Back in the day, a well-stocked home baker’s pantry might include all-purpose flour (or self rising, if you were a Southerner), bread and/or cake flour (if the baker was into cakes or bread), cornstarch, and degerminated cornmeal. All were kept in the cupboard or pantry and there was no need to worry about spoilage.
There are no “ordinary” home bakers today and the status of flours has become “complicated,” to say the least. For one thing, there are zillions of flours! If you bake with whole grains, make artisan breads, dabble in wheat-free recipes—or just generally take advantage of new baking ideas, an abundance of “alternate” flours, and endless recipe choices—you’ve probably got a gaggle of partially full bags secured (hopefully?) with rubber bands or tape and ready to tumble out of the fridge or cupboards.
How do I get a grip? I divide flours into two main categories: those that go rancid (whole grains, nuts, insects, etc.) and those that don’t (starches and white rice flour). I worry about the former more than the latter. Either way, I make sure all containers are well-sealed and easy to organize.
(Including the faux grain buckwheat flour)
Because they contain the germ of the grain seed, as well as the endosperm and the bran, these will go rancid with time and/or poor storage conditions (the package they come in will specify that they are whole grains, in case you are not sure).
Check “best by” or ‘’sell by” dates on the package. If stored at cool room temperature, plan to use flours by the “best by” date or within 3 months after the “sell by” date. Or, you can keep them for at least 6 months in the fridge or a year in the freezer.
Make it a habit to sniff every newly opened bag of flour, even if you are new to these flours and do not know how they should smell. If you get used to how they smell when fresh, you’ll be better able to tell when they are rancid. I sniff containers every time I use my flours, both for the pleasure of smelling the grain and to monitor freshness.
Once I open packages, or if I buy in bulk, I transfer flours that I use in large quantities or quite frequently to airtight containers that stack or stand upright. I mark the “sell by” or “use by” date on the container to reduce my own anxiety. If you do keep the flours in their original packages, fold the opening over a couple of times and secure well—I use binder clips from the office supply stores and swear by these for all bag-sealing jobs. Consider ganging these partial bags together into a bin, canister, or large zipper lock bag to keep a semblance of order.
Store often-used flour in a cool pantry. For flours you might not use up quickly (or if you're looking to buy time), find space in the fridge or freezer. I’m a fuddy-duddy when it comes to the freezer, so I double wrap: Put flour into a plastic freezer bag, press the air out, then either put the bag into a another freezer bag or in an airtight container with as little headroom as possible.
These are far more fragile and short-lived than are the whole nuts they are made from. Treat nut flours like whole grains, as they too go rancid. I usually keep them in the fridge or freezer so I don’t lose track of them in the pantry.
Starches like cornstarch and tapioca flour, as well as white rice flour and non-grain flours like coconut, don’t seem to spoil readily. These can be kept in the cupboard or pantry for at least a year, but perhaps indefinitely. I still like my airtight containers for these because they are keep things tidy and bug-free.
Anything ground into particulate form can be (and these days is often) called “flour.” If you buy insect flours, grape skin or grape seed flours, seed flours, fruit and vegetable flours, and (who knows) maybe even flower flours, read packages or go to websites for shelf life and storage info. Then get out your airtight containers and binder clips and start organizing.
Knowledgeable sources say AP flour lasts 1 to 2 years (!) in a sealed container at cool room temperature. As with other flours, I mark my container with the “best by date”.
In all cases, the “best by” date is not a drop dead date, but rather a conservative estimate on the part of the producer. If in doubt, give a sniff and to decide if you can use flour after the date. That being said, I try to regulate my buying habits so that ingredients are used at their very best.
While writing this post, I found 3 bags of flour with 6 year old “best by” dates. Thus I officially started my spring declutter campaign!
How do you keep your flours fresh? Share your tips in the comments below.