Bread and Honey


Bread and Honey

Advantages of a cool, dry, dark pantry … Crisping crackers and softening brown sugar after it hardens … Salt, sugar, acids, and other natural preservatives … What foods belong in the pantry … Guidelines for good pantry storage … Shelf life of certain foods … Storing bread in pantry or freezer, not refrigerator … What to do if you find insects in dry food

If you are like most Americans, you have no pantry. The typical middle-class American kitchen, and in many cases even the highly luxurious one, does not provide this amenity. We put canned, dried, bottled, and packaged foods in our kitchen cabinets or cupboards instead. The problem with this is that kitchen cabinets tend to be warmer and more humid than is ideal for longer-term storage. If you are buying a house or renovating your kitchen, you might consider whether a cool, dry food-storage place might be created. In the meantime, those who, like me, lack one will need to avoid stocking more than they can use before it passes peak quality or goes bad. A house typically has many possibilities for food storage that apartments lack. Cellars, attics, sheds, garages, window wells, back porches, and many other places might offer cool storage for part or all of the year. If you have a large refrigerator, you can store some foods there that would be better refrigerated than left at room temperature.

About the Pantry

Temperature. Keep the pantry or the cabinets where you store canned and packaged goods cool. This means keeping these areas as distant as possible from stoves, ovens, refrigerator motors, and other heat-producing machines.

Even canned and packaged dry foods retain their quality longer and better, and their nutrients are better preserved, if they are stored at temperatures lower than 85°F; 75°F is better; and, in fact, the cooler the better, down to 50°F or so, which is ideal. Canned goods will quickly deteriorate in quality at temperatures over 100°F and in excessively cold temperatures as well.1 In summer, I have found my own food cabinets baking at higher than 90°F. Yes, air conditioning will keep the room cooler, but sometimes you go away and turn off the air conditioning for hours, days, or weeks at a time.

Humidity. Your pantry or storeroom for packaged and dried foods—such as cereals, crackers, cookies, flour, sugar, salt, cornmeal, rice and other grains, and dried spices—should be dry. Humidity promotes the growth of molds, which ruin the taste and appearance of foods and are unhealthy. Bread, baked goods, and many other foods, by the way, will begin to mold much more slowly if they contain preservatives such as calcium propionate or sorbates. These preservatives are harmless; the mycotoxins produced by molds are carcinogenic. (See the Guide to Common Food Pathogens, pages 178-79, in chapters 13 for more on molds.) Humidity can also cause crackers, cookies, chips, and cereals to lose crispness. Although sugar, salt, baking powder, and baking soda will not mold, humidity will cause caking, especially of brown sugar.

Darkness. Your pantry or food-storage shelves should be dark except when you are in the pantry or looking in. Light causes deterioration of many foods, from bottled vegetables to oils to flours. Open shelving for bottled and packaged goods, therefore, is not a good idea, no matter how colonial it looks, unless you carefully place foods in opaque containers. In colonial times, people knew enough to keep fresh foods in root cellars, down well shafts, and in other cool, dark places.

What Goes in the Pantry and What Doesn’t

For a list of basic foodstuffs that many experienced people like to stock in their pantries, see pages 42-43.

Most canned, bottled, and packaged goods, before they are opened, should be stored in the pantry or food cabinet, not in the refrigerator or freezer. But practically all canned and bottled foods must be refrigerated after opening. Read labels. Never store any food that is labeled “Keep Refrigerated” in the pantry or food cabinets.

The following foods are all appropriately stored in the pantry:


To crisp crackers, chips, cereals, and similar foods after they have absorbed too much moisture, spread them out on a cookie sheet and bake in a hot oven (425°F) for five minutes.


To revive stale bread, wrap it well in aluminum foil and heat it to 140°F. Remove it from the oven as soon as it has reached the desired temperature. You may find that the crust has gotten tougher, but the rest of the bread will be improved.


You can try storing brown sugar in a tightly lidded jar to prevent its hardening after you open the box it has come in, but often this does not work as a tiny amount of moisture in the air is enough to cause the problem. To soften brown sugar, spread it on a cookie sheet as best you can. Then heat it in a low to moderate oven (250-300°F) until it softens; this will take ten minutes or so. Or microwave it on high in a microwave-safe container for a couple of minutes. If you put a slice or two of apple in the container with the sugar, the moisture helps soften the sugar (and the cooked, sugary apple—when it cools—is delicious). The sugar will start to harden again when cool, so measure it fairly soon.


