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How To Organize Your Spices Without Driving Yourself Crazy

Before we do this thing, we need to do a bit of expectation management: Because Foodspin is a site about food, and not a site about design or style, the focus of these tips will be on function over form. If you want to achieve one of those picture-perfect spice displays, head to Pinterest for ideas.

Don't feel like you need to get huffy at this casual dismissal of your adorable display of spices in upcycled baby-food jars—there's nothing wrong with having picture-perfect spice displays! By all means, if that's what works for you and makes you feel happy in your own kitchen, go for it. But picture-perfect isn't always realistic, nor is it the best use of your time and money, and, quite frankly, that sort of thing is a little fussy for our tastes.

So if what you want is to have a highly functional spice-collection system, stick around.


(Also, we will be using the words "spice" and "spices" to refer to both spices and dried herbs, here. You're just going to have to be OK with that.)

General Advice On The Organizing Of Spices

The best and simplest function-over-form advice regarding the organizing of your spices is to keep the most frequently used ones in the easiest spot to reach. If you're storing your spices in a cabinet, put the black pepper and the basil and the garlic salt (or whatever you use the most) on the first shelf in the front. The front of the second shelf is your next-easiest spot. If you're tall, then screw you, buster the front space of the third shelf can be one more easy-to-reach spot. If you use a spice rack or magnetic organizing system, put your most frequently used items at eye level. Those using a spice drawer should put your top spices toward the front of the drawer.

The second-best piece of advice is don't worry too much about finding the perfect solution. There really isn't one. Nor should there be! Cooking is messy—that's part of its charm (that was difficult for me to write)—and aspiring to have a spice cabinet with perfectly uniform jars and perfect labels and everything in the perfect place is probably a ridiculous waste of your time. And this is me saying so! The problem with "the perfect solution" is that the second you introduce a new spice to the mix, that perfect solution goes right out the window.

The Importance Of Cataloguing Your Collection

Before you can sort out the best way to organize your spices, you need to know what you have. Which means taking them all out. All of them. Yes, even the ones you've stashed in the freezer. And the ones that somehow ended up behind the wine glasses. And the ones that have migrated away from the kitchen entirely.


Next, you'll perform a variation on the game Fuck, Marry, Kill: Decide which of the spices you love enough to keep (this should be most of them!), which you have duplicates of and can marry together into one container (this may involve finding an entirely new container in which to marry your 17 jars of seasoned salt), and which you're going to toss out or gift to a friend or donate. (Unopened spices can be donated to food pantries; old or unused spices should be tossed and given away, respectively.)

While everything is out and about, take the time to tighten any caps and wipe down the exterior of any sticky bottles. (Extracts and liquid smoke are especially likely to have dribbles in need of cleaning). A paper towel and some all-purpose spray cleaner or even just hot water will be all you'll need to perform that pretty quick operation.


Deciding On A Strategy

Part of the fun of hitting on your ideal organizational strategy is taking a little time to think about your cooking style. Unless you do what we at Foodspin do, i.e. write about cooking and suchlike, you probably don't often have cause to think about what type of cook you are, so take some time to enjoy a few moments of self-reflection.


Because that sounds a bit vague and mumbo-jumbo-ish, here's a little bit more about what I mean when I suggest that you consider your cooking style: My background is such that the things I make in the kitchen most often are baked goods, Italian food, and Indian food. When I'm getting ready to bake, or make an Indian dish, I always take spice-pantry items out before I begin, because once those things get going, they get going fast, and I don't want to have to pause to get the ladder out and reach all the way to the left-back corner of the second shelf to get the cardamom pods. But when I'm making Italian, I generally am 1) using fewer ingrediences and 2) less concerned about time sensitivity. If the gravy simmers for an extra minute here and there, it's no big thing. But a burnt masala? Oh yeah, that's a big thing. A big bummer of a thing.

So that's my cooking style, which informs my decision to keep baking items on a top shelf and my Indian spices clustered together, while my Italian collection hangs around near the front of the cabinets for easy grabbing. And it's likely that, since you're reading a site devoted to food and drink preparation punctuated by the odd obscenity and/or attack on your character and manhood, you also have a cooking style that you might want to take into account when considering which organizational system might be best for you.


