I'm replacing most of what I have. What herbs and spices are ok to buy dry and which should I use fresh? What's the shelf life of dried herbs and spices? Thanks
Whole dried herbs last roughly from 1 to 3 years for leafy herbs, powdered or ground herbs will last 6 months. Whole spices will keep 1 - 2 years. Seeds will keep 2 – 3 years and roots will keep 3 years. Ground spices and seeds keep 1 year.
Ground roots will keep for 2 years. There are some herbs that are useful both fresh and dried like thyme rosemary. I don't find dried basil very useful. Think about what you use regularly and buy those things first. Then build your spice cabinet as you try new recipes
I like to buy any dry spices and herbs in the bulk department of a busy specialty store. You do not have to buy much at a time at a real savings compared to buying the bottles and you can move through it more quickly. Any tender perennial like basil, mint or sorrel should only be fresh.
I have yet to find a store that sells bulk spices and/or herbs - I would love it. I'm in CT, if anyone has suggestions for sourcing.
And those little tubs of herbes de provence last about five minutes from the time you open them.
That said, I do make a Roman spice blend that combines basically equal parts of dried red pepper flakes and seeds, dried parsley and dried garlic. This does last awhile. They sell it in packages in Rome and in Umbria, but it's so damn easy to make that there's no point in buying it.
I think anything over about a year is long, even for whole spices. The key to success is to buy quality, and only small quantities. Ground spices start to deteriorate immediately from grinding, so the closer you can use them to the grinding process the better your result.
World Spice is a great resource for high quality - they grind to order. If you're making the financial commitment to replace everything this might be a good option: http://www.worldspice.com