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The Secret Shelf Life — 7 Pantry Items You’re Keeping Too Long
pantry items you’re keeping too long

We all have those items that get pushed to the back of our pantry shelves, forgotten, and neglected. But did you know there may be pantry items you’re keeping too long? Some grocery store pantry items actually have surprisingly short shelf lives.

Here’s a quick test: How long has your opened peanut butter jar sat in your pantry? If you answered over three months, you should probably throw it out. 

If you’re guilty of holding on to pantry staples longer than you should, you’re not alone. To find out which pantry items you should probably toss, we’ve gathered some of the most common shelf-stable items and ran them through the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Food Keeper app. Keep reading; you might be shocked by some of these!

7 Pantry Items You’re Keeping Too Long

1. Peanut butter

Peanut butter is one of those pantry items families either use a lot of or forget about. If kept in the pantry, a jar of peanut butter is only good for about two to three months after opening. Spoiled peanut butter will gain a darker color and smell soapy or metallic. Some people store their peanut butter in the fridge after opening; this extends its life up to six months instead of three.

Average Expiration: up to three months after opening

2. Olive oil

Olive oil has a surprisingly short shelf life of about five months after cracking open. But if you’ve left your opened bottle in the pantry for longer, you’re probably not alone. It’s easy to forget about a bottle of olive oil. If it’s gone bad, you won’t get that rich olive smell and will whiff more of a waxy aroma. Sometimes spoiled olive oil will also turn a brighter yellow color. If you’re unsure how long your bottle has been sitting in the pantry, look at its color and give it a smell before using it.

Average Expiration: three to five months after opening

3. Egg noodles

So you didn’t use all your egg noodles the last time you made chicken noodle soup, and now you have an opened bag sitting in your pantry. Most people don’t know that egg noodles go bad about two months after opening. Egg noodles are not like their other pasta cousins. Because they mainly contain eggs, their best-by date is much sooner than regular dried kinds of pasta. Spoiled egg noodles will smell odd–like must–and even have mold growing on them. So before throwing your previously opened egg noodles right into a pasta sauce, examine them thoroughly.

Average Expiration: one to two months after opening

4. Cashews

Cashews are a pantry snack that you don’t expect to have a short shelf life but do. So it can be surprising to hear you should toss them two to four weeks after purchase. Because they typically come without a shell, there’s less protection, and will go bad faster than other pantry nuts. Cashews that have gone bad will look discolored and become whiter–which is actually mold growing.

Average Expiration: two to four weeks after purchasing

5. Baking powder

Baking powder is a staple pantry item. And because most people only use a few teaspoons at a time, it can get left open and go bad by the next time you need it. Baking powders spoil three to six months after opening. If you’re an avid baker, that might not be a problem. But if you only bake occasionally, you should probably toss the baking powder in your pantry. While expired baking powder won’t typically make you sick, it will lose its potency and make your baked goods fall flat.

Average Expiration: three to six months after opening

6. White flour

White flour commonly comes in huge bags. And if you’re not a baking extraordinaire, you probably won’t use it before it goes bad in six months. It’s essential to keep tabs on your flour because there is a chance it can cause food poisoning if used beyond the expiration date. Rancid flour will smell moldy or sour. Plus, if it’s spoiled, its standard bright white color may appear discolored.

Average Expiration: six to eight months after opening

7. Marshmallows

Sweet treats usually have a long shelf life, but when it comes to a bag of marshmallows, you want to toss them one month after opening. Spoiled marshmallows will be harder to chew and smell or taste stale. And while it’s typically not unsafe to eat an expired marshmallow, it will probably taste unpleasant and might cause a tummy ache.

Average Expiration: up to one month after opening

How Often Should I Check The Expiration Dates of Pantry Items?

A good rule of thumb is to check everything as you use it. Depending on what you have in your pantry, some items go bad in a matter of weeks, and some in a couple of months. Checking, sniffing, and examining items as you go is a sure way to save you from eating anything spoiled.

If you want to be proactive and keep your pantry up to date, set a monthly task to go through and get rid of expired items. One to two months seems to be a good middle ground so you can avoid rotten pantry items slipping through the cracks–or into your meals.

