Pantry Purging: It’s time to spring-clean your kitchen

‘Tis the season for spring-cleaning including purging your pantry and fridge. On a recent trip to my childhood home in Toronto, I offered to help my mom organize her pantry. To my horror, I found cans bulging with botulism (that should have been marked with skull and crossbones), vintage Campbell’s Soup cans that belonged in the Smithsonian, and assorted dried goods with expiration dates from the “All in the Family” era.

Catherine L. Kaufman

Catherine L. Kaufman

I also came across spices imported from countries that have since changed their names, and cat food from the days of Spanky who’s been dead for 20 years.

Here’s a primer on how to make sure that only healthy edibles survive your spring-cleaning.

Soup: Cans have a long shelf life, at least a year or two, but usually have an expiration date, same with dried and frozen packages. If the date is still good, but the can is dented or bulging, the powder is clumping or the frozen package looks freezer burned, then this takes precedence over the date. Toss it.

Oils: All oils should be stored in dark, cool places away from any heat source. Best place is the refrigerator, even for olive oil that tends to get murky when chilled, but will return to its lovely golden liquid once at room temperature. High in monounsaturated fats, olive oil will keep in the fridge for about a year, half as long if stored in a pantry.

Corn, peanut and other veggie oils are pretty hardy, and will last for a year if unopened. Once opened, their shelf life shrinks to 4 to 6 months.

Walnut, flaxseed and sesame oils are more delicate, but keeping them in the fridge will extend the shelf life to two months. Where possible buy tinted glass bottles to prevent oxidation.

Herbs & Spices: These never spoil, they just lose their oomph. Your olfactory and taste buds will be the judge whether the spice jars need to be 86ed.

Whole spices including peppercorns, nutmeg, cloves and cardamom tend to hold their potency longer than ground ones, while leafy herbs are the most delicate, losing their flavor and aroma fastest.

Store herbs and spices in airtight containers in a cool, dry place. The whole spices should last 4 years, ground ones 2 to 3, while herbs 1 or 2 years.

Chocolate: This beloved food of the Gods, particularly the cocoa bean, has been blessed with flavonoids that ward off oxidation, the cause of spoilage. The higher the milk content, the quicker it turns. Since refrigeration tends to give those marvelous morsels a white film, store in a cool, dry place. Consume milk chocolate within a year, semisweet within 18 months, and super-dark within 24 months (if temptation will even allow such lengthy storage).

Flour & Sugar: Flour makes a great nosh for Flour Weevils, so store in an airtight container, fridge or freezer to prevent infestation. Unopened bags of white flour have a shelf life of a year, opened ones 6 to 8 months, while whole-wheat flour is slightly more perishable, and should be refrigerated. Unopened bags also last a year, opened ones 6 months.

Sugar has a long life, especially white granulated and powdered Confectioner’s; unopened bags last about 2 years when stored in a cool, dry place.

Brown sugar is more perishable with a 6-month shelf life. Since exposure to air hardens brown sugar, store in an airtight container in a cool, moist spot. This sugar should not be refrigerated, but can be frozen. If the brown sugar loses its natural moisture and hardens, just heat in a 250-degree oven until it softens, and use immediately.

Nuts: These are rich in heart-healthy oils that quickly become rancid or stale unless they are stored properly. Nuts in the shell have a longer shelf life than shelled ones, and when stored in airtight containers in a cool, dark place they will maintain their integrity for about four months.

Best to store shelled nuts in the refrigerator or freezer in moisture-proof containers, which should keep for several months. As whole shelled nuts stay fresher longer than pieces, chop as you need.

A reader suggested this great website for more on spoiled versus usable foods:

Here’s a great candied nut recipe – sprinkle these sweet and savory nibbles on a salad, as a crust for grilled fish or munch them straight-up. Happy spring-cleaning!

Candied Nuts

1 cup walnut or pecan halves

1/4 cup brown sugar

1 tablespoon maple syrup

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

Pinch of cayenne pepper

In a skillet on low heat, combine the sugar, syrup and seasonings until melted, then add the nuts until coated.  Place nuts on a parchment–lined cookie sheet, separating with a fork. Cool, then store in an airtight container in the fridge.

For culinary queries or recipes e-mail or  visit

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Posted by Staff on Apr 21, 2011. Filed under Columns, Editorial Columns, Food, Kitchen Shrink. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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