How old is your garlic?

Mar 18, 2008 at 5:51 p.m. ET

It may be easier to tell when your garlic has gone bad than, say, your peppercorns -- but not much. Though dried herbs and spices may last for one to three years, fresh ones start going south in a matter of days or weeks.

Here are a few tips to keep them tasty-fresh:

Heat, light and moisture can be more harmful than age. Store your herbs and spices in dark or opaque containers in a cool, dry place. Storing them close to the cooking area -- say, above the stove or microwave or close to the sink or dishwasher -- might be convenient but can spell an early death, leaving your spices caked, discolored and flavorless.

Since herbs and spices rarely come with an expiration date on the packaging, marking the bottom of each container with the purchase date in permanent marker will help keep track of their age. If you buy herbs or spices in clear bottles, designing your own label to cover most of the clear glass or plastic will identify and date the bottle as well as keep out some of the harmful light.

Always buy herbs and spices in the smallest containers you can find until you know how much you will use and how long emptying the container will take.

Red spices -- red pepper, chili powder and paprika -- keep their color best if stored in the refrigerator, particularly during summer or in warm climates. Be aware, though, that refrigerated herbs and spices can accumulate condensation when left open on the counter. Use them and put them back in the refrigerator immediately.

Generally accepted shelf life of dried herbs and spices

Whole leaves and flowers: 1-2 years

Whole seeds and barks: 2-3 years

Whole roots: 3 years

Ground leaves, seeds and barks: 1 year

Ground roots: 2 years

Test freshness by scent: Rub some between your palms. If it smells strong and flavorful, keep using it. If it doesn't, toss it. Crush or break whole herbs and spices such as peppercorns and cinnamon sticks to check their aromas.

Live longer with your garlic

Buy good, firm garlic with no signs of sprouting and a thick, papery layer of skin.

Store it away from direct sunlight where it can get proper air circulation.

A garlic keeper is perfect and looks good on your counter, but a mesh bag works, too, as does an open basket.

Never keep your garlic in the refrigerator or in a plastic container. It will turn mushy quickly in either case. Commercial refrigeration of garlic is close to 32F, but most home refrigerators are kept at warmer temperatures. Stored at approximately 60F in a dry, dark place, garlic can last three to five months.

Never store raw garlic in oil! Botulism loves to grow in garlic and oil. Even commercially packaged garlic in oil has caused botulism.