I crave the assurance of a fully stocked pantry, knowing I’m always ready to make a quick meal or bake last-minute banana bread. However, packed pantry shelves make it all too easy to forget what’s in there, allowing ingredients to go bad. And if my baking soda is expired, that impromptu banana bread isn’t going to happen.
Everyone stocks and uses their pantry differently. My dried herbs linger longer than they should, but I whip through peanut butter so fast it couldn’t possibly go bad. Regardless of your pantry habits, there are certain ingredients to monitor, either because they expire more quickly than you think or because they tend to get lost. Here are nine pantry staples you should check and possibly chuck.
1. Nuts and Nut Butters
Because of their high-fat content, nuts have a short shelf life—about six months or less. If you doubt their freshness, check for off smells or flavors. Nut butters are similarly prone to rancidity. The USDA says peanut butter keeps for six to nine months unopened and two to three months once open. Make sure nut butter smells nutty rather than soapy or chemical-like. And keep an eye on foods that contain nuts and are prone to getting lost in the pantry, including trail mixes and energy bars.
2. Cooking Oils
Oils can go bad far faster than you might think, so while your everyday oil is likely fine, be careful with those you only use occasionally. The USDA claims that unopened olive and vegetable oils only keep for four months. Check for discoloration, as well as funky, metallic, or chemical-like odors and sour or soapy flavors, all of which mean that oil needs to go.
3. Dried Herbs and Spices
Dried herbs and spices don’t go bad, but they do lose their potency, making using them a waste of time and storing them a waste of space. Most dried herbs should be green not gray, while dried spices should be vibrant not pale. They should also smell and taste like their fresh counterpart, so if they lack odor or flavor, it’s time to replace them.
4. Baking Powder and Baking Soda
Because recipes require such a small amount of baking soda or baking powder, those containers hang around for a while and could be out of date. According to the USDA, baking powder lasts about six months unopened and three months once open, while baking soda keeps for about 18 months unopened and six months once open.
You can also test them. Drop some baking powder into hot water and look for it to fizz, which means it’s still active. Do the same for baking soda but add a little vinegar to the water.
Even frequent bakers find old bags of flour knocking around the pantry. Refined flours like white all-purpose, keep for at least six months and up to two years, but whole wheat, nut, and gluten-free flours only last about three months. Flour should look, feel, and smell like it did when you purchased it, so check for lumps, mold, odors, and even bugs.
Crackers are extremely easy to forget about. Shelf life varies by variety, but you can likely rely on the “best by” date for unopened boxes. Once open, consider how crackers are stored. In an airtight container, they should be in good shape, but if the original packaging is wide open, toss those crackers, especially if they contain cheese or other high fat ingredients.
7. Maple Syrup
Pancake lovers won’t have an issue, but others should check their maple syrup. The USDA reports that all unopened maple syrup keeps in the pantry for up to a year and open imitation maple syrup keeps in the pantry for about a year. Genuine maple syrup belongs in the refrigerator, where it lasts about a year. If you don’t know the age of your syrup, check it for mold.
You may want to reconsider your secret chocolate stash. Chocolate’s shelf life varies by type, but those with higher milk content tend to go bad faster, which means dark chocolate bars last longer than white chocolate chips. If you see mold or discoloration, toss immediately. Cracks or spots indicate chocolate is stale, while a white or gray film means sugar or fat bloom. In either case, the chocolate is likely safe, but its taste and texture won’t be at their peak.
Being made of mostly sugar, sprinkles can last years, but most of us don’t use them very often, so they hide out on upper pantry shelves just begging to be neglected. Check for discoloration and off odors. Sprinkles that still smell sweet, should be ready for, well, sprinkling.