Shelf-stable food is great because you can leave it in the pantry for a super-long time to eat at your leisure, unlike that browning banana you bought and left to die on the counter alongside a long-forgotten avocado.
When we’re loading our carts in the grocery store, we swear we’ll eat these things before they spoil. But far too often, we are sadly mistaken. But here’s the neat thing about shelf-stable food: It’s still safe to eat when you finally remember you bought it in the first place.
Why? Preservation and packaging. Even some perishable foods can be given longer life as long as they’re stored in an environment that’s dark, dry and cool. It’s doubly important that they’re in sterile airtight containers, because otherwise moisture can creep inside causing mildew or mold to grow.
So whether you’re prepping for an emergency situation or you just don’t want to go shopping more often than you need to, you’ll be surprised to know that these groceries have long shelf lives.
The National Honey Board says that honey stored in tightly sealed containers can last decades, and even centuries. However, it will darken and lose its aroma and flavor or crystalize if it’s not properly processed, packaged and stored, so a shelf life of two years is often printed on the label. Pro tip: Crystalized honey can be brought back to liquid form by placing the honey container in a pot of hot water. Glass bottles work best when reheating, but plastic will do.
Salt will last forever. In fact, what you’re eating may have already been around for billions of years before it was harvested from rock deposits or the ocean. Kosher and sea salt do not expire, but table salt will because it contains additives. Iodine and anti-caking agents spoil over time, so the shelf life for table salt is about five years.
Like salt, white sugar does not expire because it does not contain water and therefore cannot foster bacteria growth. If sugar is compromised by moisture, it might clump. In this case, just pop it in hot coffee or tea and let it melt, or stick it in a plastic Ziploc and pound away. Brown sugar also lasts forever, but is best within two years because it contains molasses. Unlike white sugar, it actually keeps longer in more humid environments. If your brown sugar clumps, put it in a bowl and cover it with a damp paper towel. Microwave for about 20 seconds to restore it. Any longer and you could end up with a big, gooey mess.
While cooked rice only lasts days, an unopened bag of dry white rice is good indefinitely. Once you break into the original packaging, transfer any unused contents to an airtight container or freezer bag. You can even keep it in the fridge or freezer to keep it safe from bugs and other contaminants. Uncooked brown rice has a shelf life of only six to eight months because it has a higher oil content.
The Whole Grains Council says that whole intact grains including wheat berries and brown rice can last up to six months on a cool, dry pantry shelf or up to one year in the freezer so long as they’re stored in an airtight container. Whole-grain flours and meals spoil sooner because their protective bran layer is broken, allowing oxygen to compromise them. These will keep for just one to three months in the pantry, and two to six months in the freezer.
Dried corn has a hard outer shell that protects it from spoilage for a very long time. You can expect a shelf life of 10 to 12 years if you keep dried corn (like popcorn) stored in an oxygen-free container in an area that’s steadily 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Colder temperatures could help it keep even longer.
Baking soda is technically good indefinitely, but most will have a “best by” date because it will lose potency over time. If you want only top-notch baking soda, try to use an unopened package within two years and an opened package within six months.
When stored at 40 degrees Fahrenheit and below, powdered milk can last two to 10 years unopened. Once you break into the package and activate it with water, however, it should be kept in the fridge and consumed within four to five days. You’ll know it’s gone bad if it has a yellow discoloration and odor.
There was once a rumor that Twinkies don’t ever expire, but that’s simply not true. This treat has a shelf life of 25 days, which doesn’t sound like much, but in the grand scheme of things that’s actually a long time for a baked good. The reason for this is that there are no dairy products used in Twinkies, so they spoil relatively slowly. Little Debbie’s Zebra Cake, Nutty Buddy and Oatmeal Creme Pie are guaranteed fresh for 60 days or six months when frozen. The brand’s Honey Bun keeps for 90 days.
Dried beans do not expire, but they will begin to lose their moisture and nutritional value after one to two years. After five years, all vitamins that were once inside will be gone completely. If you don’t care about nutrients, you can eat dried beans whenever — as long as bugs or mold haven’t gotten to them first. (It is OK to eat these moldy foods, though.)
The true shelf life of oatmeal depends on variety, packaging and storage, but as a rule of thumb it’s good for one to two years. If it’s flavored or made with cream, expect it to go bad within six to nine months. Minute and five-minute oatmeal lasts for two to three years, and steel-cut keeps for one to two years. This is all dry, of course. Prepared oatmeal is only OK to consume for five to seven days.
Potato flakes, or dehydrated mashed potatoes, store indefinitely so long as they’re kept dry, but expert preppers advise you eat any dried vegetable within eight to 10 years. This does not always apply to instant potato mixes though, as some brands add other ingredients to make them tastier.
Dried fruit doesn’t keep as well as dehydrated vegetables, but they’re still good for about five years if they’re stored in a cool place and kept away from oxygen. The cooler the temperature, the longer they’ll last.
Fresh pasta will last just four to five days beyond the “best by” date, and should ideally be eaten within a day or two of production. Dried pasta stays fresh for years because it contains no eggs or moisture. Cooked pasta has a relatively short shelf life of seven days in the refrigerator or six to eight months in the freezer.
In a pantry, instant coffee can last anywhere from two to 20 years. In the freezer, unopened containers will never go bad. If you break the seal on the original packaging, there’s a chance that moisture could get inside. If you see mold or any sort of bacterial growth, don’t chance it. Although instant coffee lasts the longest, it isn’t the best coffee in America — this is.
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