A new Government-backed campaign aimed at tackling the high volume of edible food that's thrown out in the UK is urging people to "Look, Smell, Taste, Don't Waste". The initiative recommends that people should test food to see if it's still good to eat instead of just binning it when the 'best before' or 'use by' date on the packaging says its time is up.
There will also be changes to the way that foods are labelled with 'use by' and 'best before' dates to ensure that people get the most out of the food they buy.
But, as a rule of thumb, how long will common items in your kitchen last?
When having a kitchen cupboard clear-out, there are always a few items that still look okay but on checking their packaging, you see that the best-before date last long passed. A general guide for uncooked foods is that if they still look and smell the same, they'll be safe to eat.
Always make sure that food has been stored properly and don't try anything that seems damp or discoloured. If the expiration date has smeared or rubbed off the packaging but you have a rough idea of when you bought your item, you can use the following guide to see if it's still edible.
Although some labels will just have a general expiration date (including most of the items discussed below), there is a difference in products that are labelled with 'use by' or 'best before' date. A use by date means that the food may become dangerous to eat after that date, whereas a best before date gives you an indication of when the period of best quality will end. That means that the food may lose some of its taste or aroma but will still be safe to consume.
Although (pre-lockdown, at least) you probably always had half a bag of flour in your cupboard for what seemed like decades, flour does in fact have an expiration date. But it is safe to use for several months after this time is up.
There are a couple of caveats here. First, your flour should be stored in a cool, dry place. Ideally, you should transfer it immediately from its bag to a sealed container and write the use-by date on a sticker. If your flour gets warm or damp, it should be thrown out.
Here’s a guide to how long you can use it past its printed expiration date:
- Wholegrain and self-raising flour: 4-6 months
- Potato, rice and plain flour: 6-8 months
- Corn flour: 9-12 months
The reason for the difference in times is the fat content of the flour. Flour with more fat will go bad more quickly.
If you have space to store your flour in the fridge, you can double those times, meaning that you can keep and use most types of flour for a year past their expiration date in your fridge.
If you store flour safely in a freezer, in an airtight container, it will last for at least two years, although many people are happy to store it indefinitely.
If your flour has gone bad, you’ll be able to tell. Here’s what to look out for:
- An odour: flour generally has a neutral smell. If it smells musty or sour, it’s time to throw it out.
- Clumping or discolouration: this can show that the flour has taken in moisture and may indicate mould growth.
- Weevils: if you see any insect life, throw out your flour right away. There are very likely to be weevils, which are not dangerous to eat but which will infest other products in your cupboard. Some people will sieve out flour weevils – although you will not be able to remove their eggs and faeces – but we'd advise that you just throw the rice away.
Uncooked white rice is one of the longest-lasting foods you can buy (apart from canned goods). If you check your packet, it’ll probably have an expiration date of two to three years into the future. However, if stored properly, it’ll keep much longer than that.
White rice can be kept more or less indefinitely. It has been milled and its moisture content is low, which means that it is not attractive to bacteria. Arborio, Jasmine, Basmati and wild rice have a similarly long shelf life.
Brown rice is a different matter. It retains its natural fatty acids, which means it will start to react to the air much more quickly.
- White rice: indefinite storage life
- Brown rice: 6-8 months past its expiration date
Like flour, you should store it in a sealed container, in a cool spot. You’ll know if it has gone bad if it is moist, or if you see signs of mould or insect life in it. Then you must throw it out.
Once you’ve cooked rice, it will only last a couple of hours in warm, moist conditions (under a heat lamp or in a rice cooker) as bacteria will rapidly multiply on its surface. If you refrigerate cooked rice, brown rice will last 3-5 days, while white rice will last up to 6 days. If it’s frozen right away, brown rice can be kept in the freezer for 2 months, while white rice will be edible for up to 6 months.
Fresh pasta should really only be eaten a couple of days after its best-by date and must be stored in the fridge. You can extend its life by freezing it for up to two months.
But when we’re thinking of kitchen staples, it’s dried pasta that we mean. Like rice and flour, pasta should be stored in a cool spot, in an airtight container. If you look at the pasta you have in your cupboard, you’ll see that it has an expiration date of about two years after it was purchased. However, the reality is that if it’s stored well, you can eat it for another two years after that.
Some time after its expiration date, pasta will begin to lose its taste. It will still be safe to eat and will only be dangerous if it is soft or discoloured.
Once instant coffee is opened, it should retain its flavour for 12 to 18 months. Opened instant coffee will not last forever and, as it is exposed to air and moisture, is in danger of developing mould. If you find an old jar of instant and it has a whitish residue, throw it away.
However, if you have an unopened jar of instant coffee and you store it in a cool, dark spot, you can consider it drinkable indefinitely.
Whole beans and freshly ground coffee won't last nearly as long. If you store them in airtight containers in a cool, dark spot, you’ll be able to use the beans for nine months after they officially expire and ground coffee for up to six months. However, during that period, they will slowly lose their flavour.
Tea bags, like many other goods, have an expiration date that indicates when they are at their freshest and best. It’s an indicator of quality, not safety. You can still use tea bags up to two years past their expiration date and get a drinkable cup of tea. However, the longer you store them, the more likely they are to dry out further and lose their flavour.
Like everything else, the trick to keeping them at their best is to store them in a sealed container. If they get damp or exposed to insects, or show evidence or mould or mildew, they must be chucked out.
If you're using older teabags, steeping them for longer won’t increase the flavour. It will probably just give you a more bitter brew – although it will release more caffeine.
If you transfer tea leaves into an airtight canister when you buy them, you can use them for up to two years past their expiration date before they even begin to break down and lose their taste.
You may also like to read our article: 10 kitchen hacks for limited supplies.