10 Pantry and Freezer Staples to Buy in Bulk

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Supermarket sales are a tempting opportunity to stock up on groceries, and warehouse clubs such as Costco sell bulk items for low per-unit prices. Smart shoppers can set themselves up for plenty of cheap meals and "pantry shopping" when money or time is short. But no matter how appealing the prices, you waste money when you buy more food than your family will eat before it spoils, and some items have a shorter shelf life than you might think. Here are 10 foods that you can confidently buy in large quantities.

GRAINS AND LEGUMES

Cheap pantry staples such as dried beans, pasta, and grains are good foods to stock up on because they keep for years. White rice, for example, can last up to 30 years with no loss of flavor or quality, according to Brigham Young University research. Repackage these items in sealed containers, to keep out moisture and bugs, and keep them in a cool, dry place.

CANNED GOODS

Take note of the "use by" date and buy as many canned goods as you think you might consume before the deadline, which may be a few years out. Low-acid foods, such as tuna and soup, last much longer than acidic foods such as tomatoes and pickles (the acid eventually begins to corrode the container). The USDA warns against exposing cans to extreme temperatures and recommends discarding any dented or bulging cans.

BAKING STAPLES

Flour and sugar will last several years if kept away from light, heat, and moisture and stored in an airtight container (which might preclude snazzy canisters, because if air can get in, so can bugs). The exception is whole-wheat flour (the wheat germ can go rancid after awhile), but even that keeps for a year or two in the fridge. Don't stock up on baking powder or baking soda (unless you bake daily or use the latter for other purposes, e.g., freshening the fridge or brushing teeth). After about six months their leavening power starts to wane. Pure vanilla is almost always expensive, but grab some if it goes on sale -- the alcohol content preserves it practically forever. Bulk dark chocolate will last about two years, as long as you store it away from light and heat and manage not to eat it first. It may turn gray but will be perfectly fine once you melt it.

OILS

Oils often cost a pretty penny, so stock up when they're on special. Opt for several smaller bottles rather than one giant bottle or can. Although unopened oil keeps for two to three years, once you pop the top, you have less time till it goes rancid. If you keep olive oil in the fridge, you can extend the life of an open bottle to at least a year. The oil might become cloudy and thick, but the taste will not be affected. With nut oils (sesame, walnut, grape seed), six to eight months is all you're going to get, even in the fridge. Heat and light are the enemies, so if you must keep oil by the stove, put it into small containers that will be emptied quickly.

NUTS

Nuts contain oil and, like oils, can turn rancid and taste funny. The life expectancy of nuts stored in the pantry is just a few weeks, but they last up to a year in the freezer. Processed nut butters, such as peanut butter, last longer in the pantry than nuts -- up to a year for an unopened jar and a few months after opening. Natural nut butters without preservatives have a shorter shelf life and should be stored in the fridge after opening, for up to six months.

HERBS AND SPICES

It's sometimes worthwhile to buy those giant containers of herbs and spices when you find a good deal. Dried, whole leafy herbs such as thyme, oregano, and rosemary retain their flavor for up to three years, but anything ground or powdered has a much shorter shelf life. Keep dried herbs far from light, heat, and dampness but never in the fridge, where they might absorb odors. Salt will last longer than you do, and whole peppercorns hold their potency for a few years. Keep both away from moisture. Other whole spices, such as cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon sticks, maintain their flavor for a long time but rarely go sale.

CONDIMENTS

Mustard, ketchup, horseradish, sriracha, and the like frequently go on sale and stay potent for at least six months after they are opened. Although salad dressings and mayonnaise should be used up a little more quickly once you crack the lid, unopened bottles keep for quite a while, so buy several if you have storage to spare.

DAIRY

While most dairy products have a short shelf life, there are some you should feel free to buy in bulk and freeze. Hard, semi-hard, and aged cheeses such as cheddar, Monterey Jack, and Parmesan can be frozen successfully for up to four months if you wrap them well. It's best to grate or cook with cheese that's been frozen, rather than eat it on crackers or a sandwich. Butter freezes very well and keeps for up to a year. You can even freeze eggs for up to six months, if they are scrambled lightly with a bit of salt and put into freezer containers.

FROZEN FRUITS AND VEGETABLES

When a sale hits, fill your shopping basket with frozen fruits and vegetables. Frozen veggies will keep for up to a year if the package is unopened and the freezer is really cold. Some fresh fruit can be frozen, as well. If you buy a box of oranges but don't eat them all, you can peel and divide them into sections, put them in freezer containers, and cover them with water. Buy fresh berries when they're cheap and in season, then freeze them on a baking sheet and put them into zip-lock bags. The frozen fruit should keep for at least six months.

MEAT AND FISH

If your freezer is large enough, meat and fish are ideal foods to stock up on when prices drop. Repackage them in freezer containers or zip-lock freezer bags and they'll keep for up to six months. (Note that cut-up chicken has a shorter freezer life than whole chicken.) Your freezer should be set at 0 degrees Fahrenheit. The Department of Agriculture suggests using the freezer as short-term storage if the temperature is any higher; three months is the max.

Elizabeth Sheer

Elizabeth Sheer is a Brooklyn-based writer and researcher. In addition to researching and writing about household appliances and other consumer items, Elizabeth draws on her history of preparing cooking-related articles to conduct taste tests on all things delicious.

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