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The shelf life of dried herbs depends on whether the herbs where preserved whole or crushed. The lifespan also differs from species to species and can change drastically if the herbs are not stored properly. Whole dried herbs can be expected to last one to three years, although crushed and powdered herbs may only last six months.
Typically, dried herbs that are still viable for use smell potent. Even dried herbs which have lost their color and turned brown may still be good if they still smell good. If an herb is completely odorless, it is probably also tasteless, which means that it is too old for use.
Many store bought and prepackaged herbs have "sell by" or "use by" dates. These dates are typically not a good indicator of the freshness of the herb. In some cases, herbs may last much longer than their use by dates, and in other cases, they will not. A whole leaf can retain flavor better than a crushed leaf and lasts longer. Crushed herbs tend to lose their potency much faster than whole leaves.
Apart from the difference between species, properly stored herbs will last much longer than carelessly stored herbs. For the best retention of flavor and odor, dried herbs should be stored in glass, airtight containers away from the sun at about 68 degrees F (20 degrees C). Wooden containers can actually absorb the essential oils in herbs that give them bouquet and flavor. Sunlight can cause discoloration and greater fluctuations in temperature. If the temperature changes too often or too rapidly, it will cause condensation and ruin the herbs.
If herbs are not stored in an airtight container, they can absorb moisture. This compromises the flavor and texture of the herb and can also cause molding or rotting as well as discoloration. If herbs are stored in a container with a sifter lid, it is common for cooks to shake the herbs directly into a boiling pot or steaming roast pan. This allows moisture from the hot vapor to enter the remaining herbs, so this should be avoided for maximum shelf life.
In some cases, especially if the herbs were dried and packaged at home, there is some remaining moisture in the leaves. When placed in an airtight container, the moisture will rot the leaves, sometimes resulting in mold. If this happens, the herbs should be discarded. Although home drying herbs is a relatively easy and inexpensive way to gather a variety of seasonings, it is important to dry herbs thoroughly and store them appropriately.
I've seen some of the TV chefs use fried herbs and they keep them in metal containers. What are the containers usually made of? Are they tin? Aluminum? Stainless steel? Does it even matter?
I do have glass containers that I use, but I most often keep my dried herbs in the plastic containers they came in. For the most part, I use my herbs pretty quickly, so storage isn't usually a problem for me.
Like most cooks, I probably have some herbs hanging around in the kitchen that are fairly ancient. I probably need to do need to do an inventory of my herbs and spices to see what needs to be discarded.
I hate to admit it, but I've used herbs that are pretty ancient, especially if they still smell good. Sometimes, it's just that I don't use a particular herb very much, and I'm loathe to throw something away if it might still be useful. Call me a herb hoarder. Heh.
I'm always looking for a good place for cooking herbs. They're so expensive if you don't buy them from a discount store or something like that. I don't understand how some places can carry say, oregano for $2 a bottle, but it's $6 in the regular grocery store. You can't tell me it's better quality. I think it's a label thing.