Baking staples — your pantry is probably full of them. These are the ingredients that you need to make most common recipes (think: sugar, flour, chocolate chips). Unlike refrigerated ingredients, which are prominently stamped with “use by” dates, it can be difficult to know when to replace common baking ingredients.
When to replace flour
All-purpose flour and other white flours should be replaced once a year if you don’t use them up before then. Flour can clump when stored in a humid environment and can also attract pests.
For gluten-free flour blends, the shelf life really depends on the makeup of the blend. Some starches are a bit more perishable than others, though generally, the shelf life should be several months. Fortunately, most gluten-free blends come in small packages, so it’s easier to run through what you have in a timely manner.
Whole wheat flour
Whole wheat flour has more oils in it than all-purpose flour and should be used within six months of purchase to ensure that no off-flavors develop in the flour.
If you live in a very warm and humid place, consider storing the flour in the freezer to extend the shelf life, as warm and humid environments can rapidly shorten flour’s stability. If stored in the freezer, allow the flour to come to room temperature before using.
When to replace sugar
Sugar has a nearly indefinite shelf life. You should not have to replace it unless you run out.
Unlike granulated sugar, brown sugar contains molasses to give it a moist texture and rich flavor. It can dry out and turn into a hard, nearly unusable brick if left unsealed. While brown sugar can be softened, consider replacing it after 6 months if you discover that it has hardened.
Also known as confectioner’s sugar, this product is so fine that even a small amount of moisture can cause it to clump up and harden. As long as it is stored in a sealed container, however, it should last indefinitely.
When to replace flavorings
Cocoa powder has a long shelf life of 2-3 years. Like many other finely milled products, it can clump up over time if exposed to humidity. Sieving the cocoa powder will eliminate any lumps and make it suitable for any recipe.
Dry spices start to lose their potency after they have been ground. Replace your ground spices every year to ensure you’re getting as much flavor from them as possible. Ground spices will still be safe to use if you don’t replace them, of course, but you may have to be more generous with them as they age.
Chocolate lasts a very long time if it’s kept apart from other aromatic foods, as the natural fats in chocolate can absorb other flavors quite easily. Chocolate may bloom — meaning that the cocoa butter will rise to the surface and give the chocolate a white-ish appearance — but it will still be safe to use in baking.
Most chocolate chips are stamped with a shelf life date of about 2 years, but they should last much longer if kept in sealed containers.
Extracts of all kinds should last indefinitely as long as they are closed. In open containers, the alcohol will begin to dissolve and you could end up with an empty bottle!
When to replace leavening agents
Baking soda and baking powder
Baking soda lasts for up to two years, as long as it is not exposed to liquids. Baking powder is even more sensitive to moisture than baking soda and should be replaced every year. If you are uncertain about the freshness of your baking powder or baking soda, you can easily test them to ensure they are still good.
Tips for maximizing shelf life
- Store all your staples in airtight containers or zip-top bags to prevent humidity from impacting them.
- Keep your products in a cool, dry place to maximize their shelf life.
- Use a permanent marker to mark your products with a purchase date so you can easily see how long they’ve been in the pantry.