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There’s a universal truth in cooking: your finished dish will only ever be as good as the ingredients you make it with. Luckily for us home cooks, good pantry ingredients are more accessible than ever.

However, most of us hang onto our pantry ingredients for a little too long. Over time, those great ingredients become not-so-good ingredients. So if you’ve resolved to cook better in the new year, there’s no better place to start than your pantry staples.

These tips will help you maintain the quality of your pantry ingredients for elevated meals this year.

Check & Refresh Spices

Dry spices don’t necessarily go bad, but their flavors and aromas dull over time. Sadly, the expiration date or “best by” date printed on your spice jars doesn’t take this into account.

Replace these ground spices at least once a year:

  • Cumin
  • Turmeric
  • Cinnamon
  • Coriander
  • Paprika
  • Chili powder
  • Dried herbs (parsely, sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, cilantro, tarragon, marjoram)

Whole spices actually have a shelf life of almost twice as long. Why? When you grind whole spices, it releases their aromas and essential oils, making them taste and smell wonderful. However, these aromas and oils are “volatile” compounds, meaning they lose their potency over time. Keeping spices whole keeps the flavor and aroma locked in until you grind them fresh on the day they’re used.

Replace these whole spices every two years:

  • Peppercorns
  • Cinnamon sticks
  • Nutmeg
  • Coriander, cumin, and fennel seeds
  • Star anise and cloves

Seasoning salts and flavor enhancers like Old Bay, MSG, Lowry’s, contain more salts and less volatile organic compounds, so you don’t have to worry about replacing them as often. Here’s a good way to think of it—if the yellow on your tin of Old Bay is fading, it’s probably time for a new one!

Tips for your future pantry:

  • Whole and ground spices and herbs last longer in a cool, dry, dark place
  • Glass jars with an airtight seal give spices the longest shelf life
  • Seeds (sesame, poppy, mustard, etc.) typically only last 3-6 months depending on their oil content

Check & Refresh Dry Goods

Unlike aromatic herbs and spices, most dry goods don’t lose nearly as much flavor over time and have a much longer shelf life in your pantry. Many of these are more likely to lose their nutritional content before they lose flavor!

Here are some common dry goods and their shelf lives:

Rice: White varieties last years, but brown rice should be used within six months of the “best by” date.

Pasta: Lasts years, but can lose flavor after its “best by” date.

Flour: Use white flour before its “best by” date (luckily you’ll have up to two years).

Beans: While they basically last indefinitely, they can lose nutritional potency in the two years after their “best by” date.

Sugar: White sugar lasts indefinitely. Brown sugar is best used within six months of opening, but can last up to two years stored tightly in a cool, dark, dry place. 

Corn meal/grits/polenta: Typically last a year.

Tips for your future pantry:

  • Decant dry goods into glass jars, bins, or canisters with an airtight seal to preserve shelf life
  • Note the purchase and “best by” date before discarding packaging

Space Out Your Shopping

Odds are good that you’ll have a pretty big list of pantry items to buy after looking at all those expiration dates. Spices, grains, and condiments aren’t terribly expensive on their own, but they can certainly feel expensive when you buy them a dozen at a time!

The trick is to space out your purchases over the course of multiple shopping trips. Start with your most commonly used pantry staples first, then buy the things you use less frequently on later trips. For example:

Week 1 grocery shopping:

  • Black peppercorns
  • Kosher salt
  • Brown sugar
  • All-purpose flour

Week 2 grocery shopping:

  • Rice
  • Ground cumin, turmeric, and/or cayenne pepper
  • Pasta
  • Dried thyme, oregano, and/or parsley 

Week 3 grocery shopping:

  • Oats, lentils, or other grains
  • Sesame seeds
  • 1-2 baking spices (clove, cardamom, mace, whole nutmeg)
  • Garlic powder

Tips for your future pantry:

  • Write the date in sharpie on a spice jar when you open it so you know it’s past its shelf life.
  • Buy your most frequently used spices whole and grind them yourself for maximum flavor and aroma (cumin seed, fennel seed, and cinnamon sticks are a great place to start)

Explore New Ingredients to Elevate Your Pantry

Take it from our staff of experienced home cooks: It’s much easier to try new recipes and expand your cooking repertoire with a well-stocked pantry. 

We also know It’s hard to justify buying five new spices and three new sauces just to make one new dish, so try to build up the more exotic parts of your pantry one or two ingredients at a time. This makes it easier to try new recipes and discover amazing new flavors. 

Start with these spices and pantry staples (sorted by region) and you’ll be ready for almost anything:

Asian:

  • Gochugaru
  • Togarashi
  • Chili crisp
  • Gochujang
  • Furikake 
  • Sichuan pepper
  • Nori (seaweed paper)
  • Miso paste

Middle Eastern:

  • Aleppo pepper
  • Sumac
  • Za’atar 
  • Saffron

African:

  • Harissa
  • Couscous
  • Grains of paradise

Indian:

  • Garam masala
  • Fenugreek

South American:

  • Dried chiles & chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
  • Masa harina 
  • Mexican oregano

Tips for your future pantry:

  • Start with ingredients from regional cuisines you know, then work your way into the less familiar territory.
  • Make a wish list and buy one new ingredient each trip to build up your pantry over time
  • Make a special trip to a local Asian or Mediterranean market if you want to stock up

Stock Your Pantry With Quality Ingredients

We hope you’re excited to up your game in the kitchen this year. We’re excited to help. 
Visit Marks Pantry & Bottle Shop in-store or shop online to fill your pantry with premium ingredients for the best home-cooked meals!

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