Spring cleaning: Conquer pantries

Published on Wednesday, 2 April 2014 00:36 - Written by Christine Gardner, food@tylerpaper.com

I was beginning to wonder if winter would ever end. But in the last week, the flowers are blooming, grass turning green and bright sunny days bring fresh air, new life and the energy to tackle some of those projects we relegate to spring cleaning.

I started my spring cleaning in the kitchen and found many dishes, appliances, gadgets and canned goods that were perfect for donating.

As I moved into the pantry, there were many items I found questionable. Keep, toss or donate? What has expired and which items still have shelf life? Most things have a ‘sell by’ or ‘best if used by’ date, but once something is opened, then what?

It’s a question I get from many readers so I started to research some of the most popular pantry items.

Many food manufacturers recommend dry, cool and dark pantries. Ideally, the temperature in the pantry should be 50 to 70 degrees. Higher temperatures speed up deterioration.

Four factors affect food storage:

Temperature: Find a place where the temperature remains constant. Frequent temperature changes shorten storage life.

Product moisture content: Products with low moisture content like dried beans, pasta and rice have the longest shelf life.

Food storage container: As long as the item is unopened leave it in its original packaging. Once opened, if the item did not come in a sealable container transfer it to a vessel that can be closed with a lid or sealable closure.

Storage container environment: Shelf life can be extended when oxygen is removed from the container. (Example: vacuum-packed)

Food Items

All-Purpose flour: One year from manufacture date if stored at temperatures less than 80 degrees and 70 percent humidity. Place in sealable container after opening bag. (General Mills)

Whole wheat flour: Whole wheat flour has a shorter shelf life. If stored properly in airtight containers, most whole grain flour will keep up to 3 months in a cool, dry place or up to 6 months in the freezer.  (Whole Grains Council)

Salt: The salt itself does not expire but added ingredients, such as iodine, may reduce shelf life. The shelf life of iodized salt is about 5 years. (Morton Salt)

Pepper: Whole peppercorns 4 years, ground black pepper 2 years.

Honey: Honey stored in sealed containers can remain stable indefinitely. However, honey is susceptible to physical and chemical changes during storage; it tends to darken and lose its aroma and flavor. For practical purposes, a shelf-life of two years is often stated. Ideal temperature storage is between 64 and 75 degrees. (National Honey Board)

Sugar: Stored in a dry place with a tight lid, sugar has an indefinite shelf life. However sugar substitutes and stevia products have a shelf life of one year. (Domino Sugar)

Brown sugar: Even though the shelf life of brown sugar is indefinite, it’s best to use within six months for maximum flavor. Don’t store brown sugar in the refrigerator. Keep brown sugar soft by adding a slice of white bread to the storage container. (Domino Sugar)

Chocolate: Most chocolate is at its best flavor for one year after manufacture. Ingredients, such as nuts, will shorten the shelf life. Products kept beyond the recommended ‘best before’ date may have flavor loss or texture changes.

Storage conditions greatly affect the shelf life of the chocolate. Solid chocolate products will maintain their quality if well wrapped and stored at 55 to 60 degrees. Refrigerating is not recommended. Chocolate kept in the refrigerator may sweat when brought to room temperature.

If your chocolate has turned tan or white, it is because the cocoa butter is sensitive to heat and humidity. Temperatures above 75 degrees will cause chocolate to melt and the cocoa butter can rise to the surface and form a discoloration.

