wall, like spice racks. No worries, though. I have three places I keep my spices. I am lucky enough to have large wooden crates that I stacked up in the dining room that I use for storage. In one of those for my most frequently used spices. They are in order of how often I use them, paprika being on the very top. I buy them in bulk and keep them in pretty preserve jars. I bought labels and printed whimsical characters plus the name of the spice and put those on the lids. I have another crate that has a box with my spice mixes that I keep in used pimento jars, also with labels I printed. Behind that is Lite House freeze-dried herbs that I also put labels on the lid so I can see them without dragging them out. Then in the cupboard that closes, I have my Penzey's spices and other infrequently used spices that keep better in the dark. I like my spice arrangement. My son, who is beginning to learn to cook, made my barbecue sauce the other day and I insisted that he gather everything before he started, you know teaching mise en place right away. He thought my configuration made sense and he had no problem finding everything he needed.
 
jpriddy September 7, 2019
I never store in plastic, and I enjoy a range of glass jars and containers, many with ground glass stoppers. I have spice containers I have used since college (a LONG time ago) and some from my grandmother's kitchen. Coriander is kept in a beautiful little 2-ounce glass container with a fancy ground glass stopper. Some labels have been with me for years, but lately I have taken a black Sharpie to mark directly on the glass. I even have a silver one that shows up nicely against ground chili powder and curry.
 
Kathy R. June 27, 2019
I use a shallow drawer next to the stove. I lay down round bottles with pre-printed labels on the side. Both are available from Amazon. Alphabetized, they're very easy to find.
 
Lisa June 2, 2019
Most important for maximized storage is hexagonal jars.
 
Bella95 March 4, 2019
Not sure how l managed to post half a comment but, here's the rest.
Have to admit that some of the containers in this article are lovely. Mine live in the glass containers l originally bought them in and l refill them with packets as they are much cheaper. Great idea storing the jars upside-down though. Might steal that.
 
Bella95 March 4, 2019
Salt, pepper and nutmeg grinders live on a little tray next to my stove along with dried and fresh chillies and fresh garlic. Everything else lives in two easy to grab containers in the pantry loosely divided between baking spices and cooking herbs. Have to admit
 
bellly December 2, 2018
Whenever I buy small portions of bulk spices, I record the date on a piece of tape. It’s sooo helpful
 
bellly December 2, 2018
(piece of tape on the bulk baggie)
 
Madelaine L. June 27, 2018
Try Tic-Tac containers for traveling, camping etc. Also, don't throw out your used spice containers. Clean them out good, then refill with the spice or herb of your choice and relabel ànd date. I do this when it's the end of the growing season.
 
Madelaine L. June 27, 2018
Also, Penzeys sells empty bottles. Or I'm sure you can buy just about anything online.
 
Stephanie A. June 3, 2018
It all looks beautiful and handy. However, the one thing that everyone seems to get wrong is that spices should never(!), as in neve-ever(!!!) be stored in clear glass or plastic containers, or pretty much anything that admits any light into/onto the contents. At the very least, they should be in dark amber glass bottles. But, much better to be stored in tin containers. All(!) tin! No glass or see-through plastic tops, no little windows to see the spices through. Total darkness!

I know, I know... It's hard to give up on the spine-tingling visual pleasure of seeing the pretty colors and textures of the spices, but there is a big payoff to be had in exchange for the sacrifice thus made: your spices will stay much fresher, much longer. MUCH!

And the same thing applies to all your oils, extracts and supplements. Keep them all starved of light.

How do I know all this, you might ask? I know it because I have been in the business of selling herbs, spices, oils and extracts to health food manufacturers and other food, supplement and cosmetics manufacturers for over 25 years now. And, on every single specification sheet we have received over the past 25 years from our bulk providers, the storage conditions recommended are always calling for a dark place. Often a cool, dark place. But ALWAYS a dark place.

So why, you ask, don't most spice manufacturers sell their products in darkened containers? Well, that's because spice manufacturers are in the business of selling spices. Preferably, lots of spices. They have to make their products appealing to the eye. So they package them in pretty, clear bottles that show off the lovely colors and textures of their contents, thus eliciting a strong shopping response from the consumer who will be drawn to said colors and textures like a magnet. Thus, more often than not, said consumer can be relied upon to exit the shopping establishment with not only the Malabar peppers they originally came for, but also a few additional goodies they "just couldn't resist".

Also, manufacturers and retailers want to sell you LOTS of product. So they are not necessarily going to encourage you to store your products in a way that will make them stay fresh for many years, rather than just a few months.
 
Molly June 3, 2018
Thank you for this info. I have been researching for several months to determine how to redo my spices. Every store and off-line post says something different! Your comments tie all the odds and ends I have garnered together. I have even been able to find an American tin company!
Thank you again for sharing your knowledge.
 
Molly June 3, 2018
I meant 'on-line, not off-line.
 
Anne October 21, 2018
So, what is the company you mentioned?
 
Stephanie A. October 21, 2018
Falcon Trading International
 
Anne October 21, 2018
Thank you so much.
 
Sheila May 15, 2018
I have 82 different dry herbs & spices, not including 20 kinds of whole or ground chilis and 9 liquid extracts. I alphabetize but I really wish I had some of those big drawers in my kitchen!
 
rolwin1 May 15, 2018
I alphabetize periodically, but that puts a number of infrequently used spices up front and frequently used spices in back, so that system always breaks down over time. The best thing I do is create hand written labels using the small round labels left over from our garage sales. Since I have red, green and white labels, I try to use red on middle eastern spices, green on asian spices, and so on. Knowing that zaatar and dukkah are in jars with red labels helps me spot them among the 30 or so jars in my drawer.
 
ChefyMcChefFace May 15, 2018
I probably should invest in universal jars, but I'm cheap and lazy. I store my spices in a cabinet, on little step things from the container store so I can (sorta) see what's in back. My jars are all difference sizes and shapes - mostly tall and skinny (Penzeys, McCormack, generic) with a few short ones I put in front or stack on top of each other. It's not perfect, but it's manageable.
 
BeverlyW May 5, 2018
No fair to show us the amazing Keeper spice containers, and then not share where to get them! I've been digging through Google to no avail - anyone have any tips, please?!?!
 
Sheila May 15, 2018
I believe they are from the Container Store. https://www.containerstore.com/s/kitchen/food-storage/plastic/small-food-keepers/123d?productId=10014892
 
Mary L. July 9, 2018
try the search engine duckduckgo