The holidays are coming, and so are the visions of sugar plums – and homemade turkey stuffing, gingerbread people, rugelach and eggnog. Now, where's the cinnamon? It's in the back of the spice cupboard, behind the packets of desiccated herbs and the tin of Old Bay seasoning you moved in with – five years ago.
Organizing spices is like making spaghetti sauce: Every cook has a different method. Unfortunately, most store-bought racks are woefully inadequate, with only a dozen or so tiny containers. Most spices only last a year or so – if it smells like dust, you know it's months past its prime and dump out the herbs that come free with the rack. Meanwhile, the surplus tends to get forgotten, until you realize you've bought enough for three jars of thyme.
That's why creative cooks come up with clever systems, like the one used by Rebecca Duclos and David Ross. The art-school dean and visual artist recently moved from Montreal to Chicago, taking their Ziploc baggie system with them. All their spices are alphabetically sorted in a drawer, with cardboard dividers to keep things stiff and organized, like a culinary version of a card catalogue. A former caterer, Duclos invented the method while living on a boat, where space and moisture resistance were at a premium.
"It makes remembering what we have easier," Ross says. "I tend to think visually, so as I'm flying past looking for the saffron, I'll notice we're low on pepper."
Purists, being purists, have their own approach. When it comes to spices, you can't get more serious than Bal Arneson, author of Everyday Indian and host of Spice Goddess on the Food Network. The Vancouver-based chef only uses fresh-ground spices, keeping whole seeds and pods in one drawer. She only stores two of her most-used seasonings – turmeric and garam masala – in powder form in Frisbee-sized metal canisters.
"As soon as you crush the seeds, the flavour is released and you need to use it right away," Arneson advises. "Seeds last for ages, so you don't need to worry about shelf life as much as with powdered spices."
Those magnetized boards that hold hundreds of spice containers look chic on your kitchen wall, but avoid the kind with see-through lids. "Exposure to light degrades spices faster," says Arneson. "That's why I always keep mine in drawers."