Time to get more Tupperware! Food storage containers can prolong the life of your victuals—in the pantry as well as in the refrigerator and freezer.
DANIEL MEYER is a freelance writer in New York City.
Food Storage Tips
Keep Your Food Fresher, Longer
CAPSULE REPORT: How many times have you reached for a basic ingredient in the pantry or the refrigerator, only to find that it has spoiled and is unusable? If the answer is “more often than you’d like,” these tips from Consumer Reports’ ShopSmart,* along with some from THE NIBBLE editors, will keep it from happening again.
*Published in its July 2008 issue.
A lot of food goes to waste simply because people don’t know how to handle it properly once they get it home from the store. Even flour and other pantry staples left in their own packaging can spoil, get buggy or absorb odors from other foods. In fact, our most commonly-used foods, like butter and cooking oil, can be the hardest to keep fresh.
While most products these days have “best by” labeling, check before you purchase an item: Some stores have older inventory. If the product expires in three months and you won’t have used more than a few tablespoons by then, try a different store that may have fresher products.
Also take a moment each year (we like January 1, when we also check the freshness of our spices, but August 1 or any other date is fine, too), to go through the cabinets and discard old products. This year, we found that the date of an unopened box of blini pancake mix, stationed at the back of the top shelf of our pantry, said, “Best Before August 2000.” It’s not as if we didn’t know it was there...we just had no idea that it was older than most of our friends’ children.
But let’s return to keeping some of that younger food in tip-top shape. You’ll read recommendations below for airtight containers. An airtight seal is important in three key ways:
- In the pantry, it keeps tiny bugs out
- In the refrigerator and freezer, it keeps moisture out (or in the case of brown sugar, it keeps the moisture in)
- Everywhere, it keeps freshness in and external odors out
So, much as you may be attracted to a decorative canister set, if it doesn’t have an airtight seal, the decision is yours to sacrifice beauty for freshness.
Storage Tips For Everyday Foods
Whether left on the counter or stored in the refrigerator, bread can go stale or get moldy. If you’re not going to eat it within a few days, you can keep bread in the freezer for up to three months. To refresh thawed baguettes, rolls, and other breads, unwrap and heat them in the microwave for a few seconds. Before you freeze those English muffins, check out these recipes for “English muffin magic.”
As everyone who purchases brown sugar has experienced, it can get as hard as a rock within weeks of purchase. That’s because brown sugar easily loses moisture; the longer you have it, the more of a brick it becomes. Storing the box (or the plastic bag of sugar inside) in an airtight container will help keep the moisture in. If you’ve already got hardened sugar, here are three methods to making it soft:
- Put it into a microwave-safe container and zap it for 60 seconds.
- Heat it in a 250°F oven until it softens. But it has a tendency to lose moisture and solidify into a hard brick.
- Place a slice of fresh apple, along with the sugar, into a sealed canister or other container. This is the old-fashioned method, which takes overnight or longer for the moisture from the apple to absorb into the sugar.
The sugar that you don’t use at once will turn rock-solid again, but you can repeat the process the next time you need brown sugar. Read about the different types of brown sugar—and other sugars and syrups—in our Sugar Glossary.
All fats are fragile and can go rancid. To preserve freshness, wrap and freeze what you don’t use. Unsalted butter will keep well for about four to five months in the freezer, salted butter for about six to nine months. Read more butter storage tips, and about the different types of butter in our Butter Glossary.
Fresh cheeses need to breathe, and shouldn’t be kept in plastic wrap. Use wax paper or butcher paper, which better cheese shops do. At THE NIBBLE, we’ve been successful storing them in plastic containers where they are surrounded by air, but not enough to dry out. We also like this approach for more pungent cheeses—airtight containers also contain the aroma. Older, drier cheeses can be wrapped in plastic. The goal with all dairy products is not to buy more than you will use in a short period of time. See our Cheese Section for more information about caring for cheese.
CONFECTIONER’S SUGAR (POWDERED SUGAR)
Confectioner’s sugar can absorb odors from spices and any strong-flavored foods around it. Keep it in an airtight container. See our Sugar Glossary for more information about confectioner’s sugar.
Like all fats, oil can go rancid—you’ll know by the off, musty aroma that it’s time to toss the bottle. Heat and light are the enemies of oil. Store oils in a cool, dark place—never in a cabinet next to the stove. Buy only what you can use within three to six months—or one month for very fragile walnut and other nut oils. If you want to try a variety of oils but only need a need a smaller amount, consider sharing with a friend (recycle an empty glass bottle and divide the oil). You also can use a wine preservative to keep your oils fresh. Storing the bottles in the refrigerator is another way to extend their life, but the oil will congeal; give it 20 minutes to come to room temperature before using. Read our Culinary Oils Glossary for more information about cooking oil.
CRACKERS & CHIPS
Crackers and chips can get soggy quickly if they’re not sufficiently protected from humidity. A plastic clip or Quick Seal is the first step. If you won’t be finishing the crackers or chips within a few days, place them in an airtight canister or plastic container. (Find reviews of our favorite chips in the Snacks Section.)
Grinding meat exposes the maximum amount of surface to air, which hastens deterioration. Keep ground meat for no more than one to two days in the refrigerator, even if the “Best by” label indicates you have more time. It’s better to freeze it and defrost it when you’re ready to cook it, and use it up within three months. If you bought that meat to make burgers, read our Better Burger Tips.
While there are containers sold to protect pints and quarts of ice cream from developing ice crystals, an equally effective solution is to keep the surface of ice cream level and cover it with plastic wrap before putting the lid back on. Tamp the plastic wrap down so that it is flush with the surface of the ice cream, leaving no layer of air. Keeping the ice cream at the back of the freezer also protects it from temperature fluctuations. Read about the difference between ice cream and other frozen desserts in our Ice Cream Glossary.
NUTS AND SEEDS
To protect nuts and seeds from going rancid, store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator; they’ll last up to six months. In the freezer they’ll last up to 12 months. Freeze them in airtight, snack- or recipe-size portions so you can thaw only what you need. (We measure them out into 1/2-cup and 1-cup portions in Ziploc-type snack- or sandwich-size bags, inserted into a larger, airtight container.) Toast refrigerated or thawed nuts in a skillet or in the oven for a few minutes to bring out the flavor.
Ground spices typically have a two-to-three-year shelf life, but light, heat and moisture can cause them to lose their oomph much faster. Keep them airtight in a dark place, away from sunlight, the heat of the stove and heat-generating kitchen lights, and away from the moisture of the sink. Properly stored, whole spices will last longer than ground. See how long you can expect to keep your various spices and herbs.
Tea can easily absorb the flavors of other foods, as well as other teas. Don’t store an Earl Grey next to a Jasmine; in fact, each variety of tea should be stored in an individual airtight canister. Don’t be influenced by the handsome wooden presentation boxes at restaurants, which have a dozen different teas side-by-side: In most cases, those teas turn over quickly, before flavors have time to migrate. In other cases, the teas do absorb flavors from each other. Read more about tea in our Tea Section.
WHOLE GRAINS & WHOLE-WHEAT FLOUR
Brown rice, wheat germ, whole-wheat flour and other whole-grain foods contain higher levels of fat than refined grains (white flour, white rice, etc.). This shortens the shelf life, often to just one to three months. If you won’t be using your whole grains within this time frame, stick them in the refrigerator of freezer in an airtight container. They’ll keep about six months in the fridge and 12 months in the freezer.