Here are some common systems that people use, though of course there are a million variations. Do you have a variation you're particularly happy with? Please do tell us in the comments!

  • Alphabetical
  • Baking v. Cooking
  • Whole v. Ground v. Blend
  • Regular Use v. Infrequent Use

Assessing The Storage Situation

Assessing your storage situation means thinking about both the way you're storing individual spices and the space where the collection will go.


If the spices you have came in a jar or another form of packaging that is not a baggie, it's probably best to leave it in that container. Unless we're talking about the 17 jars of seasoned salt that you're planning to combine, in which case you're gonna need a bigger container for all that salt.

You can, if you prefer, decant the spices into new containers altogether; if you go this route, instead of trying to square-peg-in-round-hole your spices into absolutely identical jars, consider using Mason jars, which come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but will still give you a more uniform look. Oh sure, they've become a sad punchline, but twee or not, Mason jars are cheap, plentiful, and darn useful.


They're also great for transferring any spices that came in baggies—bulk or small-quantity—into lidded containers that make for easier stacking, opening, and identification. The same goes for that collection of empty salsa and mustard jars I've you've been hoarding. Another option to consider are those semi-disposable plastic storage containers that, much like Mason jars, come in a variety of sizes. They're also lightweight and easy to open, so if you or someone in your home has any physical limitations that make unscrewing jar tops difficult, this would be a good alternative.

Gladware offers teeny-tiny ones and slightly less teeny-tiny ones and also giant ones, which is what you'll want to get to store all that seasoned salt. If you go that route, just remember to label the spices, so you'll know what's what. A label-maker is great for this purpose, but if you don't already have one, don't feel like you have to go out and get one. (Unless you need an excuse, in which case SHOP AWAY!) Blank stick-on labels and a marker — or just a marker right on the container — will do just fine.


A final word on baggies for spice storage: While these are not ideal (because baggies tend to slip and slide around when stacked, make it harder to easily see labels, can be a pain to open, and make measuring out the spices a frustrating experience), if you like your baggies and your twist ties and knots and rubber bands, then by all means keep them. I'll even offer you this clever way to help corral them: Store individual baggies in the wells of an old muffin tin.

In terms of the space where the collection will go, that's going to depend almost entirely on how your kitchen is configured. Given that, it's not realistic to go through every option, so we'll list out a few popular ways to maximize storage space. Just like with organizational systems, if you have a space-saving trick that really works for you, please share it in the comments! Mostly because I'm actually interested, but also because I'm going to totally repurpose your suggestions into a follow-up post (real talk).


OK, so! The best of those common space-saving and organizational tools include the use of a lazy Susan — and here I shall pause to ask, "Who was Susan, and why was she so lazy?" — as well as drawer organizers, wall-mounted spice racks, and those exceedingly popular magnetic mounting systems. Back-of-the-door systems are also frequently recommended; be exceedingly wary of them, as they can seriously challenge your ability to do things like, oh … ACTUALLY CLOSE THE CABINET DOOR? Yikes, sorry for the outburst! That's just one of my pet nits, when I see design and lifestyle blogs that include photos of an open cabinet with a door-mounted system that clearly will keep the door from ever actually closing.

Putting Everything Back

For those of you who love playing Tetris, this will be the most fun part.

By now, you should know where you intend to put your spice collection, and in what order. If you don't know this by now, scroll back up to the top of the post, and maybe hit "refresh" so I can get an extra pageview? Thanks, pal!


It's important to bear in mind that sometimes the space with which we're working doesn't conform precisely to our hopes and dreams vis-à-vis spice organization. That is OK. We live in the real world, not inside Pinterest, and it's really OK (if a bit frustrating) if things don't work out as perfectly as you'd like. I would encourage you not to agonize over it. And I say this as a person who is exceedingly prone to agonizing over these types of things. But you know that about me already.

Jolie Kerr is the author of the book My Boyfriend Barfed In My Handbag … And Other Things You Can't Ask Martha (Plume); more cleaning-obsessed natterings can be found on Twitter,Kinja, and Tumblr. Squalor appears on Jezebel and Deadspin on alternating weeks.


Image by Sam Woolley.

The Concourse is Deadspin's home for culture/food/whatever coverage.

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