Know Thy Shelf Life

By Mary Hunt

September 7, 2017 6 min read

Look up the word impulsive in the dictionary and prepare to see my face. When I cleaned out the freezer in anticipation of relocating to Colorado in the spring of 2014, I found five big bags of chocolate chips in my freezer. They are the ghosts of a Christmas past -- the remains from my now-famous "gifts in a jar" marathon project.

And have I mentioned the two containers of candied fruit that I picked up the year I knew I'd have all kinds of time to make fruitcake? They had to have been at least seven years old and curiously showed absolutely no sign of becoming stale, moldy or anything close to inedible.

Many supermarkets put baking supplies on rock-bottom sale starting about Thanksgiving and continuing through Christmas. I still have four 5-pound bags of flour from last holiday season, which I bought for 99 cents each. Sugar is cheap during the holidays, too. Ditto for other holiday baking ingredients, from marshmallows to sweetened condensed milk and dates to nuts.

Which begs the question: How long will this stuff last in the event you decide to buy enough for the year? It all depends on the item and whether you have the storage space to keep it at its optimum.

BAKING POWDER. Store in a tightly lidded container; 18 months unopened, six months opened.

BAKING SODA. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place; good for two years unopened, six months opened.

BROWN SUGAR. Store in freezer, and use within six months, opened or unopened.

BUTTER. Comes two ways: salted and unsalted. Salt is added for flavor and as a preservative so it will have a longer shelf life. Salted lasts up to five months refrigerated; unsalted has a short shelf life of about three months in the refrigerator. If you do not plan to use unsalted butter right away, it is best to freeze it. When properly wrapped so it won't pick up any odors, butter can be frozen for around six months. It's best to defrost butter overnight in the refrigerator.

CANNED EVAPORATED MILK. Store unopened on the pantry shelf for up to six months. Best to check the "use by" date on the product. After this time, it will not turn sour, but it will turn yellow and lose its flavor.

CHOCOLATE CHIPS. Store in cupboard at room temperature; 18-24 months unopened, one year if opened. I can attest to the fact that chocolate chips will last for what seems like forever in the freezer. They may get a white haze, but this will not affect the taste used in baking.

COOKING OILS. Store on pantry shelves at room temperature; good for up to a year. Check if still good with the smell test. Oils can become rancid.

EGGS. Properly stored in the refrigerator, fresh eggs are good for four to five weeks past the "sell by" date.

EXTRACTS. Expect these to last up to three or four years when kept at room temperature.

FLOUR. Store in freezer. Unopened flour lasts for up to a year; opened, six to eight months. Whole-wheat flour is good for up to a year unopened, but use within six months if opened so the oil doesn't dry out.

GRANULATED SUGAR. Store in cool, dry place; good for two years unopened; use within six months if opened.

KARO SYRUP. ACH Food Companies Inc., the conglomerate that owns and markets Karo syrup, says that it is safe for consumption for an indefinite period of time whether it has been opened or not. Light corn syrup may turn slightly yellow with age, but this is normal and not harmful. Storage conditions affect product quality. Before or after opening, Karo syrup may be stored at room temperature. Bottles may be refrigerated after opening; however, the syrup will be thicker and slower to pour.

MARSHMALLOW CREME. Store at room temperature for four months unopened; store in refrigerator once opened and use within two months.

MARSHMALLOWS. Keep in an airtight container on the pantry shelf; good for three months.

MOLASSES. Store unopened in a cool, dark place for one year; store opened for six months in a cool, dry place or in the refrigerator. Make sure the lid is tightly sealed.

POWDERED SUGAR. Store in a cool, dry place (not the refrigerator); good for eighteen months unopened.

PURE VANILLA EXTRACT. Store at room temperature; as long as it is pure, it has an indefinite shelf life. In fact, it even gets better with age.

RAISINS. Last up to three years stored on pantry shelf at temperatures up to 80 F. Can be refrigerated.

SHORTENING. Store on shelf at room temperature. Unopened, shortening lasts up to a year; opened, only three to four months until it turns rancid.

SPICES, GROUND. Store in a cool, dry place for two to three years. Here's a tip to extend the shelf life: Don't measure or sprinkle spices over a boiling pot. The steam from the pot will hasten the loss of flavor for what spice remains in the bottle. Measure spices into a bowl beforehand and then add them to the pot. Note: Paprika and cayenne pepper should be refrigerated.

SPICES, WHOLE. Whole and ground spices don't spoil, they just lose their strength. Store in a cool, dry place for two to four years.

SWEETENED CONDENSED MILK. Store in a dry, clean and cool place; good for one year unopened; invert can every two months. Carnation does not recommend using sweetened condensed milk past its "best before date" for quality reasons.

I am still searching for information on candied fruit. So far I can find no indication that it will ever spoil or ever change in quality or texture.

I'll keep you posted.

Mary Hunt's column, "Everyday Cheapskate," can be found at creators.com.

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