Pantry

The Real Shelf Life of Pantry Items (& When to Pay Attention to Expiration Dates)

May 19, 2015

Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.

Today: Inspired by the new porcelain spice funnels in our Shop—and the fact that winter has expired—we're taking a look at what pantry items may have expired, too. Time to reach in the back of the cupboard to see what stays and what goes.

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Everyone desires the proverbial well-stocked pantry that, at the drop of a hat, has the ingredient you need to make that obscure Indian dish you saw on a website (is that Food52?!).

However, a well-stocked pantry may mean that you’ve had some ingredients for a while—too long, mayhaps? How often do you get to use those whole cardamom pods you bought for a breakfast bowl and never found opportunity to use again? (Side note: Here are some ideas.) And you bought all those canned vegetables at the grocery store when they were on sale, but how long will they actually last?

We’re here to deliver the answers. Here are 10 pantry items that have surprising real expiration dates:

Dried pasta: Up to 2 years
Pasta is a staple of every pantry, and when stored properly, some say it can last indefinitely! However, for the best quality, the USDA and most sources recommend keeping pasta no more than 2 years. Store it in an airtight container (the sealed box is also fine) in a cool, dry place, as the pasta is affected by extreme temperatures and humidity. Toss expired dried pasta if the noodles appear blotchy or discolored or if you find insects, egg cases, or larvae in the noodles—obviously.

 

Whole-grain rice and milled rice: Up to 6 months and indefinitely, respectively
Interestingly, whole-grain rice and milled rice have very different shelf lives. Whole-grain (brown, red, or black) rice deteriorates faster than milled rice (white, parboiled or pre-cooked) because of the oils in its natural bran layer. When stored in an airtight container, whole-grain rice has a shelf life of 6 months. To make it last longer, stash it in the refrigerator or freezer. On the other hand, if stored properly, milled rice (white, parboiled or pre-cooked) will keep almost indefinitely on the pantry shelf, so says the USA Rice Federation. Store it in a cool, dry place in a tightly closed container that keeps out dust, moisture, and other contaminants.

 

White and whole-grain flours: 6 to 9 months and up to 3 months, respectively
We’re seeing a pattern! Like rice, whole-grain flour doesn’t last as long as white flour because the oils from the germ and bran become rancid with age. However, neither last forever. Whole-grain flour will keep for about 3 months and white flour will keep for 6 to 9 months. For the best shelf life, store flour in an airtight container in a cupboard or dry, cool area. If flour isn’t stored correctly, then its mortal enemy, moisture, will get to it and make it clumpy. Moisture also may attract Psocids, which are tiny brown or black insects that live in dry foods (an undeniable sign of spoilage).

Tip: Instead of turning a pantry item every which way searching for the expiration date, clearly label it with the “best by” date or the date that you bought it.

 

Canned goods: Up to 2 years
Fun fact: NPR said that in 1974, National Food Lab tested a can of corn, “vintage” 1934, and found it perfectly edible—albeit lacking in as many nutrients as a, let’s say, younger can of corn. Despite this news, we think that when it comes to decades-old food, it’s better safe than sorry. A good rule of thumb is to throw out any cans that are 2 years old. Canned tomato sauce or tomatoes keep for 12 to 18 months—the natural chemicals of high-acid foods such as these continually react with the container, causing taste and textural changes and lower nutritional value over time. Low-acid foods like canned green beans may keep for up to 5 years. Store canned foods and other shelf stable products in a cool, dry place. Never put them above or beside the stove, under the sink, in a damp garage or basement, or any place exposed to extreme temperatures.

More: Go-to canned goods and the best meals to make with them.

 

Olive oil: Up to 20 months
Olive oil is a delicate substance. It should be used within 20 months, although most say you shouldn’t keep more than 1 to 2 months’ worth at a time. There are three threats to olive oil: heat, light, and air. It’s best to keep olive oil in a dark-tinted glass or ceramic container with a pour top or tight-sealing cap. Dark plastic bottles or metal containers may contaminate the olive oil. If you purchase a large amount of olive oil that comes in a plastic or metal container, you may want to transfer a small amount, say 7 to 10 days’ worth, to a ceramic, sealable container and keep the rest in a dark, cool place. However, it’s a myth that storing olive oil in the refrigerator makes it last longer. No need to crowd your fridge with extra bottles.

 

Bread crumbs: 6 months
Bread crumbs are dried, so they last longer than regular bread. If kept away from moisture, which leads to mold, they can last up to 6 months. Keep in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. If stored properly, they may even last longer, though do check for mold or a worrisome smell to judge if bread crumbs have gone bad.

