We are fortunate enough to have Kira Cowan, TipHero Editor, share some of her wisdom with us. Read on and learn the secrets of shelf life and expiration dates…
Shelf life, or the length of time a packaged food will last without deterioration, is very important to know if you have or desire a well-stocked pantry. A pantry can greatly aid you in your attempts to be frugal in the kitchen. There are many things you should know about pantry items, however, before you can be a true pantry master. What are the shelf lives of some of the most popular pantry items? How can you store items so that they will last longer? How do you know if a pantry item has gone bad? Read on, my friends. Read on.
What do the Dates on the Packaging Mean?
Knowing the difference between when something has gone bad and when something is just not at its absolute best quality is extremely important. Throwing away food just because of a “use by” date could be a waste of money and perfectly good food. Let’s wade through the “use-by, best-by, expires-on, sell-by” lingo to uncover what those dates actually mean with some help from StillTasty.com.
- Use By, Best if Used By, Best Before: this information is given by the manufacturer and informs you as to how long the product should remain at optimal quality. These dates are NOT safety dates. Long after the date, the product may begin to change in texture, color or flavor, but you can still generally consume items beyond that date (considering you’ve been storing the item properly). Always be sure to discard items that have an off odor or flavor. In general, though, you can consult the estimated shelf life of the item in question (see below) if you’re unsure if something is still safe to eat.
- Sell By: these dates, typically found on perishables like meat, poultry and milk, are guides for stores to know how long they can keep an item on display. Even if you buy an item a day before the sell-by date, you can still store it safely and use it. For example, refrigerated milk will typically remain drinkable for about a week after its sell-by date.
- Packing Codes: usually a series of numbers and letters on the package that refer to the date and/or time of manufacture. You don’t need to pay attention to these, as they are meant mostly to help the manufacturer quickly stock and locate items.
- Expires On: this is the one that means serious business. You should always use an item before its expiration date.
So, What Are the Shelf Lives of Some Popular Pantry Items?
If the packaging doesn’t denote when an item expires, that doesn’t mean the item is good forever (unfortunately). Mostly everything perishes or goes bad. Here are the shelf lives of a few popular staples according to Slash Food.
- All-Purpose Flour: 12 months unopened, 6-8 months opened
- Granulated Sugar: 2 years unopened, 6 months opened (note: there are some other sources that say sugar can last forever unopened)
- Brown Sugar: 4 months unopened, 4 months opened (in freezer)
- Baking Soda: 18 months unopened, 6 months opened
- Baking Powder: 6 months unopened, 3 months opened
- Tomato Products: 1-2 years unopened
- Fruit Juices: 1-2 years unopened
- Soups: 3-5 years unopened
- Vegetables: 3-4 years unopened
Other Good Stuff
- Pasta (dried, no eggs): 2 years unopened, 1 year opened
- Salad Dressings: 1 year unopened
- Ground Coffee: 2 years unopened, 2 weeks opened (in refrigerator)
- Jams and Jellies: 1 year unopened
- Peanut Butter: 6-9 months unopened, 2-3 months opened
Note: There are two rules that trump shelf life information. If something smells or looks bad, no matter what its shelf life is supposed to be, throw it away! Also, if there is an expiration date printed on the packaging, go by that as opposed to its supposed shelf life.
What To Do With This Information
A well-stocked pantry is a very important thing to have for many reasons. Firstly, pantry items are what will help you and your family in case of an emergency. Items that have a shelf life of months or years will keep you nourished if, for some unspeakable reason, you are unable to leave your home. Secondly, quick and healthy and frugal meals can be made easily from items in your pantry. Thirdly, buying in bulk can be a money saver when the item A) is featured at an outstanding price, and B) has a long shelf life and will last until you have the opportunity to use it. Fourthly, the well-stocked pantry can often save you from running to the store for that one item you need for your recipe. Running out for that one (or two) item(s) can lead to buying more that you didn’t anticipate. Keeping an organized pantry full of your staples seems like one of the most frugal things you can do in the kitchen.
To make sure you use your pantry items before their shelf lives have expired, make sure to label them with the date of purchase. That way, you’ll easily be able to tell how long the item has been hanging around your home. A quick glance online will tell you how long the shelf life of the item is and you can determine what needs to be thrown away and when.
Preserving Your Staples
Is there anything you can do to make sure you get the longest possible shelf life from your pantry items? There sure is! Here are some general tips from Demesne.
- Preserve foods in a cool, dry and dark location.
- Secure food packaging before storing.
- If you buy dry foods in bulk, vacuum seal to further extend the storage period.
- Always use your oldest stock first when pulling items from the pantry. Rotate pantry items on a normal basis.
- Refrigerate opened items such as ketchup and mustard. They will last longer in the fridge at that point than on the shelf.
MSNBC offers some more specific storage tips for keeping pantry items from spoiling.
- Flour: don’t keep flour in those bags that they’re sold in. When you bring it home, transfer it to an airtight container that’s wide enough to fit a dry measuring cup. That way, flour avoids the humidity that will lessen its quality.
- Sweetners: be sure to keep all sweetners in airtight containers. If brown sugar hardens after a few months, place the sugar in a bowl, add a slice of bread, cover the bowl, and microwave for 10-20 seconds. Fun fact: Honey and molasses kept at room temperature last forever!
- Oils: light is the enemy of oil, so avoid storing oils in clear bottles out in the open. Olive oil is best if used within a year of its harvest date, but only if stored properly. Keep it tucked away in a cool pantry. If you are unsure about an oil (sesame, canola, vegetable, olive) being usable, heat some of it in a skillet. If it produces a weird smell, toss the bottle.
Just For Fun
Just for kicks, wouldn’t it be fun to know what foods have the longest shelf life? Contrary to popular belief, canned items are not high on that list. They lose their texture and nutritional value after about 9 months. Apart from honey (which is the only food I’ve come across that seems to last “forever” on its own), Adam from eHow writes that there are 3 types of food that will last for decades. Here’s what he came up with:
- Vacuum-Packed Dried Foods: vacuum packing food deprives it of oxygen, and therefore prevents bacteria from growing. Vacuum-packed foods such as jerky, nuts, veggies and soy products will last much longer than any canned food.
- Nitrogen-Packed Canned Foods: these are freeze-dried and packed into cans using an oxygen removing process and flushing the can with nitrogen. Foods packed in this way can last up to 30 years.
- Freeze-Dried Foods: these foods are cooked and then flash frozen. Through a process called sublimation, 98 percent of the food moisture is eliminated and the food is resistant to spoilage.
So if you are looking for some intense survival food, those three types of food definitely seem like viable options. You may not want to live off of these on a daily basis if you don’t need to though. Mealtime could get pretty boring pretty fast.
What are some of your best tips for storing your food for optimal quality? What are some foods that you keep in your pantry that you feel like you never have to replace?
Check out these other great Tip Hero articles about food storage:
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