Tips for a Well-Stocked Pantry:

  • Rotate First-Out: Practice first-out rotation to use older pantry items first and reduce food waste. This just means the items that you have duplicates of should be stored with the first to expire in the front so it’s used first. 
  • Store in Airtight Containers: This helps maintain the freshness and quality of pantry staples. 
  • Keep in a Cool, Dry Place: Avoid direct sunlight and high-humidity areas to prevent spoilage.
  • Check for Signs of Rancidity: Oils and whole grain flours are particularly susceptible to going rancid.
  • Check expiration dates as you use items: Don’t use an item from your pantry before checking the expiration date. 

Are There Any Pantry Items That Don’t Expire?

There are some pantry items you’re keeping too long because they don’t have an indefinite shelf life, but certain pantry items stand out for their remarkable ability to last indefinitely. These non-perishable staples can be a real lifesaver, ensuring you always have essential ingredients on hand without worrying about expiration dates.

Understanding which items don’t expire can help you maintain a well-stocked and efficient kitchen pantry, reduce food waste, and provide peace of mind knowing that some of your food products are virtually everlasting. Let’s explore some of these long-lasting pantry items and how to store them properly to ensure they remain in optimal condition. As long as you store these correctly, you shouldn’t have to worry about throwing out the food items below:

  • White Sugar: This pantry essential has an indefinite shelf life if kept in an airtight container in a dry place. It’s a great way to ensure you always have a sweetener on hand.
  • Pure Vanilla Extract: With a long shelf life, pure vanilla extract can last indefinitely if stored in a dark place in its original packaging. It’s a pantry staple for baking and desserts.
  • Hard Liquor: Spirits like whiskey, vodka, and rum have an indefinite shelf life if stored in a cool, dark place. Make sure they’re tightly sealed to maintain their quality.
  • White Rice: One of the best long-term storage items, white rice can last indefinitely if kept in an airtight container in a dry area. It’s a pantry staple for many meals.
  • Salt (Table Salt): Table salt doesn’t expire and is a pantry essential for seasoning and preserving food. Store it in a dry place to prevent clumping.
  • Corn Starch: This versatile thickener can last indefinitely if stored in an airtight container in a dry, cool place. It’s a great item for both cooking and baking.
  • Dried Beans: While their cooking time may increase, dried beans remain safe to eat indefinitely if stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.
  • Honey: Honey has a natural preservative quality and doesn’t spoil. Store it in a sealed container at room temperature to keep it in an ideal state.
  • White Vinegar: With an indefinite shelf life, white vinegar is a pantry staple for cooking and cleaning. Keep it in its original packaging in a cool, dry place.
  • Dry Pasta: Although it may lose some quality over time, dry pasta doesn’t expire and can last indefinitely if stored in a dry area away from direct sunlight.
  • Instant Coffee: This convenient pantry item has an almost indefinite shelf life if kept in a sealed container. It’s a great way to ensure you always have coffee available.
  • Canned Goods (Unopened): Many canned goods, like vegetables and beans, can last indefinitely if stored properly. Always check the can’s texture and ensure there are no dents or bulges for food safety.
  • Soy Sauce: With its high salt content, soy sauce can last indefinitely if kept in a cool, dark place. Its flavor may intensify over time, but it remains safe to use.
  • Popcorn Kernels: These can last indefinitely if stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. Perfect for an easy and long-lasting snack.

How Can I Tell If a Pantry Item is No Longer Safe to Consume?

If not stored correctly, microorganisms such as molds, yeasts, and bacteria can get into pantry items and multiply–causing food to spoil. Here are some common signs of food spoilage, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture

Changes in Appearance: 

  • Mold: Visible mold growth is a clear indicator that a food item has spoiled and should be discarded immediately. This includes any mold growth on the surface of fruits, vegetables, bread, or other perishable items.
  • Discoloration: Any unusual discoloration, such as dark spots or changes in color, may indicate spoilage in certain foods, such as meats or dairy products.

Changes in Texture or Consistency:

  • Texture Changes: If a food item feels slimy, sticky, or has developed an unusual texture, it may have gone bad. This is particularly true for cooked grains, meats, or dairy products.
  • Separation: For items like sauces, dressings, or nut butters, separation or curdling may occur if they have spoiled.

Off Odors:

  • Foul Smells: Strong, unpleasant odors emanating from a pantry item are a sign that it has spoiled. Trust your sense of smell—if something doesn’t smell right, it’s best to err on the side of caution and discard it.

