Knowing when to throw out food can be tricky, especially when it comes to dry goods. Most packaged products come labeled with a use-by, sell-by or best-by date. But when it comes to pantry staples like flour, sugar or baking soda, you might have more time to make those cookies than you thought.
The US Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service, along with the Food Marketing Institute and Cornell University, maintain an online resource called Foodkeeper. There, you can find a storage guide with information on hundreds of foods and their best shelf life for freshness and quality. Here's the rundown of common baking essentials you probably have sitting in the back of your pantry.
Unopened baking powder can be stored for up to 18 months and still be fresh and effective. After that, you'll likely notice a loss of potency when using it in baking recipes. Opened baking powder should be used within 6 months. Many packages include a place to write the date you opened it on the lid, a helpful way to keep track of freshness.
Baking soda, unopened, can last a surprisingly long time. In fact, it's good for up to three years. If you've opened your baking soda, you'll want to use it up or throw it out after six months. Baking soda and powder are both important ingredients in baking and to be most effective, fresher is always better.
Baking powder and baking soda lose potency over time. The science of baking -- exact measuring, sifting and allowing things to rest or rise -- can be easily dismantled by a bad box of baking soda or baking powder, the agents of change in many recipes. While these might be safe to eat for months after the standard shelf life, fresher is always more effective for baking.
There are several types of flour, but the most common are whole wheat and white. Wheat flour has a shelf life of up to six months if stored unopened in the pantry. Once you've opened it, keeping flour refrigerated can extend its shelf life to eight months.
White flour can last up to one year stored in the pantry, unopened. Open it up and the pantry life decreases to eight months. Throw your white flour in the refrigerator and you'll have fresh flour for up to one year.
If you found bugs in your flour, it's probably because the flour wasn't stored properly. Flour should be stored in an airtight container and in the refrigerator to prevent infestations. Bugs aren't necessarily a sign of flour going bad, but if you do discover them, it's definitely time to get a new bag of flour.
Flour is also notorious for harboring bacteria. Whether it's past its use-by date or not, you should always bake any recipe that includes flour before eating.
Almond flour (also called almond meal) and other nut "flours" should always be stored in the refrigerator or freezer. That's because nuts contain oils that hasten rancidity faster than oil-free grain products.
According to Bob's Red Mill, almond flour can last four to five months after the "sell by" date, so long as it is stored in an airtight container and in the fridge or freezer.
Sugar is a staple of the kitchen. Whether you're baking or glazing or making a great sauce, every cook needs some of the sweet stuff. Chances are, unless you're baking batches of cookies every week, you're likely to keep the same 5-pound bag of sugar around for a while. When should you really throw it out?
Turns out, sugar takes the cake when it comes to extended shelf life. Granulated sugar can last up to two years in the pantry after opening. Technically, sugar never spoils. While it's recommended that granulated sugar be discarded after two years, chances are it will still serve its baking purpose even beyond that. The same guidelines apply to brown sugar and confectioner's or powdered sugar.
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Despite the impressive shelf life of these baking essentials, if you're ever unsure of an item's age it's best to buy a fresh box. Still, next time you get ready to clean out the pantry and toss everything in the trash, try mixing up a batch of cookies instead.