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In a recent study, 371 participants were asked to prepare meals in test kitchens using raw ground turkey patties and a ready-to-eat salad. The secret ingredient on the menu? An innocuous virus called MS2. The real purpose of the study was not to try out new recipes (as the participants were told) but to see how much cross-contamination happens in a kitchen. Researchers discovered that MS2 cross-contamination was found on most surfaces less than 20 percent of the time, but there was one high-touch spot that was contaminated a whopping 48 percent of the time: spice jars.
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It seemed that while the participants remembered to wipe down certain surfaces during cooking, spice jars were woefully neglected. If you can’t remember the last time you wiped down your spice containers, keep reading to learn why this is not a recipe for success in any kitchen.
How to keep your spice rack clean
“A dirty spice rack can result from spills and splatters while cooking in the kitchen,” says Vera Peterson, president of Molly Maid, a Neighborly company. “If ignored, that dirt and grime can be a breeding ground for bacteria and other contaminants.”
It’s not like you can just add that jar of cilantro to the top shelf of your dishwasher and be done with it. But it’s not difficult to keep your spice rack clean, either. “When it comes to cleaning food-related products like spice jars, natural cleaners are your best option, such as diluted vinegar or a baking soda paste,” says Peterson.
Baking soda paste is often hailed as a natural yet effective household cleaner. Just mix baking soda with some water to form the paste, then apply it to any caked-on kitchen grime. Peterson says to let the paste sit for at least five minutes, then wipe it with a damp cloth.
You could also use distilled white vinegar, another go-to household cleanser. “It doesn’t contain harsh chemicals, and costs much less — especially when diluted — than commercial products,” Peterson says. Mix a cup of distilled white vinegar with a cup of distilled water in a spray bottle, then spritz on the jars and wipe clean.
And yes, if you store your spices in a cabinet rather than a rack, it’s probably a good idea to open that door and get to cleaning in there, too.
How often should you clean your spice jars?
“Molly Maid recommends giving your spice jars a quick wipe down each time you use them to avoid food splatters getting caked on,” Peterson says. If it slips your mind, she suggests that you clean them at least once a week to keep bacteria to a minimum.
Tips for creating a more sanitary kitchen
Remember, the MS2 virus was a harmless tracer virus used for this study. Swap it with salmonella or any other type of virus that can cause serious health issues, and well, I don’t blame you if you stop reading and run to scour your kitchen. But if you’re still reading, here are some tips on how to keep a cleaner and healthier kitchen.
Wash your hands. You’re likely (hopefully?) already doing this as you prepare meals, especially when working with poultry, but keep that hand soap by your kitchen sink. Be sure to dry your hands on a clean towel, not one that you used to wipe down a work surface.
Wipe down the spice jars after using them. Peterson recommends putting them away immediately after use, too. While you’re cleaning your spice rack, she recommends getting rid of any spices that have been around too long (they’ll lack potency). This could be tricky if the expiration date isn’t written on it, but here’s a rule of thumb: ground spices (think nutmeg and curry) and herbs (basil, oregano, etc.) have a shelf life of three years, and seeds, such as sesame or poppy, are good for two years.
Be mindful of other surfaces that have been touched. While the study called out spice jars as the germiest spot, here are the other key surfaces they focused on in their study:
Every kitchen setup is different, but adding stove knobs, oven handles, cabinet knobs/handles, and microwave buttons to your must-wipe list is a good idea.