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Deary, I have spices older than you

With the holiday baking season upon us, how do you tell if a spice has lost its potency and is on its way to becoming a family keepsake?

With Thanksgiving only a few days away, the holiday season is near. For some, it's a time to begin taking stock of the past year. For example, did you stick to your New Year's resolutions? (Eat more chocolate? Check!)

For others--namely, holiday bakers--it's a time to take stock of what's in the pantry. You want to be sure that pumpkin cheesecake with bourbon sauce is going to turn out just right. So, you open the pantry, upend all the baking staples and check the "best by" dates.

Spices have been around for thousands of years; they've been sitting in your pantry for about half that long. Anne Dujmovic/CNET News.com

You save the spices for last because you're afraid you might find some that are older than you or, say, your youngest brother--who's now 34. (OK, at one point, my mom did have spices older than my brother John, but they were only around a quarter century old at the time. My boyfriend's family has mine beat: the Austins have a tin of nutmeg dating back to the Kennedy administration. During the holidays, they trot it out and sprinkle it--sparingly, for how else to make it last--atop eggnog.)

But what do you do if the "best by" date has rubbed off and you want to figure out just how old a particular spice is? If it was made by McCormick, you can go to the company's "Spice Check Challenge" Web site to find out.

If there's a code on the container, enter it into the "Fresh Tester" tool. The Web site also offers other clues to determine the age of a spice: If it's in a tin--unless it's black pepper--it's at least 15 years old. If it's from Baltimore, it's also at least 15 years old. If it says Schilling on the label, it's at least 7 years old.

But how old is too old? McCormick says the potency of most dried herbs and spices lasts a couple of years. (Yes, the company is in the business of selling spices.) It also suggests trying this: Rub the spice in your hand and give it the sniff test. Has it kept its aroma and flavor?

If such investigative work scares you, take heart: You can't possibly have the world's oldest herbs and spices. Not long ago, researchers conducted DNA tests on scrapings taken from inside clay containers from a ship that sank 2,400 years ago off the coast of Greece. Newly released evidence shows that the ship was carrying, among other things, oregano.