When is the last time you looked at the expiration date on your bag of flour or sugar?
Illustrations and photos via CakeSpy unless otherwise noted
Learning how to store ingredients is important to ensure freshness and the best possible outcome in your cooking or baking. With perishable items such as eggs or milk, it’s easy to know when an ingredient is past its prime: just look at the expiration date. But with pantry items, such as flour, sugar, baking soda, or baking powder, there are ways to store them to ensure the best possible result.
Here’s a guide to the proper storage of common pantry items used for baking.
Flour bags are typically labeled with an expiration date of about a year from purchase date, but if you’re a frequent baker, the flour will probably be long gone by then. For the most part, keeping flour in a pantry is fine for a few weeks; storing it in an airtight container will discourage bugs, dust, or other debris to find its way into the container.
The key exception would be if you live in a high humidity area. Keep your flour in an airtight container, and store in either the refrigerator or freezer to avoid clumping and to prevent too much moisture from getting into the flour. Let the flour come to room temperature before using in a recipe.
If you are an infrequent baker or unsure of how the weather might affect your flour, it won’t hurt it to keep it in the refrigerator.
Whole wheat flour, whole grain flours and nut flours
Whole wheat, whole grain, and nut flours have a much shorter shelf life than all purpose flour, and will benefit from storage in airtight containers or freezer bags in the refrigerator or even the freezer. This is especially important for nut flours, which can go rancid. Properly stored, they can last 6 months or longer.
Granulated white sugar and confectioners’ sugar
Sugar will keep indefinitely (or at least up to a year) if stored properly. Store both granulated and confectioners’ sugar in a cool, dry place, in an airtight container or freezer bag, away from moisture of any sort. It can develop clumps when exposed to moisture. Keep the sugar way from spices and pungent-smelling foods: it can absorb scents from other foods, and nobody wants their buttercream tasting like curry. It is not suggested to refrigerate sugar, as this can encourage lumps to form.
Brown sugar has a much higher moisture content than granulated or confectioners’ sugar, so it’s extra-important to keep it from forming lumps. First off, keep brown sugar in an airtight container. This will help seal in the moisture and make it last longer.
Another method is to store brown sugar in the freezer and let it thaw overnight or several hours before baking. If you decide you need some of the chilled sugar right away, you can heat it in the microwave (no paper towels or plastic wrap needed) to thaw it out quickly.
Keep your baking soda for baking (as opposed to a box you might put in the fridge to capture odors) in a cool, dry place such as a cupboard, with the lid closed. It will keep for up to a year. To test if your baking soda is still active, pour a view drops of vinegar over 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda. It will bubble vigorously if it is fresh.
Keep your baking powder in a cool, dry place such as a cupboard, with the lid closed. To test if your baking powder is still active, mix 1/2 teaspoon baking powder with 1/4 cup water. It will bubble if it is fresh.
Active dry yeast packets or powder will come with an expiration date; it can be kept in a cool, dark place until this date. If you live in an area with temperature fluctuations or high humidity, stay on the safe side and store it in the refrigerator.
Fresh yeast cakes can be kept at room temperature until opened, at which point its time is ticking: most manufacturers suggest that you use it within 10 days.
To test to see if yeast is still active, dissolve 1 teaspoon sugar in 1/2 cup warm water (110°-115°). Sprinkle with 1 packet or 2-1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast. Stir and let stand for 10 minutes. If it bubbles, it’s good to go–just remember to reduce the liquid in your recipe by 1/2 cup.
Liquid extracts such as vanilla will keep for a year or longer. They are best stored in a cool, dark place. Avoid storing it near a heat source (for instance, a cupboard directly over an oven). Do not store in the refrigerator or freezer, as this can make your extract cloudy.
For whole vanilla beans, store them in a cool, dark place away from high heat or cold temperatures. Once opened, keep in an airtight container to keep them moist.
Spices don’t go “bad” per se, but they will lose their flavor and potency. Unopened containers of dried whole spices can last up to two years, depending on the type of spice.
Store spices in a dark place at cool room temperature. Whole spices last longer than ground; once ground, it’s suggested that you use most spices within six months for the best flavor.
Chocolate will keep for a very long time: for white or milk chocolate, up to 9 months, and dark chocolate is said to last for upwards of 10 years (although who’s going to have chocolate around for 10 years without using it?). Keep your baking chocolate in a cool, dark place, tightly wrapped. Do not refrigerate or freeze.