Flour goes bad. Tea loses antioxidants. After one year, even oil can get smelly. Yet homeowners hang on to these pantry staples for months, years and, in some cases, decades beyond their expiration dates.
A kitchen rife with spoiled food may be common, but it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s the slow-growing result of repeatedly buying ingredients before doing a pantry check and then stashing them in a cabinet corner and forgetting about them. Holiday cooking, baking and house prep only exacerbate such pantry problems. Come New Year’s, though, it’s time to clean up.
Lisa Ruff, director of business development for luxury home organization company Neat Method, recommends at least two full-on pantry cleanings every year. And by “full-on,” she means full-on.
“The two most important steps are starting with a blank slate and editing,” she told HuffPost. “Pull everything out. You never know what may be hidden in the back of a shelf. Then look at the expiration dates and compost anything that’s expired.”
Toss these expired ingredients.
While they don’t expire as quickly as fresh ingredients, most packaged ingredients do go bad at some point. Jill Nystul, founder and owner of the lifestyle blog One Good Thing by Jillee, recommends keeping an eye on the aging of these commonly overlooked items:
Flour: Refined flour can last up to two years in an airtight container, while whole grain flours go bad within two to three months at room temperature or up to six months in the freezer, Nystul told HuffPost.
Spices: If a spice tastes like it has lost its potency, it probably has. Nystul suggests keeping spices for no longer than six months.
Canned goods: You can store low-acidity canned vegetables anywhere from two to five years, according to Nystul. Tomatoes and other high-acidity canned goods should be used within 18 months.
Oils: Most stay good for about one year, but sesame, grapeseed, walnut and avocado oils have shorter shelf lives. Keep an eye on changes in color and smell to be safe, Nystul said.
Tea: Tea is a handy health staple, but tea bags can lose valuable antioxidants after sitting on a shelf too long. “Try to keep your collection small so it turns over a couple times a year,” Nystul said.
Oats: The healthy oils in oats and other whole grains can go rancid. Nystul recommends buying only four to six months’ worth of oats at a time and then freezing any leftover supply.
Baking soda: When expired, baking soda gets smelly and loses its fizzing powder. “Count on about six months for an open package,” Nystul said.
While the majority of items in your pantry will go bad at some point, there are two staples you don’t have to worry about: sugar and salt. “Effectively, they last forever,” Nystul said.
Are expired ingredients actually bad?
Expired ingredients may lose their potency, but for the most part, they’re harmless. Nystul recommends keeping a close eye on rancid-prone ingredients like flour to guarantee you’re serving the best meals possible.
“Flour is the primary ingredient in baking and the one most likely to affect your baked goods,” she said. “Flour doesn’t harbor bacteria that cause food poisoning or food spoilage, and the oven’s heat during baking would kill them anyway — but it’ll taste and smell terrible.”
Optimize storage for preservation.
To keep ingredients in optimal shape longer, you may need to switch up where you store them. “Storing ingredients directly above or beside your oven will shorten their shelf lives, as will a humid climate,” Nystul said
Airtight containers can also prolong the life of pantry items ― and stackable containers make organization much easier. The key, though, is remembering the expiration dates on what’s inside.
“When you put your baking supplies into containers for better pantry organization, make a second smaller label that has the date you filled the container and the expiration date from the product’s packaging,” Nystul advised. “Using a small handheld labeler is perfect for this.”
Keep an organized pantry throughout the year.
Just like a neat closet, a reorganized pantry will only stay tidy for so long. To prevent the pantry from descending into disorder again, Ruff coaches her clients to rethink their setup entirely.
“For quick access, create zones in your pantry, like dinner prep, breakfast, and kid snacks,” Ruff said. “That way you always know where something is and whether you need to restock.”
And that should cut down the overbuying that encouraged the pantry mess in the first place.