Somewhere on the back of your top shelf in the pantry, is a can of something dating back to World War II. Down there in the lettuce drawer, buried under the parsley that garnished your 4th of July potato salad, sit the cranberries from last Thanksgiving. And the spices in the back of your spice rack, chalky gray in their jars, date back to when you received the spice rack as a wedding gift.
Perhaps you are not this bad, but isn’t it time your kitchen had a little cleaning, or a good pitching? If it is long overdue for the little cleaning, just remind yourself you will be ahead in the preparation for the holidays to come in a couple of months. If you can see exactly what is on hand, meal planning goes much easier. Foraging in the fridge becomes a thing of the past. Leftovers get used promptly.
As a matter of budgeting, leftovers are the best thing going to shave costs on food bills. However, don’t become a victim of restaurant foam containers piling up in your refrigerator, or impulse purchases from the supermarket. “Think of containers of leftovers as junk mail,” advises one friend. In the refrigerator, we are always adding things, and soon the available space gets saturated. That is the point when things just get disorganized.
Refrigerated products have their own set of rules; pay attention to “sell by” dates and expiration dates found on many products. Fruits and vegetables are best if used within a few days of purchase; if left too long, their quality and nutritional value suffer.
The best advice is don’t use anything you are unsure of. Fresh meat, poultry and fish should be frozen within a day or two of purchase if you’re not cooking right away. Leftovers should be refrigerated immediately, and left out no more than two hours, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Throwing out food is hard for some people. They really don’t think if can go bad,” confides an official from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
For questions regarding the safety of storing, cooking and eating chicken and fish, call the USDA’s toll free meat and poultry hot line at (800) 535-4555. There is also a free hot line for food safety questions at (888) 723-3366.
The facts are from the manufacturers. Back in the spice rack, baking powder only lasts about six months in a tightly sealed container at room temperature. Baking soda only should be kept for 18 months fairly well-covered at room temperature. Bouillon cubes should only be kept for one year at room temperature. Extracts should be kept for three or four months in tightly sealed bottles at room temperature. Honey can be kept indefinitely if tightly sealed—it is one of nature’s preservation wonders. If it has crystallized, place the opened jar in a bowl of hot water and stir until the crystals are dissolved.
Gelatin (the dry powder) should be kept for one year if flavored; three years if unflavored, at room temperature. Peanut butter should be kept only one year if unopened, at room temperature, and only three to four months after opening, stored in the refrigerator.
Here is some good news. Salt can be stored indefinitely. If seasoned salt, store up to one year, tightly capped at room temperature. Soy sauce can be stored for up to one year, unopened, at room temperature, one year after opening if it is kept refrigerated.
Finally, dried herbs can be stored up to one year, if whole and tightly capped on a cool shelf, six months if ground. Store red spices such as paprika, ground red pepper and chili powder in the refrigerator or freezer, along with poppy seeds or sesame seeds, which are rich in oil and can become rancid. Herbs are especially susceptible to heat, light and air, so inspect where the spice rack is placed, hopefully not right over the stove or beneath the oven.
Vinegar can be stored indefinitely if unopened, or six months once opened at room temperature. If the vinegar “mothers” or has a cloudy jellyfish-like mass in the bottom of the container, throw it out.
The bottom line is that foods lose their flavor and quality the longer it sits. In the pantry, use the old-fashioned rotating idea, and inspect for expiration dates. According to the Steel Packing Council, canned foods can be stored up to two years after purchase. But after a year, many canned goods begin deteriorating. For example, canned fruit juice loses about 25 percent of its vitamin C, while canned asparagus loses vitamins and fades to a pale yellow after about a year. Any can that is dented, or buckled should be tossed. Toss jars that are leaking, or containers that have an “off” odor when opened.
We are now writing dates on leftovers and things that go into the freezer. Each year we defrost, and vow to do a better job of using the frozen foods. It is a constant struggle to keep my freezer organized, so we group food items together for easy reference. A friend of mine has a “freezer party” each August, and cooks up everything that is soon to expire. It is a wacky idea, but at least the items are eaten. A dinner of frozen cheesecake and waffles might not be a bad idea.