The Specifics of Food Storage

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The Emergency Pantry Handbook(Skyhorse Publishing, 2013) by Kate Rowinski, is a guide for anything you and your family may need in an emergency.  Find out the basics you will need to know to survive and how to prepare for the emergency ahead of time. This excerpt is located in Chapter 5, “The Specifics of Food Storage.”

Every item in your pantry needs to be stored in the following three conditions to maintain optimum quality: cool, dry, and dark. High temperatures, humid or wet conditions, and exposure to light are the primary rea-sons for spoiled food. In addition, food must be kept safe from bugs and rodents. Keep these factors in mind when storing any food products. The following are specific recommendations for each food group.

Long-term Storage of Whole Grains, Beans, and White Rice

Whole grains, dried beans, and white rice are very durable, but they must be stored in a cool, dry location. Temperatures of 50–60°F are ideal for ensuring maximum longevity. Overheating or wide temperature swings will shorten their life. Likewise, humidity causes challenges. Any time moisture is present, there is a danger for molds and bacteria to grow.

Bulk foods used for long-term storage should be carefully sealed to keep them safe from pests and rodents. To store a large quantity of dried bulk foods, choose food-grade five-gallon buckets with gasket lids. Line each bucket with a Mylar bag. Place one 500cc oxygen absorber in the bottom of the bag. Fill the bag about half way, shaking the bucket to settle the food. Add another oxygen absorber and then fill the bucket, leaving about an inch of space on top. Place another oxygen absorber on top.

Pull the bag up as high as you can, settling the food into the bucket. Use a hot iron to seal the Mylar bag. Place a board on the edge of the bucket, lay the bag top straight, and start sealing the bag from left to right, making sure to squeeze out excess air before finishing the seal. Fold the bag down and place the gasket lid on the bucket.

How to Store Flour

For long-term storage, whole grains are definitely the way to go. Flours tend to be more fragile and most will keep for less than a year. Whole grain flours in particular do not keep as long because the germ portion of the whole grain causes the flour to become rancid over time.

If you are rotating flour every couple of months, remove it from the paper container it came in and place it in a sealed container to keep it fresh and protect it from pests. To store white or corn flour for longer than a few months, pack it into re-sealable plastic bags, squeezing out as much air as you can before sealing. Place bags in the freezer for a few days to kill any living organisms. Store bags inside a five-gallon bucket using the sealing method above. 

Pasta is more durable than flour and can keep up to eight or ten years in an airtight container, safe from moisture.

How to Store Fats and Oils

Like all items placed in storage, oils need to be protected from heat, light, and oxygen. Over time, any oil will begin to oxidize, turning rancid. Oil becomes rancid long before we can detect it, so unlike with other foods, a simple sniff and taste test will not tell you whether your oil is still good. To do the best job of storing your oil, note the following:

Choose lighter vegetable oils for storage, rather than the more flavorful dark olive oils and specialty oils, which tend to have a shorter shelf life. Coconut oil is also a good choice; it tends to be somewhat more stable and can be kept for at least two years.

  • Find the coolest place in your house to store oils. Even unopened containers generally only have a shelf life of about a year, so check the manufacturer’s date stamp.
  • After opening, place oil in a glass container with a good seal. If you can use darkened glass, all the better. Refrigerate opened oil; unrefrigerated oil can start turning rancid within weeks. Don’t worry if your oil becomes cloudy in the refrigerator; it is still perfectly good.
  • Because of oil’s relatively short shelf life, any oil you keep in your pan-try should be carefully rotated. Buy small containers so you only have to open what you can use within a month or so.
  • Shortening is another good choice for storage. An unopened can of shortening can keep up to ten years. Shortening, butter, and peanut butter powders can also be stored by up to five years or more in sealed containers, but should be used within one year of opening.

How to Store Yeast

Keep yeast in its original packaging. Storing yeast in a cool location is best; yeast kept in a cool pantry will be good for up to two years, while frozen yeast can be kept much longer. Refrigerate all unopened yeast if you can.

Because yeast is a living organism, it must be alive to work its magic. To test the viability of your yeast, place one and a half teaspoons of yeast, along with one teaspoon of sugar into one-fourth cup of warm water. Set aside for about ten minutes. The yeast mixture should bubble up during that time, doubling to about one-half cup. If it doesn’t, it won’t have the strength to raise your bread adequately.

How to Store Dry Milk

Dry milk is an important part of the food pantry. Besides being used for drink-ing, it is an integral ingredient in baking recipes. In addition to calcium, milk also delivers needed vitamins A and D. It is important to keep milk fresh, particularly to preserve the vitamins which can be lost through exposure to light.

