Storage Tips

How to Store Bulk Bin Essentials So You're Ready for Any Recipe

Whether you impulse-bought a 50-pound bag of flour or simply want to organize your dry goods.

February 24, 2021
Photo by James Ransom

Welcome to Storage Wars, a new series about the best ways to store, well, everything. From how to keep produce orderly in the fridge (or not), to ways to get your oddball nooks and crannies shipshape; and, yes, how to organize all those unwieldy containers once and for all—we've got you covered.


If we’ve gone grocery shopping together (or really, just spent any time together at all), chances are high you’ve heard me talk about how much I love the bulk bin. Nuts, grains, dry legumes, flours, pasta, dried fruit, snack mixes, granola: all so much more affordable than their packaged counterparts, and right there for the scooping up—please, stop me now. While early pandemic safety precautions paused some stores’ bulk bin operations, most have returned to their former glory—though I’ve had to bid farewell to the feeling of sheer joy that was snacking on a few chocolate-covered almonds or pieces of dried mango from my bulk haul while continuing to shop.

Of course, the real adventure with the bulk bin—or any ingredients purchased in bulk—begins when you return home, bags and bags of goods in hand. While I suppose you could simply toss those paper or plastic bags from the store directly into the pantry, this is also a great way to tempt a host of pantry pests, and trust me, you do not want that in your life. When it comes to storing bulk food, just keep in mind a few simple rules: Store everything in airtight containers; first in, first out; larger quantities = the best bang for your buck; but don’t buy in such bulk that you’re overwhelmed.

Personally, these rules became my lifeline last spring, when grocery stores were overrun by panicked shoppers who bought up all the boxes of pasta and cans of beans; small bags of rice and 5-pound or smaller bags of flour swiftly became a distant memory, as I always seemed to plan my twice-monthly grocery run before most items were restocked. When the restaurant supply company Baldor began selling bulk items to individuals at such inviting wholesale prices (we’re talking 25-pound bags of lentils for about a dollar a pound! 11-pound bags of farro for two bucks a pound! 50-pound bags of flour for just $30! But more on that last one in a bit), I just couldn’t resist. Though bulk items are a dream for the wallet and for reducing supermarket trips, there reaches a point where a pantry runneth over. Here’s how to store bulk food.


Store everything in airtight containers

Buy a fleet of identical airtight containers in a couple sizes (larger for flour, sugar, grains, and dry legumes; smaller for nuts and seeds or snack mixes). Options that are specifically designed to be stackable are great, but mason jars work just as well, and often come in more size varieties. When you bring bulk ingredients into the kitchen, immediately put each item in its respective container.


First in, first out

Though most dry goods last a while, the best rule of thumb is, as with produce or meat or leftovers, to use whichever items you bought first entirely before bringing in a fresh batch. It’s of course never a bad idea to pick up an extra pound of something you eat several times a week (for me, that’s rice, oats, lentils, and some kind of nut) on a whim; but for specialty items, say chickpea flour, it’s always best to use at least most of what you have before restocking.

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Larger quantities = the best bang for your buck

Because they’re not packaged and are bought by the store in larger quantities, bulk groceries are typically significantly less expensive than their boxed counterparts at the supermarket. Especially when it comes to items you eat regularly, the best way to buy (and store) bulk goods is in large quantities. I store most of these containers in my kitchen pantry, and when I hit overflow in that large-for-Manhattan-but-small-for-many-other-places panty, some go on top of the fridge, some go on top of my kitchen cabinets, and the rest are in a large lidded plastic tote that also lives in my kitchen.