When foods are very salty or sugary, they draw water out of bacteria, which either kills the bacteria or keeps their numbers down. Thus sugar and salt keep in the pantry indefinitely. Many sweet or salty foods will also keep for long periods. Many types of candy, stored in a tightly closed container, last for a long time on the shelf. Honey and pancake syrups keep without refrigeration for about a year; molasses will last for six months. Genuine maple syrup, however, tends to mold and eventually ferment in the pantry (after it is opened), as it is less concentratedly sweet than these others.

Acidity and dryness also discourage bacteria. Vinegar, with a pH ranging from 2.4 to 3.4, is too acidic to be friendly to bacterial growth, so you ordinarily need not refrigerate it, and it will last safely on your pantry shelf for as long as a year. (But see page 146.) Pickling and brining use a potent combination of salt and vinegar or other acid to preserve and flavor foods at the same time. Nowadays we refrigerate our pickled foods after opening them so as to keep them crisper and better-tasting. But pickles always used to be stored in the pantry—in the pickle barrel or jar—and some stores still sell pickles from the barrel, at room temperature.

Meats such as bacon and ham are still sometimes salt-cured (and sometimes are both salt-cured and smoke-cured, smoke being another “natural” preservative). Cured meats last longer than fresh meats, but all meats are such desirable homes to bacteria that they must be refrigerated even after curing to keep them safe.

Because dryness is antimicrobial, flours, mixes, pasta, rice, and dried beans may all be stored in the pantry. Molds, however, may afflict dried foods if your pantry gets too humid.

Foods containing enough alcohol, a general disinfectant, can also live long on your pantry shelves. It is the presence of alcohol that keeps your vanilla, almond extract, and other flavoring extracts, as well as alcoholic beverages, safe for long periods on your shelves without refrigeration.

Unopened canned and bottled foods (which should usually be refrigerated after opening): Canned meats (but see exceptions below), milk (UHT as well as canned), vegetables, fruits, soups, milk, broths, and prepared foods of all types; pickles, olives, relishes, salsa, jams and jellies, condiments such as mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise, and soy sauce. Wheat germ that is vacuum-sealed in a bottle should be refrigerated or frozen after opening.

Honey, molasses, imitation maple syrup, pancake syrups (but see exceptions below)

Cooking and salad oils (but see exceptions below; and also note my own practice, page 146). Close lids tightly.

Dried spices and herbs Vanilla, lemon extract, almond extract Pasta and noodles of all sorts Prepared dry cereals Coffee and tea Chips, crackers, cookies Rice White and refined flours (but see exceptions below) Dry mixes for cakes, muffins, brownies, puddings Chocolate powder, baker’s chocolate, chocolate chips Most candies Dry soup mixes Worcestershire sauce Dried beans, peas, and lentils

There are, however, exceptions, so read package labels carefully. Among the exceptions are these:

• Some canned hams must be refrigerated even before opening. Read labels!

• Coffee beans to be stored more than a couple of weeks will remain fresher if you freeze them.

• Chocolate syrup and real maple syrup should be refrigerated after opening.

• Nut oils should be refrigerated after opening.

• Paprika, red pepper, and chili powder should be refrigerated after opening.

• Whole-grain foods such as flours, cereals, cornmeal, brown rice, and other grains should be frozen or refrigerated; they contain natural fats and oils that can become rancid at room temperature very quickly. Rancid flours and meals have a bitter, acrid taste, and they are bad for you. In very hot weather, consider refrigerating all grains and meals in airtight containers.

General Guidelines for Good Pantry Storage

A collection of pantry lore, old and new, follows. These are good habits that will keep the pantry orderly and pantry foods fresh and safe.

Guidelines for the Pantry

• Keep your pantry and pantry shelves clean! Dust and crumbs contain molds and microorganisms, which can spread to foods kept in the pantry, and they cause stale and sour odors. They also attract pests.

• You do not need shelf paper if you have washable shelves that are neither painted nor varnished. The purpose of shelf paper was to prevent things from sticking to paint or varnish. But well-chosen shelf paper looks fresh and cheery, and if you like it and have the time to replace it periodically, by all means use it. There is also a mesh shelf liner that helps prevent chips and breakage.

• Arrange your pantry in an orderly fashion. This is attractive, efficient, and safer. When you store like things with like, you know what you have on the shelf and you do not overbuy or drive yourself wild looking for things. Moreover, unless you have an orderly pantry, you cannot properly rotate your foods in the manner described in the next paragraph. Date foods that lack label dates when you purchase them, so that months later you know how old they are. Just scribble the date with a marker as you unpack after marketing.

