The Importance of Shelf Life

The Importance of Shelf Life
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baking Baking for the holidays is a tradition for many cooks. One secret to baking the best breads, cookies, cakes and other desserts is using fresh ingredients that haven't outlived their shelf lives. Using old baking soda or powder, for instance, can make your baked goods fall flat. It's important to store ingredients properly and replace them when they are past their expiration date.

Baking soda and baking powder are two common ingredients in baking that aren‘t used rapidly, so they may easily be past their shelf life. As a general rule they should be replaced once a year. They can both be tested for freshness if you aren't sure of their expiration date.

Add two tablespoons of white vinegar to a cup or bowl and drop in a teaspoonful of baking soda. It should fizz rapidly if it's still fresh. If it doesn't, then replace the box. Baking powder is tested the same way but with warm water, not cold. If there are no bubbles or only a few then it needs to be replaced.

I know many of you hate to waste pantry items, so use the expired baking powder and soda to boost a load of laundry along with your usual laundry soap. Simply add a 1/2 cup or so to a load with the soap.

The following items should also be replaced as noted and stored properly.

Salt doesn't actually expire, but if it has an additive such as iodine its shelp life is about five years. Regular table salt is recommended for baking, plain or with iodine, but don't use kosher or sea salt as a baking substitute unless the recipe specifies either one. They are much coarser and won't work as well.

Nuts such as peanuts, walnuts, almonds, pecans and cashews can spoil after time, and they can also absorb odors from items they are stored with, so proper storage is important. If you aren't using the nuts immediately, place them in a freezer bag or container. Store them in the freezer for about a year and the refrigerator for 4-6 months. Testing is as simple as eating one of the nuts. If it tastes fine, then it is good to use.

Sweetened coconut flakes can be stored in a freezer bag for at least a year in my experience, if kept in a freezer bag or container.

Vanilla extract is another essential ingredient in my pantry. Pure vanilla extract that is kept away from heat (Don't store spices or extracts above or next to the stove.) will last almost forever. Imitation extract has a shelf life of about five years. Pure vanilla extract is certainly worth the extra expense. I will cut corners whenever possible but it's the one ingredient I splurge on, especially during the holidays.

Cocoa has a shelf life of a year, but I can say that mine has lasted two years in the past and tasted fine. The same can be said for flour, though I go through flour quickly and having it in my cupboard for over a year has never happened. Flour can be stored in the freezer in an airtight container for 2-3 years. I've also kept it in the refrigerator in a container with a tight lid. It's important to remember that flour, other grains, baking soda, baking powder and other baking ingredients will absorb odors if they aren't kept in sealed containers. Using dry ingredients with a hint of onion or garlic in your cookies or cakes is not a good thing.

Sugar will last indefinitely if kept in a dry, cool place in an airtight container.

Lastly, if you bake with yeast, it's very important to make sure it's fresh before using it if you aren't sure of its age. I buy the jars of yeast because they are a better deal and I can keep them in the refrigerator for at least 2 years. It's important to remove it from the refrigerator only when needed, and immediately return it when finished. This keeps the yeast fresh and active.

While monitoring the shelf life of pantry items may be a bit tedious, it's important to the quality of the baking goods we make from scratch. It takes time and patience to bake, so why not strive for the best results possible?


About The Author

Brenda Hyde is a freelance writer living on ten acres in rural Michigan with her husband and three kids. She is a mom, grandma, gardener, cook and writer. She blogs on all of these topics at


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