I have spent a lot of time in the past few months trying to cook and eat things before they go bad. I have been ignoring the items that last forever, or close to it. For all of you who have been throwing out pantry items with me, here are some things that you don't have to toss.
Bear in mind, unless otherwise stated, all of this refers to items in their original, sealed packaging which are kept in a cool, dry, and clean place protected from light and bugs. (Like an ideal pantry.) Once opened, the clock starts ticking.
Foods that don't expire
Salt: Salt is a rock. It is billions of years old before it is brought out of the earth, refined, and put into cylindrical paper containers with a convenient pour spout. There is an hourlong episode of Modern Marvels that goes into it in more detail. Besides which, salt is one of the methods of preserving foods.
Alcohol: While you probably don't want to keep Chardonnay indefinitely, the hard stuff keeps a good, long time. Similarly, unopened containers of extracts, like vanilla, are alcohol-based and keep well. The second method of preserving food.
Sugar: The third method of preservation. My only caveat is that it generally comes in waxed paper bags, so you have to make sure the integrity is good. Honey fits into this category, as well as corn syrup, pancake syrup, and molasses. I'm not going to count brown sugar because it has a higher moisture content, yet they still insist on packaging it in boxes or plastic bags. It sounds weird, but it should probably be marketed in containers similar to coffee cans.
Vinegar and other fermented sauces: I keep opened vinegars in the fridge to make them last longer, especially Balsamic, but unopened ones won't spoil. Soy sauce is a fermented sauce similar to vinegar, plus it has loads of salt in it. Not going to go bad if it's in factory packaging. A recurring theme, pickling in vinegar is a method of preservation.
Pasta & Rice: For the last major method of preservation, we go to dehydration. Older pasta can take a little longer to cook, but it's perfectly safe. This does not include high-protein grains such as brown rice.
Things you can keep a lot longer than the expiration date
Anything dried: Nuts, beans, and brown rice are high-protein products. I keep mine in the freezer, in which case they do last pretty much forever. At room temperature, you should use them within a year or two of the expiration.
Cans & Jars: The expiration is usually three years from date of packaging. I will use a canned product up to about a year after it "expires". They probably are good for some time after, but I have an issue with eating anything that expired in a previous decade.
Flour: Originally, I was going to put this in the "doesn't expire" category, but last week I tried to use some flour dated 2007, and it was definitely no longer good. As with rice, you can keep it in the freezer to lengthen its shelf life. Fortunately, they sell flour in sizes appropriate to any kind of use. If you really don't use it, but need it for one recipe, go get some out of the bins at specialty markets like Henry's. You spend less money, and don't waste it.
Cereal: The packages aren't perfect, so you really shouldn't keep them more than a year past expiration. Stale Cheerios are not a good way to start the morning.
Whole coffee beans: If you grind your own beans, they keep a lot longer. But then you have to grind your own every morning. To many, it's worth it. I'm usually too lazy in the morning to clean the grinder.
Things that really do expire when they say they do
Baking Powder: The chemical reaction starts to decline significantly around the expiration date.
Baking Soda: See above. However, it is still good for freshening the refrigerator. Generally, I buy a box in the fall when I start baking. In the spring, that becomes the fridge box and I buy a new one for the inevitable post-Passover baking extravaganza. I know Arm & Hammer tells you to change the box more often than that, but a clean fridge can handle it for six months. Just shake the box every few weeks.
Spices and herbs: They don't expire, exactly, but they definitely become less pungent six months after opening. You find yourself using more and more to achieve the same effect. If it bothers you, toss the can and buy more.
Tea and ground coffee: See above
Yeast: Even if you keep it in the fridge, the little guys die after a few months.
Oil: Even the most refined oils and shortening will go rancid eventually. If you notice the color change, get rid of it. Old oil might as well be motor oil, especially if you try to fry in it.
If anyone knows other helpful hints, any input is welcome.