But don’t buy in *such* bulk that you’re overwhelmed

…says me, a person who purchased a 50-pound bag of bread flour last April. I did split it with my family, who I was living with at the time, and two local friends (we did masked flour exchanges), but I’ll be honest, we’re still working through the thing. It’s currently sitting in a lidded plastic tote in my parents’ basement. Another friend who also purchased one of these absolute units of flour ingeniously stored hers in a (new and unused) trash can on wheels. Almost a year later, we’ve gone through probably about 30 to 40 pounds of it. In hindsight, I’d day we overdid it on this one. So please, do as I say (don’t overbuy bulk), not as I do, and keep your bulk storage in tip-top shape.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“First course correction: Don't arrive home with bags from the bulk bins. Take your storage containers with you to the store, have the staff "tare" the containers before you start shopping (weighing and marking the weight of the empty container on a piece of tape or sticker, for the checkout staff to deduct, once you've filled the container and are checking out), and then fill the containers directly from the bins. I leave small stickers or tape with the product number of the items on the container lids, which makes shopping quick, easy, and altogether waste free. I do this for spice jars as well. My excellent bulk foods store (Simply Bulk on Main St on downtown Longmont, CO) knows the weight of pint and quart mason jars, so I don't even have to stop by the counter to have those weighed. When I have some left over in the bottom of a container of an item I need to refresh, I simply put it in a small bowl or 4 or 8 ounce mason jar until I return. When shopping, I leave a bit of room at the top for that, so it's used first. Also, may I respectfully recommend here using wide-mouth quart and pint mason jars extensively? They're relatively low cost ($1 - 1.50 apiece when you buy them by the dozen) and the lids are interchangeable. That's handy when I go from having a quart of one item to having a pint or less, I can easily transfer, moving the lid (which is labeled with the name and product item from the bulk store) from one to the other. I also use 8 ounce and 4 ounce mason jars for spice blends, bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, etc., and items like baking soda, sugar (an adjunct to my large canister - so convenient when I need only a few teaspoons or tablespoons), tapioca starch, etc. ;o)”
— AntoniaJames
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Do you have any top-notch bulk storage tips? Sound off in the comments!
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Rebecca Firkser is the assigning editor at Food52. She used to wear many hats in the food media world: food writer, editor, assistant food stylist, recipe tester (sometimes in the F52 test kitchen!), recipe developer. Her writing has appeared in TASTE, The Strategist, Eater, and Bon Appetit's Healthyish and Basically. She contributed recipes and words to the book "Breakfast: The Most Important Book About the Best Meal of the Day." Once upon a time, she studied theatre design and art history at Smith College, so if you need a last-minute avocado costume or want to talk about Wayne Thiebaud's cakes, she's your girl. She tests all recipes with Diamond Crystal kosher salt. You can follow her on Instagram @rebeccafirkser.

3 Comments

J February 24, 2021
Great piece! I’ve lived the horror of pantry moths! First: I’m writing this in February. DO leave any grains that you purchase in your car for at least a couple of days at freezing temperature. Or—just figure out how to make it fit—freeze newly-purchased grains in your own freezer for at least two days. Finally: those nasty little critters can actually burrow through plastic containers. Rubbermaid, not just cheap deli. Yup. So, if you cannot implement a freezing protocol, please store grains in glass containers. Preferably in the fridge. And do buy “Pantry Pest” cardboard tent thingies to thwart any lingering invaders. My infestation was perhaps 30 years ago, but I will never, ever forget it, nor ever fail to take precautions.
 
AntoniaJames February 24, 2021
First course correction: Don't arrive home with bags from the bulk bins. Take your storage containers with you to the store, have the staff "tare" the containers before you start shopping (weighing and marking the weight of the empty container on a piece of tape or sticker, for the checkout staff to deduct, once you've filled the container and are checking out), and then fill the containers directly from the bins. I leave small stickers or tape with the product number of the items on the container lids, which makes shopping quick, easy, and altogether waste free. I do this for spice jars as well. My excellent bulk foods store (Simply Bulk on Main St on downtown Longmont, CO) knows the weight of pint and quart mason jars, so I don't even have to stop by the counter to have those weighed.

When I have some left over in the bottom of a container of an item I need to refresh, I simply put it in a small bowl or 4 or 8 ounce mason jar until I return. When shopping, I leave a bit of room at the top for that, so it's used first.

Also, may I respectfully recommend here using wide-mouth quart and pint mason jars extensively? They're relatively low cost ($1 - 1.50 apiece when you buy them by the dozen) and the lids are interchangeable. That's handy when I go from having a quart of one item to having a pint or less, I can easily transfer, moving the lid (which is labeled with the name and product item from the bulk store) from one to the other. I also use 8 ounce and 4 ounce mason jars for spice blends, bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, etc., and items like baking soda, sugar (an adjunct to my large canister - so convenient when I need only a few teaspoons or tablespoons), tapioca starch, etc. ;o)
 
Liz S. February 24, 2021
A resounding YES to taking my own containers! In my area, currently this is not allowed ... but I think we all need to get behind this. It reduces all kinds of waste and especially plastic stuff. I have transitioned quite a lot of items to "non new containers" but there are still things: white vinegar for example, that I am not able to buy except in plastic.

I am a 1 human household (a dog and a cat reside with me) ... and I live in rural NW Montana, but sometimes on the road in a motorhome. Both (rural and RV) as well as generally hoping to not contribute to plastic in the ocean, trash in general and waste ... a work in progress for me. I have tended to keep pantry/frig/freezer in whichever location, in a state that does not REQUIRE me to shop, i.e. I try to shop at minimal intervals: 2-3-4 weeks. Easier as a single than for a family, but still ...

"Storage Wars" ... HA!!, I look forward to the discussions :)