Spring brings a sense of renewal and freshness and a desire to shed the layers of heavy coats and sweaters, extra pounds of sluggishness, the winter debris from the yards, and the old clutter from our homes. One little space that tends to get overlooked in the grand swirl of spring cleaning is the spice drawer. Five rows into it—if we dare to look—we may find an old plastic container with some withered and faded powder that may once have been marjoram, at least according to the label. It is also quite possible that the pumpkin spice has found a way to clone itself, and we now have a couple of identical twins with round tops waiting for the next pumpkin season. Even if a spice drawer is in a perfect order, it is worthwhile to go through its contents and toss the old items. It’s an opportunity to pick a few new herbs and spices that may better serve the evolving needs and health goals of the household.
We often choose spices because we like their taste or a recipe may call for a specific blend. It might also just be a matter of traditional common use, like Italian seasoning in a pasta sauce. Spices, however, offer much more than flavor. They are both “thy food” and “thy medicine.” Spice drawers can be turned into a delicious addition to our home medicine cabinets if we take into account some important considerations for buying and storing herbs and spices.
Source and Store
When purchasing herbs and spices, some factors to consider include: quality, sustainability, organic farming and fair trade. We don’t want to buy herbs that are polluted, sprayed, improperly stored, moldy or too old. We may want to protect medicinal plants that may be overharvested and endangered. In other words, it is important to trust our sources. We can grow our own herbs too. If that’s not our thing, we can check out local herb growers, herb farms and farmers markets to source herbs locally. There are many reputable organic herb suppliers online as well.
What would an ideal spice drawer system look like? A good storage system should protect spices from air, heat, humidity and light to keep them fresh and potent longer. Small glass containers or mason jars with air-tight lids are the best when it comes to keeping air and humidity out. The contents are also visible through the transparent glass. Glass containers will need to be stored in a dark, cool place, like a drawer or a cabinet. Metal containers with tight lids can also work well. It is better to avoid the store-bought plastic containers.
We must label our spices even if we think we can recognize what is inside the container. Along with the ingredients, we want to include the expiration date or the date of purchase. Most dried herbs will lose their potency after a year of proper storage. Seeds go rancid much faster due to the higher oil content.
Toss and Transfer
The process is simple; open that spice drawer, examine the spices and get rid of anything that is:
- Past expiration date or clearly old.
- Has damaged containers or is improperly stored by being exposed to too much air, heat, humidity or light.
- Impossible to identify the contents or the expiration date.
- Faded in color, lost its fragrance or has other signs of damage.
View this task as an opportunity to learn how to identify fresh herbs from stale ones. Using spices is a sensory experience so engage the senses of vision, smell and touch while examining the herbs. Next, transfer spices worth keeping into new containers and label each container immediately.
When pouring the herbs from one container to another, study their appearance and smell them. Don’t rush. Many herbalists would attest that they love sorting herbs, making herbal remedies and engaging with plants because the process feels soothing, nourishing and meditative.
Remember not to breathe in hot peppers, powders and other small particles as they can irritate delicate mucous membranes. An earloop face mask can be helpful in this situation.
Now that we have covered the basics of handling herbs and spices, let’s look at some common spices with surprising health benefits. They can be a good start for any culinary apothecary.
The Wise Sage
Sage is not just for turkeys. According to Systematic Review of Clinical Trials Assessing Pharmacological Properties of Salvia Species on Memory, reported in CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics, a single dose of sage (Salvia officinalis) extract or dried leaf is capable of increasing memory capacity and improving mood. In addition, sage moistens and nourishes dry skin and connective tissues as well as improves circulation, supports joints, muscles and tendons. A recent randomized clinical trial demonstrates that it can even reduce bacterial colony count when it is used in a mouthwash. Consider this spice an aromatic health ally.
Rosemary for Memory
This member of the mint family is another brain booster. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is warming, drying, stimulating and restorative. It increases blood flow to the brain, enhancing cognitive function and memory. In her book, Body into Balance: An Herbal Guide to Holistic Self-Care, Maria Noel Groves reports that “[i]n ‘seasoning’ doses of around 750mg, rosemary has been shown to improve memory recall speed in elderly patients.” Rosemary also restores the nervous system, bringing relaxation and uplifting the spirit. The volatile oils in rosemary account for its antimicrobial action. Whether in a cup of tea, a pot of soup, inside a roasted chicken or in bottle of a household disinfectant, this multi-faceted herb gets the job done.
Are You Having a Good Thyme?
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) has long been associated with the theme of courage and protection in many traditions. The Greeks and Romans burned thyme to evoke courage as well as to purify their homes and temples. The protective nature of thyme can be attributed to its antibacterial and antioxidant actions. The primary chemical constituent of thyme, thymol, is expectorant, antispasmodic and antimicrobial, making thyme effective for chest colds, cough and congestion. It helps to break up mucus and expel it from the body. Even though we primarily use thyme as a spice for soups, sauces, meats and poultry, a cup of thyme tea can be protective in the cold and flu seasons.
The Sweet Wood
Cinnamon is a well-loved, delicious spice made from the inner bark of several tree species from the genus Cinnamomum. There are two main types of cinnamon: Ceylon, or the “true” cinnamon, and Cassia, which is comparable but less sweet. While the more common Cassia cinnamon is safe to eat in small to moderate amounts, it may cause problems in large doses due to the coumarin content, a compound that has been linked to liver toxicity in excess.
Cinnamon is a powerful antioxidant. In a study of antioxidant capacity of 26 common spice extracts, cinnamon came out as a spice with the highest antioxidant capacity. Cinnamon decreases inflammation in the body. It may also cut the risk of heart disease. Studies show its capacity to lower the “bad” LDL cholesterol in people with type 2 diabetes, as well as reduce insulin resistance and lower blood sugar. Most studies used the dose of 1 to 6 grams per day of powdered cinnamon. Try a cup of cinnamon tea after dinner to stimulate digestion and help regulate blood sugar.
Small spice jars hide many superpowers, waiting to be released as we sprinkle, boil and brew. Are we ready to take on the spice drawer challenge and discover the health benefits common spices have to offer?