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9 ways to organize your spices so you don't lose it when you need cardamom

Heather Barnett is a freelance writer and foodie whose work has been featured in blogs, websites, magazines, and TV and radio ads. She spends her free time relaxing with her soulmate, Keith; her dog, Mosby "The Fly Slayer;" and Felix th...

It's about time you organize your spice rack like it's the 21st century

Spice organization is the bane of many a home cook's existence. Where's the saffron? I could've sworn I had cardamom. Oh, look. We have three containers of chili powder! I say it's time to make the madness stop and get our spice situations under control once and for all.

Before you start anything, pull down all your spices, and alphabetize them. Count the bottles of unique spices (so those three containers of chili powder count as only one). While you're at it, if there are any spices that are over a year old, they can be chucked. They've probably lost their potency.

Now you just have to pick and choose among the tips below to find the solution that works for you.

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1. Pre-stocked spice racks

Careful with this one. Those cute little pre-organized spice racks always seems like a good idea (but just aren't for most people). They always have spices you won't use (or won't use that often) and are pre-labeled, so even if you decide to rebel against the spice rack maker's divine will, if you want them to match, you have to do it to each bottle, not just the ones you're replacing. Plus, there's no room for your spice collection to grow. That said, if you know for sure you'll never need more room, it's a very easy and economical solution.

2. Buy or build a storage unit

Look for or build something that allows you fairly easy access to any spice you could need at any time without having to get half your spices out every time. Think shallow racks, lazy Susans, etc. Your spices will be out of order in no time if it's a whole thing to get them out and put them back. Make sure the solution you choose has enough room for all the spices you have, plus growing room if you know you'll experiment with new spices over time.

3. Buy like containers

Half the trouble with spice organization is dealing with situating all the differently sized and shaped containers. So if you can afford it, invest in a set of matching spice containers. Stick with something that's easily replaceable. (Those cutesy ones may not be available in five years if you need more.) Glass is usually the best option for sanitizing and so you can see inside the bottle to quickly judge what's left. Make sure you get more than you actually need to accommodate your growing spice options.

Just remember that you should never add new spice on top of older spice remaining in a container. Dump out that older spice, pour in the new spice so it's at the bottom, and then add the old stuff back on top. Better yet, just wait until the container is completely empty before adding more.

More: A guide to Mexican herbs and spices

4. Invest in chalkboard labels

Chalkboard labels let you easily label and date your spices. Look for a size that will fit your jars nicely, and get removable labels. Because they use a chalk pen, what you write won't wipe off when you use the jar. You can also use these labels on the pots in your kitchen herb garden to carry the theme through.

5. Or get nerdy

Look, those chalkboard labels are cute, and they're great for your analogue-friendly eyes, but there really is an app for everything… yes, including spice organization. Some even have bar code readers. If you want one with more versatility, invest in an overall pantry inventory app.

5. Keep cool, dry and dark

Keeping all your herbs and spices in the same location helps keep you organized. But make sure that location is in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight.

6. Give some spices a place of honor

While keeping all your spices together is, overall, a good idea, you might also consider keeping those you use in just about everything (like pepper) near where you cook. Or if you have a fancy-schmancy one (like saffron or real Mexican cinnamon) that you paid way too damn much money for to not show it off, you might consider putting those in decorative containers on display somewhere, so long as they aren't too exposed to direct sunlight or moisture.

7. Don't be afraid to invest in bulk spices

You'll probably want to buy some spices that you use frequently in larger containers, meaning after you fill your little jars, you'll have some left over. Buy a bin to keep your bulk spice containers in, and place it in an out-of-the-way place, like the tippy-top of your pantry that you can't reach without a step stool anyway. Then just refill as needed.

8. Arrangement 1: Alphabetical order

I'm a fan of my mom's method of arrangement: alphabetically. For me, that just makes sense, and I don't mind having to reach up high for the cumin even though I use it frequently, because I know where it is, and it can never get lost.

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9. Arrangement 2: The kit method

Max Falkowitz at Serious Eats advocates the kit method, in which you group the spices you tend to use together next to one another. Then keep your most commonly used spices on a front-facing shelf and the rest into kits based on what goes together (baking spices, South Asian, Middle Eastern, etc.). For me, this doesn't work because of the overlap. (Does cumin go in South Asian or Mexican? Or Texan, since I use it in chili? I could do Tex-Mex, and that would solve it… except the South Asian…) But whatever floats your banana boat. They're your spices, and it's your kitchen.

The point is to make it easier for you, and if I come cook with you, you're just going to have to tell me where everything is.

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