5 Ingredients That Won’t Expire, and Your Spice Rack’s Shelf Life

Almost everyone has experienced it: You’re reaching for the nutmeg to put into your cookies and you realize you have no idea when you purchased the little spice container. Or you go to throw a bit of paprika on your chicken and you have no idea if it is past its prime, and what will happen to the food if it has indeed expired.

The first bit of good news from Eat by Date is that since the expiration date is generally a “best by” date, spices lose their potency but do not necessarily become a health liability. The taste of whatever you are preparing will suffer, though, since spices are meant to alter a food, and expired spices aren’t much help in that department. Since a dinner or dessert bursting with flavor is on everyone’s agenda, here are the dates you need to keep in mind for your spices, as well as five ingredients that don’t expire.

Spice rack

Some companies, like McCormick, put a “best by” date on products, and the company advises that you pitch any spices from it that do not have this date. It also provides some general guidelines so you know how long you can expect various spices and seasonings to last. For ground spices, expect them to last between three and four years; leafy herbs, on the other hand, can last for anywhere from one to three years. Whole spices can stick around for four years, and the same is true for all extracts except vanilla (more on this later) and food dyes.

A bottled seasoning blend is OK for one to two years, and the same goes for marinades and sauces. Recipe mixes aren’t bad until two years later, about the same as seafood mixes, which last for 18 to 24 months. Fresh spices will only be good for about a week, unless it is garlic. Fresh garlic can be kept for four to six months before it is time to get a new batch.

That doesn’t totally solve your spice shelf life woes, though. If you buy spices that do not come with a label, create your own with the date you bought it so that you can keep track of how long spices have been hanging out in your cupboard. Always store herbs and spices in tightly sealed containers in dry, dark places. Putting paprika, chili powder, and other red pepper family spices in the fridge can keep them fresher and help preserve their color.

Color is a decent way of testing your spices for freshness. Spice Islands, another company fulfilling seasoning needs for chefs and bakers, has a few tips for understanding the quality of what is in your pantry. First, you can check the color: leafy herbs fade, and red spices will turn brown as they age. The aroma of the spice should still be strong — if you put a bit in your hand and you are not hit right away with the scent of cinnamon, cloves, or whatever you are testing, it is probably time to consider buying another container. To see if a whole spice is still fresh and smelling as it should, break them to release the scent.

Baking soda and baking powder

Arm & Hammer says that after three years, your baking soda — a leavening agent responsible for making your baked goods spread — has probably expired. There is a date stamped on the bottom of the box that can help guide you, but as Eat By Date explains, baking soda will lose its power over time, and its potency is affected by how you store it. To test the strength of your baking soda, take a ¼ cup of baking soda and add 4 teaspoons of vinegar. If it begins to bubble immediately, your baking soda is still good. To keep it lasting as long as possible, store your baking soda in a dry place, covered tightly.

Unlike baking soda, baking powder — which helps baked goods to rise and gives them a lighter texture — has a much shorter shelf life. The folks over at Clabber Girl say that to ensure the best results, six months to one year after opening, it is time to consider a new container of baking powder. A “best if used by” date can be found on the bottom of the company’s containers, and a production date is also included. The code “#11046″ was given as an example: It translates as baking powder produced in 2011, on the 46th day of the year. The quick turnover is explained by the company — as soon as it is opened, moisture begins to seep in, and the leavening ability of the product decreases.

Non-expiring ingredients

Then there are the items that can hang out in your cabinets for as long as they last. One example of this is pure vanilla extract, which does not have an expiration date. Joining in on the good-for-life club is sugar. Domino says that since sugar “does not support microbial growth,” it will last forever when properly stored. Eat by Date claims this is only part of the story, though. Even though sugars will last indefinitely, brown sugar and powdered sugar are better to use within two years. Also, just because brown sugar has hardened doesn’t mean it has gone bad — it just needs to be softened in the microwave. White sugar lasts the longest in dry environments; brown sugar benefits from a little moisture in the air.

Honey is another ingredient that is going to outlast a lot of other items in your kitchen. Smithsonian describes this never-ending shelf life as the result of “a whole slew of factors working in perfect harmony.” Chemical makeup plays a large role, as so does storage. Your honey won’t be around forever unless you are keeping it sealed and in a dry environment. The same rules apply for corn starch, an item Argo and Kingsford said will stand the test of time as long as it is kept dry. Salt will keep going, too. According to Morton, regular old salt won’t expire, but once you add in other factors — like iodine — you change the equation; iodized salt will last for about five years.

More From Wall St. Cheat Sheet: