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Which Pantry Items Are Worth Packing for a Move?
You don’t want to schlep a bunch of expired spices with you to your next home. Here's what to pack and what to toss.
08-24-2021
Mari Levine

Unpopular opinion: I love moving. I always have. Sure, it’s time-consuming and disruptive. But it’s also a blank slate. A new beginning. I love the opportunity to go through my belongings—especially my kitchen pantry.

I always try to cook or bake through what I can to lighten the load before I move. It’s a fun challenge, but I’ve never been able to get through all my spices, oils, and pantry staples before moving day. So it’s good to know how long these items last. I don’t want to schlep a bunch of expired spices with me to my next home.

If you’re packing for a move, here are some tips on which pantry ingredients to keep and which to toss based on past experiments we’ve conducted in the test kitchen. (Depending on how far away you’re moving, you might want to leave some of these things behind. If you choose to do that, you’ll know what’s worth giving away and what’s worth pitching.)

Spices

Whole spices: Last for two years
Ground spices: Last for one year
Dried herbs: Last for one year

How to check dried herbs for freshness: Crumble a small amount of the dried herb between your fingers and take a whiff. If it releases a lively aroma, it's still good to go. If the aroma and color of the spice have faded, it's time to restock.

Coffee

To determine how long coffee maintains the best flavor after roasting, we bought 30 bags of beans (all from the same batch, packaged within hours of roasting in one-way valve bags). Over two weeks, we used our haul to prepare two pots of coffee daily: one made with beans from a just-opened bag, the other using beans stored on the counter in a sealed zipper-lock bag with the air pressed out. A few very discriminating tasters noticed a change in taste after just a few days of storage; many tasters noticed a deterioration after 10 days; and most tasters agreed the coffee tasted markedly less fresh after 12 days. 

Bottom line: Opened beans stored in an airtight container should be used within 10 to 12 days. Any beans that have been open for longer than that should be composted instead of packed up.

Cocoa Powder

Wondering if cocoa spoils or loses its flavor over time as spices do, we made hot cocoa and butter cookies with cocoa powder that was one to two years past its expiration date and compared the samples with those made with fresh cocoa. Tasters could not differentiate between the samples. The compounds that give cocoa powder its flavor are less volatile than those in ground spices, which lose much of their flavor and aroma after a year. The more volatile the molecule, the more rapidly it evaporates and degrades.

Bottom line: If you come across cocoa powder that's past its expiration date–even by a couple years—it's fine to keep.

Honey

Honey never spoils and can be stored indefinitely. If it crystallizes, put the opened jar in a saucepan filled with 1 inch of water, and heat the honey until it registers 160 degrees (make sure that the jar is heatproof).

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Chocolate

Dark chocolate: Lasts for several years
Milk chocolate: Lasts six months to a year
White chocolate: Lasts six months to a year

If chocolate is exposed to rapid changes in humidity or temperature, the sugar may dissolve or the fat may migrate to the surface, discoloring it. This condition, known as bloom, is cosmetic and not harmful—bloomed chocolate is safe to eat and cook with.

Oils

Check the harvest date printed on the label of high-end oils to ensure the freshest bottle possible. (Some labels cite an expiration date, which producers typically calculate as 18 months from harvesting. We think unopened olive oil can go rancid one year after the harvest date.)

To check oil for freshness, test it by heating a few tablespoons in a skillet. If vegetable oil smells anything other than neutral—and if olive oil smells musty rather than fruity—discard it.

Vinegars

Good news: Most vinegars contain about 5 percent acetic acid, which (along with pasteurization) prevents the growth of harmful bacteria, and will last indefinitely. If your vinegar has formed some unsightly but harmless sediment, you can remove it by straining the vinegar through a coffee filter set inside a fine-mesh strainer.

Baking Soda and Baking Powder

Despite most manufacturer claims of a one-year shelf life, our tests have proved that baking soda and baking powder lose potency far sooner. We’ve found that they both have a shelf life of about six months.

Flour

The shelf life of flour is about one year. Most flours can be stored in the pantry in an airtight container (transfer flour out of its paper bag to protect it from humidity), but whole-wheat flour should be stored in the freezer. It contains natural oils that will go rancid in as little as three months otherwise.

Yeast

Yeast benefits from being stored in a cool, dry place: a pantry; refrigerator; or, best of all, the freezer. Because yeast is a living organism, the expiration date on the package should be observed.