New Year Pantry Purge Blows Open Your Mind

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in: Cooking

Start off the new year with a well-organized pantry. (Magnifying glass for reading expiration dates optional.) Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

When was the last time you cleaned out your kitchen pantry? I mean really cleaned it out? Sure, you try to stay on top of it, but the next thing you know you’ve got expired cans of tomatoes dating back to 2009. Oh, wait, maybe we’re talking about me.

Not long after 2016 made its debut, I opened up my pantry door to find not the can of beans I was after, but pure chaos. I practically needed a machete to hack through the jungle of “vintage” condiments, dusty spices and botulism-enhanced canned goods. How did I let it get that bad? I resolved then and there to mend my disorganized ways.

I began by taking every single thing out of the cabinet and surveying the damage. Holy Moses, was there any edible food in there? These are just some of the treasures I unearthed:

  • Cardamom seeds that expired in 2007.
  • A half-used pouch of never-good-in-the-first-place taco seasoning, “best enjoyed by” May 2008.
  • Two nearly full, expired bottles of Old Bay seasoning.
  • Truffle salsa brought back from a trip to Umbria in 2007.

No one likes a braggart, but I think I set some kind of record with this one: a bottle of Chinese five-spice powder from 1995!

Taking on the challenge

The pantry before (left) and after being cleaned out and organized. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

The pantry before (left) and after being cleaned out and organized. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Three large grocery bags could barely contain all the forgotten food items I hauled out to the trash bin. I didn’t know whether to feel triumphant or ashamed.

The fun part was starting with a blank canvas. After tossing all the expired stuff, there wasn’t much left. (As much as I love having six different olive oils and five varieties of vinegar at my disposal, these items do not actually qualify as food.) A trip to the grocery store soon remedied that, and I returned with peanut butter, oats, polenta, pasta and other staples for my sparkling-clean cabinet.

Bottles and boxes tend to go rogue once the pantry door is closed, migrating to who-knows-where the minute your back is turned, so I also picked up a couple of baskets and a Lazy Susan to help keep everything in check.

Olive oils are now happily segregated in one of the baskets, placed in the front of the cabinet for easy access. My vinegar collection resides on the Lazy Susan, where a quick spin lets me find the bottle I’m looking for in seconds. Pastas and grains live together in harmony on the third shelf, and baking supplies stand ready on the bottom-right shelf. Few projects I’ve taken on lately have given me such satisfaction! Sometimes I open the pantry door just to admire the lack of clutter.

Starting fresh

Why, oh why, was I keeping a 7-year-old package of half-used taco seasoning? Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Why, oh why, was I keeping a 7-year-old package of half-used taco seasoning? Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Now that all my pantry foods are neatly organized and unlikely to poison my dinner guests, all I have to do is keep them that way. My pantry got out of control because I kept adding new stuff without purging the items that were past their prime. Well, there’ll be no more of that.

You too can start 2016 with a tidy pantry filled with still-edible foods. Just follow these tips:

Create groupings that make sense. For example, store all your baking supplies together, so you don’t end up buying multiple bottles of vanilla extract and jars of molasses. The items will be easier to locate, and you won’t have duplicates taking up extra space.

Pay attention to “use by” and expiration dates. If an item is stamped with a “use by” or “best by” date, that doesn’t mean it’s unsafe to eat when that day comes; it means the product’s quality can no longer be guaranteed. An expiration date, however, means “eat at your own risk.”

When you buy canned goods, place them behind the older ones on your pantry shelf, so you’ll remember to use them before they expire. In general, the shelf life of foods canned in liquids is one to two years.

Staying on track

Dried herbs are good for a year or two. Ground spices, like nutmeg, last two or three years. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Dried herbs are good for a year or two. Ground spices, like nutmeg, last two or three years. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Dried beans seem like they should last forever, but that’s not the case. According to the U.S. Dry Bean Council, beans that have been stored longer than a year may never get soft enough, no matter how long you soak or cook them. They’ll last longer if you keep them in an airtight container.

Check your spices. Dried herbs tend to lose their color and flavor after a year. Ground spices last longer, up to three years. If you have the time and patience to grind whole spices as you need them, you can keep them up to five years.

Move that honey! For decades I made the mistake of storing honey in the pantry, then gnashing my teeth when it became hard and crystalized. Well, guess what I learned while researching this article? Honey never expires! It just hates being kept in dark places. If you leave it out on the counter, it will remain fluid and keep its lovely amber color.

Look out refrigerator, I’m coming for you next.

Main photo: Start off the new year with a well-organized pantry. (Magnifying glass for reading expiration dates optional.) Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Zester Daily contributor Tina Caputo is a wine, food and lifestyle writer based in Northern California. Her stories have also appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Wine Review Online, VisitCalifornia.com and Sonoma magazine. 

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Comments

Wendy Petty
on: 2/2/16
Oh boy, I can totally relate. I've been amusing myself during this latest snow storm by cleaning my pantry. The task is complicated by the fact that I'm a forager, and have some really unusual foods in my pantry. I found a 1/4 c. of sliced dandelion root. How do I know it was a 1/4 cup? Because they were sitting in a measuring cup for who knows what reason. I found another little bowl full of seeds. What kind? Probably evening primrose. But since those ones escaped being labeled, I don't know from which year. I found an elderflower shrub from 2012, and have to wonder if that's still good. I've had good surprises, too. I found a pint of dried morels yesterday, and a little homemade black walnut nocino tucked into a corner this morning.
Tina
on: 2/2/16
Wow, your expired goods are so much more interesting than mine!

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