When spring rolls around, we think about cleaning our houses from top to bottom (which I have been doing the past two days!), but what about the pantry? Jars roll into corners, bags get pushed to the back, everyone keeps ignoring the hominy…time to spring clean the pantry, too! (Got hominy? Add it to soups, stir-frys, and even salads. Or make Mexican pozole, which is based on hominy.) Making sure your pantry is stocked with still-fresh ingredients will make meal planning easier, plus you’ll save grocery $$ by not re-buying what you already have. And even though pantry goods are by definition less perishable than produce and dairy products, just about everything eventually has an expiration date.
Whole grains taste better and are a better nutritional choice than refined grains, but whole grains go rancid much faster than refined grains do. (Whole grains still have their fat-containing, nutrient-rich germ, whereas refined grains are just starch.) Check all of your whole-grain products to make sure they’re still fresh. How to tell? If your oats or whole-grain pasta have a faintly fishy or “off” odor, they’ve started to spoil. Pitch them and replace them at your earliest opportunity. Better yet, pitch the refined-grain products, too, and stock your pantry with 100% whole-grain products!
Flours made from grains, nuts, and seeds are especially prone to going rancid because of the nutrient-rich fats they contain, so check through your flours to make sure they’re still pleasantly aromatic and fresh-smelling. (When grains, nuts, and seeds are ground, their delicate inner germs are exposed to air and will go rancid more quickly than intact whole grains do.) You can greatly prolong the life of your grains, nuts, and seeds by refrigerating or even freezing them. Flour in particular benefits from being refrigerated/frozen—if you stumble onto a deal for whole-grain flour, write the date on it and pop it into the freezer. Essentially, you’ve stopped time, granting your flour life beyond its expiration date: if it still had a year to go pre-freezing, when you thaw it, it’ll be good a year from the thaw date.
NUTS & SEEDS
It’s easy to make sure nuts and seeds are still fresh—taste them. If your mouth is flooded with unpleasant bitterness or a moldy flavor, spit it out and toss those nuts/seeds! Next time, try refrigerating or freezing them. Delicate nuts like walnuts and macadamias and delicate seeds like chia, flax, and pumpkin seeds should always be refrigerated/frozen.
CANNED BEANS, CANNED CORN, CANNED TOMATOES & DRIED BEANS
Canned veggies and dried legumes (beans, lentils, split peas) are some of the sturdiest pantry goods out there, but still, check those dates! Rearrange the cans so that the soonest-to-expire are at the front, right there for the taking. Dried legumes generally last for years, but be aware that older legumes take longer to rehydrate/cook, so it’s a good idea to keep those circulating, too, according to the date that’s stamped on them. If there is no date—say, you bought them in bulk—write the date on them when you bring them home.
While sweeteners have an especially long shelf life, dry sweeteners like sucanat and palm sugar can become caked and hard over time, and honey will eventually crystallize. Clumping can be fixed by stirring/whisking, and you can gently heat honey to liquefy it, but still, it’s best to take stock of what you have on hand so that you use you what you already have before buying more. Maple syrup, one of the most nutritious sweeteners—although keep in mind that even natural sweeteners are still primarily sugar!—is the most perishable and should be refrigerated if you’re going to have it around for more than a year.
Spring cleaning bonus: take the opportunity to “swap up” whenever you can by trading refined grains and sweeteners for less-processed versions. Your carefully curated pantry will make healthy dinners a snap!