 

Baking powder: 6 to 12 months
Unlike its cousin, baking soda, which lasts indefinitely, baking powder’s sensitivity to moisture leads to an early expiration date. Baking powder should be kept in an airtight container (the snap-on cover of the bottle it came in is fine) and stored in a cool, dry place. Luckily, there’s an easy way to test the freshness of your baking powder: Simply combine some hot water with a teaspoon of baking powder. If the powder fizzes, keep it; if not, toss it.

 

 

Chocolate bars and chips: 4 to 6 months and up to 2 years, respectively
You may ask why we would bother including the shelf life of chocolate, because who keeps it long enough for expiration to be a concern? Well, just in case we have a chocolate hoarder out there, bars will last 4 to 6 months, according to Vosges Haut-Chocolat. They can last up to 8 months if kept in the freezer. Store chocolate in a tightly closed container or sealed in plastic wrap to keep out moisture and contaminants, since it absorbs the flavors of nearby foods. Nestlé Toll House claims that chocolate chips will last up to 2 years on the shelf.

 

 

Spices: 6 to 12 months
There are varying opinions on the shelf life of spices, and it all comes down to safety versus quality. Karen Page, author of The Flavor Bible, believes that ground spices only last 6 to 12 months, while McCormick says they last even longer at 3 to 4 years. Whole spices generally last longer than ground spices. While spices are still safe to eat for up to 4 years, we recommend replacing them every year for quality assurance. Older spices won’t harm you, but potency is drastically reduced after one year. Your spices are deterioriating if their color is fading and if they have an unappetizing odor. Store your spices in airtight containers to protect them from moisture; make sure the spoons you dip into spice bottles are dry, and never pour directly from your spice bottle into a steaming pot. 

 

Spirits: 6 to 8 months
Most sources will tell you that spirits will last indefinitely, but we’re here to tell you that only sealed bottles last forever; opened bottles are another story. While distilled spirits don't necessarily go bad, their quality decreases over time due to evaporation and oxidation. Ethan Kelley, Head Spirit Sommelier and Beverage Director for the Brandy Library, says that from the industry standard, most opened bottles are good for 6 to 8 months. For those less strict, bottles can last 8 months to about a year. Any longer than that and the alcohol will begin to evaporate—we wouldn’t want that! Spirits also will start to oxidize and flatten if kept too long. Liquor will deteriorate faster if you keep the bottle in a warm place. Cream liqueurs that contain dairy, cream, or egg (such as Bailey's Irish Cream) should be thrown out after about 18 months. Store your liquor bottles at room temperature, upright, and tightly sealed.

Then there are those pantry items that last forever and ever and ever. They are:

  • Sugar
  • Vinegar
  • Vanilla extract
  • Milled rice
  • Honey
  • Salt
  • Cornstarch
  • Baking soda

What methods do you use to keep your pantry organized and refreshed?

15 Comments

Nicole S. July 20, 2018
Dark chocolate, 70% and higher cacao content, keeps for years. Some keep better than others. For a while one very reputable company was selling chocolate that was years out of date, technically, as vintage.<br />You might like reading the website: Chocolate Ratings for more than 400 reviews of chocolate, mostly dark, from around the globe.<br />
 
Peggy Z. November 20, 2016
Up north, I routinely stored dry goods in paper bags, plastic bags, sealed boxes, etc without much thought. Southwest Florida is an entirely different story. Here the inside temperature rarely gets below 75 because it would cost a fortune and, in reality, what you really want to do is remove humidity so my thermostat has a temperature and a humidity setting. When the temperature or humidity rises above this setting, the A/C kicks on. I like to keep the temperature around 77 and the humidity around 50%. One thing different about FL is that there is all manner of wildlife. Once could call FL the land of bugs! I keep everything that doesn't come in glass or metal cans in glass containers or very heavy plastic containers or in the refrigerator. Ants can and will chew through thinner plastic cannisters and, of course, paper, cardboard, plastic bags even some thinner plastic containers that, for instance, parmesan come in. for smaller items like spices, I usually put the jar in a large vacuum seal bag with the lid loosely closed on top and do the vacuum thing but no seal. the air is sucked out of the container and the loose cap seals down on the container after the vacuum bag is released. Outside air pressure keeps the lid firmly sealed but I usually screw it down or whatever to put the cap firmly in place so it can't be knocked loose accidentally. Besides ants, we have numerous types of cockroaches including those huge palmetto bugs and they all fly or can creep in through the tiniest cracks. We also have "house geckos" that live indooors and voraciously eat insects. Some consider them pests and some consider them welcome. I had a problem with small black dung flies that suddenly erupted in my cat's litter box. I did the appropriate pest control applications and hung a no pest strip from the ceiling over the litter box. Not only did I catch a whole lot of these very tiny flies but two of my house geckos were ensnared trying to walk down the pest strip to get to a tasty meal. Here in SW FL, geckos are so ubiquitous it is nearly impossible to keep them out of your house - they may dart inside anytime you open your doors (garage door included). My cat loves to play with the geckos and tree frogs and rare palmetto bugs that get inside. In any case, apparently, the house geckos are are not predators of the ants. The most common ant invaders are the tiny "big headed ants". No matter what you do or how much pesticide you use on the perimeter or how many ant baits you put out you can only get rid of them for a limited amount of time (maybe 2-3 months) before they are back. Not only can you not leave anything out in the open like dirty dishes or fruit, they invade the oven and dishwasher too! Heaven forbid that you fail to clean out the crumb tray in your toaster after every use or leave dirty dishes on the counter for just a few minutes or not use the seal feature of my foodsaver on chip bags because you will find hundreds of tiny ants. If I want to leave dirty dishes for later when I have guests, I have to fill the sink with a bit of water and stack them so they won't touch the walls. Ants won't cross the water. Up north I purchased a whole set of plastic cannisters that had relatively thin walls. They sealed tightly and I thought everything would be fine. When I moved to FL, the ants drilled right through to the sugar inside. Parmesan cheese in the Kraft Plastic Bottle isn't safe either! When it comes from the grocery store, everything in paper, plastic or cardboard instantly goes into glass, glass/metal or metal containers. I do have a few very thick acrylic containers but they tend to spontaneously crack here in FL.
 
