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

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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?

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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?

Tags: pantry, expiration, spices, quality