How To Ensure Pantry Products Are Fresh and Safe To Eat

This is the fourth and final article in our Boomerater series about Fresh Foods and Food Safety: How to buy, how long to keep, what to toss out, and how to store fresh foods and pantry items. This week we are exploring how long to keep pantry items and the best way to store them.

When you are caring to make sure your fresh foods are at top quality and safe to eat it is easy to overlook the freshness of the products in your pantry. While you probably won't get sick from stale pantry products, your baking will surely suffer. And food safety can be a concern. As a rule of thumb, try to store pantry foods below 70 degrees, away from heat. Reserve cabinets over the stove, near the dishwasher or by the refrigerator exhaust for dishes, pans and containers.

Here are tips on specific types of pantry products:

  • Canned vegetables can be especially dangerous; it is important to know the signs that the product may be spoiled. If you notice anything odd, do not use the product. Bulging, bubbling and any other abnormality is an indication that the food could cause food poisoning. Also be sure to refrigerate left over fresh cooked vegetables. Green beans or baked beans mistakenly left out overnight are not safe to eat the next day.
  • Baking powder and baking soda will lose their ability to add lift to your baked goods. Sealed tightly they should last up to 24 months. One way to tell if baking powder is still active is to pour ¼ cup hot tap water over ½ teaspoon baking powder. If it bubbles actively it's still good.
  • Yeast should be stored in a cool dry place and used within four months. Opened yeast should be sealed tight and stored in the refrigerator. To test if yeast is still active mix an envelope with 1 teaspoon sugar and ¼ cup warm water in a measuring cup. After 10 minutes, if the yeast foams up to the ½ cup mark it is still active.
  • White flour lasts about a year in the pantry, indefinitely in the refrigerator or freezer. Whole Wheat Flour, which has wheat germ that can turn rancid. It will last about three months on the shelf, 6 months in the refrigerator, a year in the freezer.
  • Granulated sugar will keep indefinitely. Use confectioners' sugar for 24 months. Brown sugar is good for about 18 month and will stay softer if you put an apple slice in the bag, and replace it as it dries out. To soften hardened brown sugar, Domino Foods suggests putting ½ pound brown sugar in a microwave-safe bowl, cover with two wet paper towels, tightly cover bowl with plastic wrap and heat in microwave on high for 1 ½ to 2 minutes. Fluff with a fork, cool and use immediately.
  • Unsweetened and semisweet chocolate will keep for about 24 months in a dark place, sealed well. If it blooms (develops small white streaks) they will disappear when melted.
  • Honey and molasses will last indefinitely, but they crystallize put the opened jar in a pan of hot water and heat gently until dissolved. Or microwave the opened jar for 15 to 60 seconds, depending on how big the jar is and how much honey is in it.
  • Spices and dried herbs should be stored in a cool, dry place. Generally ground spices start to loose flavor after 6 months, but they won't go bad. Once opened spices and dried herbs kept in the freezer will keep their flavor for at least a year. Roasting spices will release the greatest flavor. Whole spices, such as cloves and nutmeg will last longer. Vanilla extract will keep indefinitely.
  • Nuts can become rancid quickly. Store nuts in shells in airtight containers in the refrigerator for up to 6 months, in the freezer for a year. Shelled nuts in a sealed container will last in the refrigerator 3 months, the freezer about 6 months. Peanut butter will separate and become rancid if kept too long.
  • Canned sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk should be used within a year. In a covered container in the refrigerator, condensed milk can last a month, evaporated milk two to three weeks.
  • Oil should be used within 6 months. Store it in a cool dark place, out of the sun. Oils can be kept longer in the refrigerator, but will cloud. It will melt and return to its original appearance if you set it on the counter a few minutes before use.
  • Bread crumbs, saltines, dressing mixes, and other dried products will loose or change flavor if not used within the time specified on the box. There is nothing worse than making a special stuffing mix for your holiday meal with breadcrumbs that add a rancid flavor. If cereals, crackers and cookies get stale, but have not taken on off flavors, spread them on a cookie sheet and place in a 425 degree oven for a few minutes. If chewy or soft cookies that have become hard, place them in a sealed plastic bag with either a slice of bread or a slice of apple to restore their chewiness.
  • Popcorn can get stale before you know it. By storing in the freezer it will keep it fresh and reduce the number of unpopped kernels.

Not sure if a pantry product is safe to eat or has lost its kick for your recipe? Better be safe than sorry: When in doubt, throw it out!

Read the other articles in this series:

How to Prevent Food Poisoning (link for first article on Boomerater)

How to choose and store fresh fruits and vegetables (link to 2nd article on Boomerater)

How to store and freeze meat and dairy products (link to 3rd article on Boomerater)

Information sources used in this series:

Foodsafety.gov;Stilltasty.com; U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rutgers Cooperative Extension, Ohio State University Cooperative Extension Service, U.S. Poultry and Egg Association (www.poultryegg.org), Old Farmer's Almanac Hearth & Home Companion, www.thefruitpages.com