Thursday, March 11, 2010

Veggie Might: HOW Old Is That Oatmeal? When to Clean Out the Pantry

Written by the fabulous Leigh, Veggie Might is a weekly Thursday column about all things Vegetarian.

Last week, I came across an article in Slate, Ignore Expiration Dates, which claims that product dating is arbitrary and can largely be ignored. Since there are no food industry standards for “sell by,” “best by,” and “use by” dates, and because storage conditions will vary wildly, consumers are wise to use their judgment when deciding what to eat and what to toss.

Ignoring the “best by” date is something I do regularly. I tend to trust my nose and taste buds when deciding when food is past its prime, particularly with leftovers. It may seem reckless, but I seldom buy perishable food with such labels: never meat, occasionally dairy, and rarely eggs. Vegetables are pretty clear about letting you know when they’re done with you.

But what about the pantry? I have a bag of jasmine rice that’s been in my cupboard for at least a year. Is it time for us to part ways? How about that ancient package of texturized vegetable protein (TVP) nuggets? I can’t remember when I bought it or the last time I used it.

I mean, after a taste test of 28-year-old rolled oats, Brigham Young researchers determined that, if stored properly (sealed container, cool, dry place), dry goods and canned goods can last for years and years, taste be damned. Good news for emergency stockpilers and promising for my rice situation.

So what’s the skinny on pantry shelf life and storage? I jumped into my InterWebShip to see what I could find.

I was initially shocked at what I didn’t find: the FDA website has no recommendations for dry goods—at least not that I could find. Meat, eggs and dairy, and fruit and vegetables are covered, but grains, nuts, legumes, and spices are sadly neglected.

Fortunately, the usual culinary suspects (and one newbie) are chock full of great information:
In a nutshell (4 months; longer if refrigerated), dry good shelf life is less about spoilage that will make you ill and more about maintaining nutritional density and flavor. Following these storage basics will extend the life of your pantry goods and save you money:
  • Cool, dry location: vital. Pantry items should be kept between 60° and 70° F
  • Air-tight containers: important. Storing food in jars and canisters with tight-fitting lids increase the mileage of your goods.
  • Refrigeration/freezing: helpful. The oils in nuts and flours can turn rancid over time. Refrigeration stabilizes the oils and slows the aging process.
So what about my rice and TVP? Well, according to StillTasty, because I’ve kept my rice sealed and away from heat, it will last indefinitely. TVP lasts about a year in a sealed container, but I’m pretty sure it would sustain the roaches through the nuclear winter. If I don’t use it in a month, it’s getting the heave-ho. There is no room in my pantry for emergency insect food.

(Photo courtesy of Flickr member Maksis.)


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