Ready to Start Holiday Baking? Check on These Pantry Staples First
Spoiler: Baking powder has an expiration date.
Even if you’re a casual, non-experienced baker, there’s something about the holiday season that has us all feeling like we’re ready to become a full-on pastry chef. Whether it’s whipping up baked goods for loved ones, tackling tricky treats for potluck holiday parties, or indulging in seasonal sweets that often require a certain level of practice and finesse (woven pie lattices, we’re looking at you).
If you’re not a frequent baker, you may think your pantry, which is currently stocked with last year’s leftovers, is ready to go for your annual holiday baking spree. However baking, which relies on precise chemistry, can be completely disrupted by expired ingredients that don’t work the way they’re supposed to—resulting in a collapsed cake, or a sick guest, in the worst-case scenario. Make sure to check on these ingredients—they may not have as long of a shelf life as you think or may need a little doctoring to work the way you need them to.
Contrary to what most people believe about baking powder, this baking staple does not have an indefinite shelf life. While it doesn’t “spoil” in the traditional sense, it loses its reactivity over time, usually within nine months to a year, by exposure to moisture and humidity in the environment. If you try use expired baking powder, your baked good won’t rise or get fluffy, and you may be left with a dense, chewy product. There’s an easy way to check if your baking powder is still good to go: Just drop a spoonful in a glass of hot water. If it immediately bubbles, it’s still useable. If it doesn’t react (or is slow to start fizzing), it’s time to toss out the jar and get a new one.
Like baking powder, baking soda will lose its reactivity over time just by way of being exposed to humidity in the air, which can ruin your carefully crafted baked goods. There’s an easy check, though. Add a small spoon of baking soda to some vinegar or another acid, like lemon juice. If it rapidly bubbles, it’s still reactive, and you can use it with no problem. If not, you’ll need to re-stock.
Brown sugar is very long lasting—we’re talking about two years—if you store it in a cool, dry, dark space (your pantry is probably good on all three counts). However, a common problem with brown sugar is that it can solidify over time just by exposure to air, which means a little extra prep time on your part. First trick: Zap it in the microwave for about 20 seconds—but not too long, or it’ll start melting. You’ll only want to microwave however much sugar the recipe calls for. It’s tricky to store microwaved brown sugar, as it’s likely to re-solidify. Option two: Store your brown sugar with a slice of bread or an apple slice, and your stock should soften up within a day or two.
White flour only lasts for about one year, so if you’re not a frequent baker, it may be time to check out that package of all-purpose that’s been chilling in your pantry since last Christmas. If it looks, smells, or tastes off in any way, trust your instincts and toss the bag. To extend shelf life, make sure to store it away from moisture and heat—and if you’re really intent on making your flour last as long as possible, consider storing it sealed in the freezer, where it’ll be good for up to two years.
The paste, gel, and liquid varieties of food coloring have an incredibly long shelf life and won’t “spoil,” but they can dry out in the tubes if they’re not stored properly in an airtight container. Depending on the brand and type of food coloring you’re using, you can usually revive it by mixing it with a splash of oil.
Unopened shortening is usually OK on your shelves for one to two years, if it’s stored away from direct heat or moisture. You’ll want to keep an eye out for warning signs like any color changes, or if it starts smelling rancid—these are definite no-go’s, and it’s best to just throw it out. The best way to store vegetable shortening for the longest shelf life is in its original container that is usually air-tight, keeping it away from ambient humidity and heat.
The shelf life of vanilla depends on the quality. If it’s a pure vanilla extract, it can last pretty much indefinitely (barring any concerning odors or sediments). If you’re using imitation vanilla, the extract is safe to use for about two to four years. You should still check for any cloudiness, sediments settling in the bottom of the container, or for changes in smell or color. These are all signs that it may be time to splurge in a new bottle.
Active Dry and Instant Yeast
Yeast is a living organism, which means it has a markedly shorter lifespan than other baking ingredients in your pantry. Unopened dry active yeast is only good for about four months in your pantry, so there’s no use trying to revive those yeast packets from years ago. Need to check if your yeast is still useable? Mix a spoon of the yeast with a spoon of sugar in some warm water. If it starts bubbling and showing activity within 10 to 15 minutes, it should still be OK in your baking. If not, it’s likely not active anymore, so it’s time to buy a replacement package.