Condensation on milk or semi-sweet chocolate may also cause the sugar to dissolve and rise to the surface. It is still safe to use, but flavor loss and texture changes may be noticed. (Hershey)

Cocoa: Considered a nonperishable item which should maintain quality if stored at room temperature in a tightly sealed container. (Hershey)

Oils: Store olive oil for up to 2 years in a place that is away from heat and light in an airtight container. Refrigerating extra virgin olive oil will cause it to lose its good-for-you antioxidants and polyphenols. (Pompeian)

Vinegar: When stored properly, vinegars can last indefinitely. However, 2 years is the recommended shelf life from many vinegar producers. The acid nature of vinegar is self-preserving and does not need refrigeration. (Pompeian)

Coffee: Whole beans, sealed at room temperature or frozen, should be used within 6 months. Opened cans of ground coffe should be used within 4 to 6 weeks. Opened containers of instant coffee should be used within 2 weeks. (Sweet Gourmet)

Tea: Tea does not expire, but a shelf life of 2 years from production is recommended. It is fine to drink after two years, but it will have some loss of flavor. Refrigeration and freezing are not recommended as condensation may be created by taking the tea out of the cold unit and may affect the flavor of the blend. (Tetley)

Canned goods: Use within 1 year or ‘best by’ date. (Texas A&M Extension Service)

Dried pasta: Nonegg pastas have a shelf life of 3 years and egg pastas have a shelf life of 2 years. (Skinner Pasta)

Rice: White rice lasts 2 years and brown rice 1 year.

Beans: In sealable plastic bags, dried beans have a shelf life of 1 year or more. They have an indefinite shelf life if stored in the absence of oxygen and light. 

Colder storage temperatures will increase shelf life. In vacuum-packed bags, they have a shelf life of 10 or more years.

Nuts: Unopened nuts sold in airtight packages have a ‘best by’ date on the package. Once the package is opened, there is only a 1- to 2-week shelf life. Store opened packages of nuts in a covered container, in a cool, dark place. For longer storage, nuts can be refrigerated or frozen. Refrigeration extends the shelf life to about four weeks. (Planters)

Peanut butter: Unopened and stored in a cool, dry area, peanut butter will last about two years. After opening, you can keep peanut butter about three months on the pantry shelf. Unopened natural peanut butter spread will last one year. (Jif)

Cornstarch: Store in original container and close tightly. Corn starch may be stored indefinitely if it is kept dry. (Argo)

Baking powder: The shelf life of properly stored baking powder can be 6 months to a year after it has been opened.  The ‘best-if-used-by’ date on the bottom of the can is the useful date of an unopened can of baking powder.  Once the can is opened, moisture in the air will cause the baking powder to react slowly, releasing some of its leavening ability over a period of time. Many people prefer to change their baking powder every 3 months to ensure freshness. Refrigerator or freezer storage is not recommended and does not extend life. (Clabber Girl)

Baking soda: As used for cooking, baking soda has a shelf life of three years. (Arm & Hammer)

Spices & Extracts

The shelf life listed below is approximate and only if stored properly. It is best to follow the ‘best by’ dates on the products.  McCormick has used ‘best by’ dates on spices, herbs, extracts and recipe mixes since 2004.

If your product does not have a ‘best by’ date it is beyond the recommended shelf life.  If you need assistance with a shelf life question, McCormick offers a hotline number, 1-800-632-5847.

Spices and herbs should not be stored in the freezer. Freezing does not extend the shelf life of regularly used dried spices and herbs. Bottles may develop condensation, which can accelerate loss of flavor and aroma.

Ground spices: (chili powder, cinnamon, ground pepper, allspice, ginger, mustard, etc.) 3 to 4 years

Whole spices: (cloves, peppercorns, nutmeg, cinnamon sticks, etc.) 4 years

Leafy herbs: (oregano, basil, cilantro, thyme, etc.) 1 to 3 years

Bottled seasoning blends: (lemon pepper, garlic salt, steak, chicken, Italian seasonings, etc.) 1 to 2 years

Extracts (except pure vanilla) and food colors: 4 years

Pure Vanilla: Indefinitely

Recipe mixes: (come in packets for gravy, taco, spaghetti, chili, etc.) 2 years

Next week we will continue the spring cleaning by moving to the refrigerator. If you have questions regarding the shelf life of particular items, emailfood@tylerpaper.com and I will include the answer in next week’s column.