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When I moved back into my house last year after a kitchen renovation, I saw it as an opportunity for spice redemption. I had a place for them to land, a long drawer, almost 4-feet long, that pulled out of a narrow gap next to the fridge and I was going to finally have a uniform spice wardrobe. I merrily threw out crack-lidded old IKEA jars of powdered cardamom and red stained bags of annatto and put in an 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.
It’s my job to learn to use great flavors in the recipes I write, so I have no issues with being a spice maximalist. But my collector’s impulses wreak havoc on 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 doesn’t work 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.
For me, I decided that uniformity might not be such a big deal after all: I have enough room and I have a cabinet door to hide any irregularities. In real life, 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 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 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-complete spice disciplinarian. But things in the new kitchen are better than they ever were before, and there are some rules that can help organize your spices, no matter whether you lean towards perfection or eclectic.
Emily Fleischaker, the former Bon Appétit and Buzzfeed food editor has a business, Kitchenfly, where she organizes home kitchens to help people stop searching for things and start cooking more. The first rule of organization, she says, 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.” Dear reader, I am one of those people, but more on that later.
When refreshing spices, I feel strongly that bulk spices are the way to go, both in terms of freshness, and in terms of wasted spice and 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, you can find almost every spice you need, and you can buy the correct amount of it: just a dash of dried ginger for baking, and a whole lot of fennel seed, if, like me you crank through it.
Though I pick occasional spices up at the bulk section of my grocery store, I prefer 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 inexpensive to ship. Don’t fret about buying tiny funnels for putting bulk spices into containers: They are just something more to store. You can use a piece of paper as a simple funnel to get powders and seeds neatly into a container.
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. 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, and I can easily read all 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.
My spices may not be completely uniform, but 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. Esoteric spices get a smaller jar, similar in proportion to the grocery store spices. And I do keep a catch-all large storage bin for chile overflow, 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 for getting 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. (I snapped these teas the other day at a favorite bakery of mine). 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.
Another 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 crafty jar labels. Or for maximum flexibility, use a Sharpie on some masking tape as I did with my chili jars. Experience has proven that merry-colored masking tape or Sharpies make for better labelling compliance.
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 looser. 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.
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. If you crave something contained, you can also try a masala dabba, an Indian spice tray that holds mini-containers and typically has a clear lid to cover up the palette when you are not cooking.
As I’m writing this, I’m preparing to take my family to a house rental for winter break. 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: Our post-skiing bean stew is going to be a lot better off thanks to her great idea.
How do you organize your spices? Share your tactics with us below!