Expiration Date:

  • Expired Best-By Date: While not always an indication of spoilage, if a pantry item has passed its best-by date, it’s a good idea to inspect it for any signs of deterioration before consuming.

Packaging Integrity:

  • Damaged Packaging: Cans that are swollen, dented, or leaking may indicate spoilage or contamination and should be discarded. Similarly, any tears, punctures, or damage to the packaging can compromise the integrity of the product inside.

Pantry Pests:

  • Presence of Insects or Rodents: If you notice any signs of pantry pests, such as insects or rodents, it’s essential to inspect your pantry items for any contamination or damage.

Unexplained Illness:

  • Illness After Consumption: If you or someone else experiences symptoms of foodborne illness, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or fever, after consuming a pantry item, it may have been contaminated or spoiled.

Can I Extend the Shelf Life of Certain Pantry Items by Storing Them Differently?

The trick to extending the shelf life of pantry items is reducing as much air exposure as possible to your food. Airtight containers are great for this. They lock out air and keep your items fresher for longer. 

Another critical factor to not overlook is keeping your pantry items cool. Items stored in direct sunlight and heat will be susceptible to sweating, creating an ideal environment for mold to grow. Help extend the shelf life of your pantry items by storing them in a dry and cool place.

Your Quick Reference Guide for Storing Pantry Items

Use Airtight Containers

  • White Flour and Whole Wheat Flour: Store flour in airtight containers to prevent moisture and pests. Whole wheat flour benefits from being stored in the refrigerator or freezer due to its higher oil content, which can go rancid more quickly.
  • Brown Sugar: Keep brown sugar in an airtight container to maintain its moisture. Adding a slice of bread or a dampened clay disk can help keep it soft.

Cool, Dry, and Dark Places

  • Olive Oil and Vegetable Oils: Store oils in a cool, dark place to prevent them from becoming rancid. Light and heat can degrade the quality of oils.
  • Pure Vanilla Extract and Soy Sauce: Both benefit from being stored in a dark place to preserve their flavor over time.
  • Dried Beans and Dry Pasta: These should be kept in a cool, dry area to maintain their quality and prevent any moisture from causing spoilage.

Refrigeration and Freezing

  • Nut Butter: Natural nut butter can be stored in the refrigerator to extend its shelf life. This helps prevent the oils from going rancid.
  • Whole Grain Flours: As mentioned, refrigerating or freezing whole grain flours can help maintain their freshness for longer periods due to their higher oil content.
  • Maple Syrup: Once opened, maple syrup should be refrigerated to prevent mold growth and extend its usability.

Original Packaging and Sealed Containers

  • Honey: While honey doesn’t spoil, keeping it in its original, sealed container at room temperature helps preserve its quality.
  • White Vinegar: Store in its original packaging in a cool, dry place to maintain its indefinite shelf life.
  • Popcorn Kernels: Keeping them in an airtight container in a cool, dry place prevents them from drying out and losing their ability to pop.

Avoid Direct Sunlight

  • Canned Goods: Although they have a long shelf life, keeping canned goods out of direct sunlight and in a cool place can help maintain their quality. Check for any signs of rust or dents regularly.
  • Hard Liquor: Spirits should be stored away from direct sunlight to prevent any changes in flavor and quality.

Dry and Cool Storage

  • Instant Coffee: This should be stored in a sealed container in a dry, cool place to keep it fresh for longer periods.
  • Whole Spices: To preserve their flavor, store whole spices in airtight containers away from heat and light.

Throw Out Those Pantry Items You’re Keeping Too Long

Now you know what pantry items you’re keeping too long, and what can stay! Maintaining a well-stocked pantry with items that have long shelf lives can save you time, money, and stress when it comes to meal preparation. While some pantry staples can last indefinitely if stored correctly, others require specific conditions to extend their freshness and usability. By using airtight containers, keeping items in cool, dry, and dark places, and occasionally refrigerating or freezing certain foods, you can significantly enhance the longevity of your pantry items.

Knowing which pantry items you’re keeping too long and understanding the best storage practices helps you make the most of your pantry essentials, reduces food waste, and ensures that you always have high-quality ingredients on hand. With these tips, you can confidently stock your kitchen pantry, knowing that your food items will remain fresh and ready for use whenever you need them. Happy cooking and organizing!