Milk is highly absorbent so dry milk packaged in cardboard should be immediately placed in a glass container with a tight fitting lid to prevent it from absorbing moisture and odors. This is important even if your milk is for short-term use. Keep it in a darkened pantry or in the refrigerator.

For long-term storage, buy #10 cans that are factory sealed, but remember, an airtight seal does not immunize the milk from moist or high temperature conditions. Milk requires the same care regardless of the container. If you want to pack your own larger containers of milk, you may store them in large buckets using the method outlined for grains.

How to Store Sugar, Honey, and other Sweeteners

Sugar is a very durable foodstuff and requires nothing more than a dry container to stay good for a long time. All types of sugar, whether white, brown, or powdered, are highly susceptible to moisture and easily conduct odors, so place your bagged sugar into an airtight container. If sugar is exposed to moisture, it will get hard and lumpy, but it will still be okay for use. Use the method outlined for grains to store large quantities of sugar in buckets.

Honey is the original long-term sweetener (containers of edible honey have been found in ancient tombs!). Honey keeps very well indefinitely. Buy only pure filtered honey and store it in glass containers in your pantry. If honey crystallizes, just place the container in hot water until it melts.

Molasses and maple syrup are great to have around for baking and breakfast. Molasses is my favorite sweetener for baking; I love the rich darkness it adds to breads and cookies. You should keep both of these syrups in a cool, dark place and use within two years.

How to Store Salt

Salt keeps indefinitely and has many uses, so keep a good quantity of it in your food storage. It is an integral ingredient, not only for cooking, but for preserving and drying foods.

Iodized salt, which has a small amount of iodine added, is generally processed with anti-caking ingredients. Iodine is a crucial nutrient not found in many foods other than seafood, so it’s good to add iodized salt to your meals.

Kosher salt is a coarse salt that is produced without caking agents. It dissolves quickly and can be used for brining or curing meats.

Sea salt can be purchased finely ground or in coarse crystals. We love the flavor of these natural salts, which tend to carry along the mineral flavors from where they were produced.

Pickling salt is a finely ground salt that is produced without added iodine, used specifically for brining and canning vegetables, pickles, and sauerkraut.

Curing salt is a combination of salt and sodium nitrate. It is used to preserve and cure meats, as well as in sausage making. You will generally find it in a pink color with a small amount of red dye added.

How to Store Dehydrated Foods

Pre-packed dehydrated foods should be stored in a cool, dry location. Once opened, they should become a regular part of your food rotation and are best used within a year or so. Commercially dried or freeze-dried foods have very low moisture content, and an opened can may be susceptible to humidity. If you live in a humid area, consider transferring opened dried fruits and vegetables to glass storage containers.

Home-dried foods generally have higher moisture content than commercially prepared foods. Store your dried foods in airtight containers.

I prefer to use home-dried fruits and vegetables within six months, but depending on the moisture content and your own storage conditions, they may last longer. Homemade jerky is best used within a month or so.

How to Store Canned Foods

Canned goods will form a large portion of your pantry and are easy to store. Commercially canned products should be stored in a cool, dry place. A temperature of 50–75 degrees Farenheit is ideal, with relatively low humidity. Don’t be tempted to bargain shop for dented cans, especially those you plan to put into storage. A small dent may be okay, but deep dents are just inviting trouble.

Canned goods generally have a “best if used by . . .” date stamped on their labels. This is a voluntary date that is placed on the can by the manufacturer, and is meant to indicate how long the food will be at its absolute best. It is not an actual expiration date. Canned food that is past the date on the can is most likely still perfectly fine. In fact, it will probably continue to be good for use for many months after. You can use the manufacturer’s guideline to gauge the age of your food, but the best way to find out whether it is edible is to open it, check its appearance, and smell it.


Canned foods will last for several years under good storage conditions. Canned fruits, tomatoes, and tomato-based sauces will generally keep their freshness and color for twelve to eighteen months. Canned vegetables generally will keep their freshness and color for about two years. Canned legumes, canned soups, stews, and meats have an even longer shelf life of two to five years.

The “best by” date is irrelevant if the can has swelled or is leaking. Discard any cans that are heavily rusted, have been frozen, or smell “off” when opened. I rotate my home-canned foods a bit faster than my commercial cans. After all, I grew and canned them myself so I want to use them at their fresh-est. High acid foods such as fruits and tomatoes should be used within a year or so, while low acid foods will last a bit longer. You may notice some rust on the metal rings, but as long as the seal is okay, the food should be fine. 

Shelf Life of Foods

“Sealed” refers to hermetically sealed containers. These are estimates, and will vary based on storage conditions. Check the manufacturer’s dates for specific information. For commercial products, check the manufacturer’s “best by” date, and use that as your “sealed” date.

Reprinted with Permission from by The Emergency Pantry Handbook Kate Rowinski and Published from Skyhorse Publishing