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The Easiest Way to Test (and Use Up) Your Old Spices

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Photo: Tania Kitura (Shutterstock)

January is usually a month of purging, consolidating, and cleaning, but this January seems particularly suited to it. Omicron is infecting nearly everyone I know, and the weather is terrible—there isn’t much reason to leave the house; might as well clean it.

Your frosty freezer is a good place to start, as is your spice rack, cabinet, or drawer. Paring down your spices can be challenging, especially if you have tiny fractions-of-a-teaspoon-sized amounts languishing in glass jars.

Giving your spices a quick sniff will tell you a good bit. If the spice has a strong aroma, it’s good! Use it like you normally would. If it smells like nothing? Toss it! It’s useless. (Unless it’s turmeric. You can use scentless turmeric to dye fabric.)

But what if your spice is somewhere in between? What if it’s operating at half capacity? That spice still has some flavor to give, and is best utilized in a big bowl of popcorn.

Spices of uncertain potency don’t work all that well in recipes. You could try and compensate for faded flavor by doubling (or tripling) up, but there’s no guarantee that doing so will result in the proper flavor profile.

Popcorn is much more forgiving. It’s a perfect blank canvas for spices that are working at half capacity, without any strong competing flavors to obscure the flavor that’s still there. (Plus, it’s very cheap, so it’s not a total loss if your spice experiment goes sideways.) Just sprinkle it on until you can taste it, or combine a whole bunch of less-than-fresh powders to make a blend. (For best results: pulverize it all in the food processor with a couple of teaspoons of salt to get every thing super fine so it clings to the kernels.)

Popcorn is also a perfect vehicle for brand new spices, especially those you may be unfamiliar with. Did you get a spice set for Christmas? Try the powders out on popcorn to get a grasp on their flavor before experimenting with other dishes. (This gives you a better understanding of what the spice tastes like on its own, but it’s also a great excuse to eat popcorn for dinner.)