A general guide to dried herbs and toasting spices
Toasting spices, and a guide to dried herbs
Too many people have a massive spice rack; filled with long forgotten powdered herbs and spices, at the ready should they ever be called into action in a years distant curry (I also used to be guilty of this culinary crime).
Dried herbs and spices, although they do keep well, will lose their potency and flavor, and this occurs over a period of months, and not years. A whole spice will keep longer than a ground spice, and a whole dried leaf, will remain potent for a longer period than a ground dried herb. What occurs is oxidization, and the more processed the spice is, the more of it is exposed to the air, and the faster the aromatic molecules will be destroyed.
It is a good idea to only buy small quantities of the spices you actually know you'll use, and replenish these spices periodically, discarding any that are past their prime. A bulk natural food store is normally your best bet here, and you can get most herbs and spices, for literally pennies per small bag.
Additionally, some dried herbs, that you may well have, are more or less useless. Certain herbs lose all of their aromatic properties when dried, and are not of culinary interest. Dried basil, dried parsley, dried tarragon and dried cilantro are all next to useless, and you should not bother keeping these.
With spices, the way to concentrate their aromatic properties is to toast them gently as whole spices, and then grind them in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle. To toast spices, just heat a heavy fry pan over medium heat, with no oil added, and add as much spice as you'd like to toast. Keep a watchful eye over this process, and keep stirring and shaking the spices continually; when they start to brown, and become quite aromatic, they are finished. They can easily start to smoke and burn, so get them off the heat quickly when the toasting is complete. Do not try to toast a variety of different spices at the same time, as they will toast at different rates, and you will either burn some, or leave some un toasted.
Transfer toasted spices to a spice grinder, and grind until fine.
This toasting step only takes a couple of minutes, but will add a lot of life to any spice requiring dish. The toasting increases the intensity of the spice flavor, as well as adds a pleasant nutty toastiness. Toasting your spices will make you a better cook. Only toast as much as you need for a particular recipe, as once ground, the flavors will diminish relatively quickly.