Have you been reacquainting yourself with the forgotten spices and fusty beans from the depths of your pantry? How fusty is too fusty? When is the right time to throw something out? And what about fresh ingredients? If I’m trying to keep supermarket trips to a minimum, how long can my eggs, dairy and produce keep?
Food product dating, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls it, is completely voluntary for all products (with the exception of baby food, more on that later). Not only that, but it has nothing to do with safety. It acts solely as the manufacturer’s best guess as to when its product will no longer be at peak quality, whatever that means. Food manufacturers also tend to be rather conservative with those dates, knowing that not all of us keep our pantries dark and open our refrigerators as minimally as necessary. (I, for one, would never leave the fridge door open for minutes at a time as I contemplate what to snack on.)
Let’s start with the things you definitely don’t have to worry about. Vinegars, honey, vanilla or other extracts, sugar, salt, corn syrup and molasses will last virtually forever with little change in quality. Regular steel-cut or rolled oats will last for a year or so before they start to go rancid, but parcooked oats (or instant oats) can last nearly forever. (Same with grits versus instant grits.)