One really easy, gratifying New Year’s project is cleaning out a closet, so why not start with your pantry. Here are some general guidelines for expirations of different food types as well as ideal storage conditions to minimize further waste or spoilage.
Moisture, heat, and light propel the spoilage of foods. For this reason, it is best to have a pantry in a cool, dark, dry (often enclosed or otherwise isolated) part of the kitchen. So if possible, don’t keep your spice collection right next to the stove. Airtight re-sealable containers are great for storing partially used ingredients or leftovers in the refrigerator, and can help prevent staling of items at room temperature.
When is it time to replace my pantry items?
In general, most dried herbs and spices can be kept for up to a year. Dried leafy herbs and whole spices can last 1-3 years, while ground spices sometimes have shorter life spans around 6 months. Dried herbs tend to lose flavor faster than dried spices. A good test is to rub a little bit between your fingers to see if it still gives off the proper aroma. Exercise common sense: if the color is severely faded, it will probably have lost some of its pungency, though it may still be usable. If you’re making your own blends from fresh herbs (such as fines herbes, barbeque mixes, curry and chili powder), they should keep in an airtight container for up to 1 month.
Leavening agents such as baking soda, baking powder, and active dry/instant yeast keep for up to a year. Fresh yeast should be refrigerated, ideally at 40 degrees Fahrenheit for 7-10 days, or frozen. Baking with old leaveners could result in flat, dense cookies, cakes, and breads, so make sure to replace these if in doubt.
Old flour can also produce similar results, so remember that flour should always be stored properly in airtight containers or sealed bags. All-purpose flours stay fresh for about a year, while whole grain flours will last about 6 months.
Granulated white sugar should keep indefinitely a cool, dry place. Brown sugars tend to harden and clump within months. For certain purposes, you can still use them if you’re reheating them, but for precise baking recipes, this may affect texture, and you should not re-store reheated sugar.
Cooking oils will vary, with most vegetable, peanut, olive, and corn oils keeping for up to six months once opened. Nut oils turn rancid much faster, which can easily be detected by taste if not smell. Oils can also be refrigerated but allowed to come to room temperature before use.
Most vinegars last almost indefinitely by nature.
What about perishables?
It is generally easy to determine whether fresh items are still usable through sight, feel, and smell.
For dairy, always buy items with the furthest expiration date, as these will be the freshest in stock. Sell and use by dates are good guidelines. Eggs can usually be kept in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks, and butter for about a month (or frozen for 6-9 months). It is common to keep shortening in the fridge so that it’s chilled for recipe use, but it can be stored at room temperature for a year.
With fresh meat and fish, you should adhere to the posted expiration or freeze-by dates (and don’t ever thaw and refreeze animal proteins).
What about freezing?
Depending on the type, most meat can be safely frozen for a matter of months. The FDA provides specific guidelines.
With both bread and meat, you can freeze them for months when wrapped in layers of plastic wrap or foil. Chocolate can be kept in the fridge or freezer. Nuts and flours can be stored in the freezer for months. Let them come to room temperature before using them in a recipe. Sauces, homemade pasta, bread, some leftovers, and cookies also freeze well for months (keep icings and frostings separate and apply before consumption).