Gammy June 25, 2018
Peggy, you definitely have a problem with those ants. We have lived in St. Petersburg, FL for over 40 years and know well the problem one can have with ants. I have a couple of tricks for you to try: 1.) Purchase some boric acid crystals (drug store) and scatter the powder both along the perimeter of your house and more importantly, inside the bottom back of your cabinets. It has a very low-to-no toxicity to humans but when ants or roaches walk in it, then groom they ingest it and die. 2.) look for a product called "Terro" at Publix or Ace Hardware. It has been around for ages. It it a mix of boric acid and a sugar sweetener with the consistency of corn syrup. You place a drop on a small piece of paper and put near an ant trail. The buggers are drawn to it, eat it up and take back to their colony. It works slowly, but then again you will not be breathing bug spray in your home either. We get little ants about once a year and with using the Terro solution the are gone in a couple days.
 
Maggie October 12, 2015
Milled chia seed will also last forever
 
Nicole S. July 20, 2018
Thank you! Very helpful.
 
connie M. September 6, 2015
The way pantry items are stored also depends on where you live. I moved from NC to FL. In NC you really didn't have to worry about putting open packages of anything back the pantry. Shortly after moving I purchased pasta at an Italian market. Within a week everything was infected with tiny little mealy bugs. Every single thing had to be dumped into plastic bags and put out for garbage. (Flours, rice, pastas, cornmeal, sugars, cereals everything but canned goods) The exterminater said eggs can exist on pasta for decades until the right enviornment for hatching occurs. He said that his wife will never eat pasta. I now store everything in tight lid special glass containers as soon as I come home from the grocery. This way if something is infected it can't ruin everything in my pantry.
 
Judy R. July 24, 2015
I keep my spices and dried herbs in the freezer . Does this extend the shelf life???? It seems to .
 
TerriH July 13, 2015
Honey will crystallize over time. Warming it in hot water will restore it but the taste will be affected if done too much.
 
Dee G. July 8, 2015
For baking soda, when I buy it for baking and I still have it past the expiration date, I rotate it over to my cleaning products. It's a great "green" cleanser.
 
G E. June 8, 2015
Discarding dried spices after 6 to 12 months is nonsense. A few centuries ago it took that long to transport the dried spices from where they were grown to market.
 
heidi L. June 4, 2015
Read Waste Free Kitchen Handbook by Dana Gunders. It is a new book written by a Stanford educated food scientist explaining how much food waste and food can really last much longer than what we are made to believe.
 
AntoniaJames May 19, 2015
I have limited space for spices in my primary cupboard. I buy almost all of my spices and dried herbs in bulk (the Food Mill in Oakland), so I keep overflow, organized in small plastic sandwich bags (which I re-use) within small storage boxes (organized by ground/whole spices and herbs) in a tightly lidded larger storage box in my garage. <br /><br />The keys to managing and using in a timely fashion? I keep a spice inventory of running low / what's in the overflow box in a note on my phone. No unnecessary shopping, no over-shopping, and I almost always have on hand whatever I need, when I need it. <br /><br />Once I month I survey my other staples and put "older" items into my menu plan within a few weeks. I update my shopping list at the same time. <br /><br />;o)
 
Manny R. May 26, 2015
Do you find that the spices go stale even though it sounds like you're storing them properly since they were exposed to air when bagging them up?
 
Sally D. May 19, 2015
Baking soda outdates for sure!
 
wutsfasupa May 20, 2015
Agree about baking soda, at least if using as leavening.<br />