A few years ago one summer while the strawberries were ripe, my mother kept having less than happy experiences with the biscuits she made for strawberry shortcakes. Since she was an excellent cook, we knew there had to be a reason for biscuits that did not rise to their expected heights. My suggestion that perhaps the baking powder was no longer good was immediately overruled… she didn’t bake very often any more, but my mother was absolutely positive that she had purchased baking powder quite recently. She was very surprised when she finally checked the can and discovered that the baking powder she had been using in these biscuits was many months past the expiration date. It’s quite possible that she had bought an outdated can… regardless, after the purchase of new baking powder, the next biscuits and strawberry shortcakes were everything they should be.

There’s a bit of a science to stocking a pantry and keeping it well-stocked and current, with the goal being to find that balance between having what you need available when you need it and not being so over-stocked that items go past their prime before you can use them. How long an item is safe to eat depends on many factors, and while they all can’t be controlled, it helps to have an idea of the general shelf life of the most common pantry staples.

Alpine columbine (Aquilegia alpina)

These guidelines come from the extension service, and like all guidelines should not overrule your own good common sense. If a food item seems “not quite right,” no matter what the date or how long you’ve had it, throw it out. The pennies you might save just are not worth the risk.

  • Baking powder — 1 1/2 years (if you’re in doubt, test by dissolving a small amount of baking powder in hot water… if you get good bubbles, it’s still OK)
  • Baking soda — 2 years (again, if you’re in doubt, test it by adding a few drops of vinegar to a small amount of dry baking soda… you should see some fizzing action… if not, throw it out)
  • Dry cereals — unopened packages 6 to 12 months, opened and re-sealed 2 to 3 months
  • Dry hot cereal — 6 months
  • Oatmeal — 1 year
  • Baking chocolate — 1 1/2 years
  • Semi-sweet chocolate — 1 1/2 years
  • Cocoa — indefinitely
  • Instant coffee — unopened jar 1 to 2 years, opened and refrigerated jar 2 months (freeze to extend shelf life)
  • Ground coffee — unopened can 2 years, opened and refrigerated can 2 weeks (freeze to extend shelf life)
  • Corn meal — 1 year (freeze for longer storage)
  • Grits — 9 months to 1 year
  • Corn starch — 1 1/2 years
  • White flour — 6 to 8 months
  • Whole wheat flour — refrigerated, 6 to 8 months (freeze for longer storage)
  • Jams and jellies — 1 year
  • Molasses — unopened 2 years, opened 6 months (refrigerate to extend shelf life)
  • Mayonnaise — unopened 2 to 3 months or expiration date (refrigerate after opening)
  • Non-fat dry milk — unopened 6 months, opened 3 months
  • Dried pasta — 2 years
  • Egg noodles — 6 months
  • White rice — 2 years
  • Brown rice — 6 months to 1 year
  • Flavored or herb rice — 6 months
  • Bottled salad dressings — unopened 10 months to 1 year, opened and refrigerated 3 months
  • Made from scratch or mix salad dressings — refrigerated 2 weeks
  • Vegetable oil — unopened 6 months, opened 1 to 3 months (no refrigeration necessary… store in cool, dark place)
  • Solid shortening — 8 months (no refrigeration necessary)
  • Brown sugar — 4 months (store in an airtight container to prevent hardening)
  • Confectioners sugar — 1 1/2 years
  • Sugar — 2 years
  • Corn syrup — up to 3 years
  • Pancake syrup — 3 to 4 months (refrigerate after opening)
  • Tea bags — 1 1/2 years
  • Instant tea — 3 years
  • Loose tea — 2 years
  • Vinegar — unopened 2 years, opened 1 year (distilled vinegar keeps longer than cider vinegar)
  • Herbs and spices — 6 months to 1 year (longer if frozen)
  • Peanut butter — unopened 1 year
  • Vanilla and other extracts — 3 to 4 years (use earlier for peak flavor)
  • Dried beans — 1 to 1 1/2 years
  • Dried peas and lentils — 1 year
  • Yeast — use-by date or freeze indefinitely
  • Nuts — unopened 6 months (2 years in the freezer)
  • Cake mixes — 1 to 1 1/2 years
  • Salt — indefinitely
  • Canned fruits and vegetables — within 2 years
  • Canned soup — within 2 years
  • Mustard — unopened within 1 1/2 years
  • Canned fish (unopened) — 3 years for water packed, 5 years for oil packed

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Thank you for this valuable resource. I learn much from your blog and your post today is no exception. I think it is time I went through my pantry and updated its contents. I know I have dry milk that is old and solid shortening that is probably bad too and some other stuff. Great post.


I just found your website and am really enjoying it. I have only one comment, honey as long as it is unopened can be kept nearly forever. It is a natural antibacterial and they have recently uncovered jars of it from a tomb in Egypt. The honey was opened and 3000 years later it was good, crystallized but it wasn’t rancid. :) I just thought I would share that.


wow, I had no idea about so many of these, thank you for sharing this!

Jon in France

Worth noting that honey – unopened or not – will keep indefinately. I was given some honey a couple of years ago that was harvested in 1947 (!) and it wasn’t just edible, it was actually quite good.


Thanks for the info.

I try to store flour, grits, barley, corn starch, etc in my freezer in sealed containers. It makes them last a lot longer. Maybe that’s just because I am in a sub tropical climate, but my mother never left those items in the pantry either.