Tips for digging deep through your pantry (and navigating expiry dates) during isolation
Foods low in moisture and/or low in fats will keep longer, notes Julie Van Rosendaal
Many people are eating through their stores of food in their pantries and freezers as they stay home because of COVID-19. And, of course, not everyone can always afford to stock up, so it can be tricky coming across items that have been in there ... a long time.
Here are some tips:
"Best before" and "Use by" dates are generated by food manufacturers — they're all about the quality of the product — the freshness, flavour and nutritional value, not food safety. It's not a case of best before, harmful after.
"Expiry dates" are a different thing — they're required on a few foods that have specific nutritional requirements, like infant formula, meal replacement drinks.
"Packaged" dates are similar but used on retail-packed foods with a durable life date of 90 days or less, like fresh meat or dairy products.
Foods with an anticipated shelf life greater than 90 days (e.g., most canned foods, many dry foods and items that are sold frozen) are not required to be labelled with a best-before date, as they're generally considered to be shelf stable.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency says: "'A best before date, also known as a durable life date, tells you when the durable life period of a prepackaged food ends.
"Durable life means the anticipated amount of time that an unopened food product, when stored under appropriate conditions, will retain its freshness, taste, nutritional value and any other qualities claimed by the manufacturer."
In terms of best before/use by dates, generally foods that are low in moisture and/or low in fats will keep longer after the labelled date — things like crackers, cereal, rice, dry pasta and honey.
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Obviously, items like meat and dairy products have shorter timelines, but dairy can be used beyond the date on the package.
They tend to last longer if they're unopened. Exposure to air and dipped-in spoons can accelerate deterioration, but most often they're fine even if there's just a bit left. (If there's any sign of mould, toss it — particularly in soft foods organisms can more quickly travel through.)
As for dried herbs and spices, they won't go bad, per se, but will start to get dull and lose their flavour — it's generally advised that they be replaced after 1-3 years, but you can use your own discretion.
Store them in airtight containers in the dark and away from the heat (those spice racks that hung above the stove were not ideal), and avoid shaking them over a steaming pot.
Whole spices will last longer, with less exposure to the air. Grind them as you need them in a mortar and pestle, in a spice mill (an inexpensive coffee grinder is perfect — use it just for spices, not coffee), and some, like whole nutmeg, can be grated on a fine microplane grater.