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No one likes to throw out food because it’s no longer fresh, especially when it’s a pantry item you thought would keep for a long time. That super-sized bottle of olive oil seemed like a good deal, but not when the oil turned rancid before the bottle was empty.
So what’s the best way to store common kitchen staples and how long will they really last? Here’s what the folks at “Cook’s Illustrated” have discovered:
FlourHumidity is the biggest enemy for flour, so don’t store flour in the paper bags used by manufacturers. Besides exposing flour to moisture, these bags are messy. When you get home, transfer flour to an airtight container. Make sure to use a container that’s wide enough to dip a dry measure into.
The natural oils in whole-wheat flour and cornmeal go rancid after just a few months. If you go through whole-grain flours slowly, slip packages into large zipper-lock bags and store them in the freezer.
SweetenersGranulated sugar will keep indefinitely if stored in an airtight container, like flour. Other sweeteners require gentler handling.
Brown sugar becomes rock-hard after a few months. An airtight container slows down moisture loss, but once brown sugar gets hard you will need to use this trick to revive it. Place the hardened brown sugar in a bowl, add a slice of sandwich bread, cover the bowl, and microwave for 10 to 20 seconds.
Honey and molasses will last indefinitely. Keep honey out of the fridge, where it will crystallize. The biggest issue over time with these sweeteners is that the lids become stuck in place. Try this trick: Dip a paper towel in vegetable oil and wipe the threads of the jar with the oil. This bare film of oil keeps the lid from sticking.
Maple syrup contains more moisture than honey or molasses and is susceptible to mold and bacteria. Once opened, keep maple syrup in the fridge for up to one year. Unopened bottles are fine in the pantry for a few years.
ChocolateNever put chocolate in fridge or freezer — if you do, a white film (called bloom) will develop on the exterior. Wrap opened bars of chocolate tightly in plastic and store in a cool pantry. Milk and white chocolates will keep for up to six months, whereas semisweet, bittersweet, and unsweetened chocolate are fine for one year.
OilsLight is the big enemy here, as is heat. So keeping oil in a clear bottle next to the stove is a big no-no. Even when stored in a cool pantry, flavorful oils (like olive and toasted sesame) will become rancid after several months. We suggest keeping toasted sesame oil in the fridge —even if you do a lot of Asian cooking, it will go rancid in the pantry before you finish a small bottle. Olive oil becomes cloudy in the fridge, so it’s best kept in the pantry.
Don’t buy more olive oil than you can use in a few months. And read labels for harvest or expiration dates. Olive oil is best used within one year of harvest date.
Neutral-tasting oils, such as canola and vegetable, are more forgiving, but don’t keep them for longer than one year. If in doubt, heat a little oil in a skillet. If the oil has an off smell, throw out the bottle. Also, over-the-hill oils become viscous with time and sticky under the cap. If you’re having trouble loosening the cap on a bottle of oil, the oil should be thrown out.
Spices and dried herbsWhole spices will last about twice as long as ground spices. The flavor of ground spices will go downhill after a year, as with the flavor of dried herbs. In the test kitchen, we write the purchase date on stick-on dots to track age of spices and herbs. To maximize the flavor from any dried herb, push the herb through a mesh sieve (or crush herb between your fingers) to release flavorful oils.
Do not store eggs in the egg tray that comes with your refrigerator. The paper carton protects eggs from picking up odors. Also, the egg tray is located on the door in most refrigerators and the temperature there is warmer than in the main part of the fridge. Place the carton of eggs on a shelf in the refrigerator. Keeping eggs in their carton also lets you track their expiration or sell-by date.
ButterWhen stored in the refrigerator, butter (even when wrapped) can pick up odors and turn rancid within a few weeks. Keep butter in the freezer and transfer it — one stick at a time — to the fridge.
CoffeeGround coffee belongs in the freezer. Even in an airtight container, coffee stored on the counter becomes harsh and bitter after a few weeks. If you have an extra 10 minutes, measure frozen ground coffee into the filter and let it warm to room temperature. It will make better-tasting coffee than super-cold grounds.
NutsKeep all nuts in the freezer, where they will stay fresh for at least six months. Even in a cool pantry, opened bags will go rancid very quickly.
LeavenersYeast, baking soda and baking powder will lose their punch over time. Store yeast in the refrigerator or freezer and follow printed expiration dates. Baking powder and baking soda begin to lose effectiveness after six months. Keep them in a cool pantry and, unless you want flat biscuits and cakes, replace them often. Write the date you open baking powder and baking soda on packages.
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