• Rotate foods in the pantry; when you buy new canned or packaged goods, store them behind older cans or packages of that type of food so that you use the old ones first.

• Keep foods tightly wrapped in air-proof and moisture-proof wraps and containers. Make sure your canisters are air- and moisture-proof and also opaque.

• Make sure packages are sealed and unbroken. If holes or tears appear, check to see that the contents are in good shape and pest-free; then rewrap or repackage.

• Once you have opened cookie, cereal, or other packages or boxes, fold over the inner bag tightly and reclose the outer package tightly. You can resort to rubber bands or tape if nothing else works.

• If you find on your shelves any cans that have rust or serious dents, throw them away. (A slight dent that is not on a rim or a seam is probably all right.)

• Throw away any bulging cans, and don’t use food that spurts from the can or looks or smells funny. The bulging and spurting is caused by gas building up inside, and it means that the food is dangerously spoiled. Do not taste the contents of such cans (not even a tiny touch on your tongue), and throw them away. (See chapter 13, “Safe Food.”)

Guidelines for Storing Various Types of Foods On the shelf life of foods, refer to the Food Keeper, pages 131-41.

• Bread that you are going to use soon should be wrapped and stored in the pantry, on the counter or shelf, or in a bread bin, at room temperature. Wrapping prevents the bread from drying out. However, if you leave the wrapping a little loose around the bread, this may help prevent moisture from condensing inside and thus help prevent molding. To keep Italian or French bread crusty, use a paper wrap or bag, and be sure to use the bread quickly. Do not store bread near bananas, onions, or other odorous foods; it readily takes on flavors.

• Remove some of the bread from the package and freeze it if you think you will not be able to use it before it goes stale. Commercial breads with preservatives keep fresh at room temperature for three or four days or even longer; bread that lacks preservatives may go stale in as few as one or two days. If bread is sliced before it is frozen, you can generally remove as many slices of frozen bread as you need and thaw them on the counter or in the microwave or toast them if you are in a hurry. Bread preserves its quality through the thawing and microwaving and toasting well.


In his book On Food and Cooking (Scribner, 1984), the great kitchen rationalist Harold McGee explains something I had always noticed but refused to accept because it made no sense to me: that refrigerated bread goes stale faster than bread kept on the counter. This happens, says Mr. McGee, because bread becomes stale quickly at temperatures just above freezing, and extremely slowly at temperatures just below freezing. So while freezing is a good way to keep bread fresh, refrigerating isn’t. One investigation showed that at a refrigerated temperature of 46°F bread stales as much in one day as it would in six days at 86°F. Moreover, the faster the bread is frozen, the less time it spends in the temperature near and above 32°F and the less readily it goes stale. So you should either store your bread at room temperature or freeze it as quickly as you can.

• You should not refrigerate bread, even though you can freeze it, as it goes stale rapidly in the refrigerator. But there are no absolutes. Bread that does not contain preservatives (and, in hot, humid weather, even bread that does contain preservatives) will mold quickly at room temperature. Once a little mold forms on bread, you must throw it all out. Thus refrigeration might be better than pantry storage at very warm temperatures. But freezing bread is always a better alternative than refrigerating it.

• High-acid canned foods, such as tomatoes and foods made with tomatoes, fruits, sauerkraut, and any foods containing vinegar, should be kept on your shelf no longer than twelve to eighteen months. Keep low-acid foods (which include most canned meats and poultry, stews, soups that are not tomato-based, and vegetables such as corn, potatoes, green beans, spinach, peas, pumpkin, and beets) no longer than two to five years. If you tend to keep canned goods for long periods, write the purchase date on the label of each can so you can keep track of its age. After the desirable storage period has passed, throw the can away.

• Canned beets and asparagus do not store as well as other vegetables. They retain top quality for only six months or so.

• Produce in glass bottles usually has a better flavor than that in cans but is subject to light deterioration. Keep glass jars in the dark.

• Dried mushrooms can be stored in the pantry for about six months before opening and three months after opening.

• Turn cans of evaporated milk top to bottom every month or two so that the solids do not collect in a hard-to-remove mass at the bottom of the can.

• Keep spices and dried herbs (other than paprika, red pepper, and chili powder, which should be refrigerated) tightly sealed in light-proof containers, and store them in a cool, dark place. Fresh spices that you grind yourself are best. Air, heat, and light cause deterioration, especially the loss of the essential oils in spices, which largely carry their flavor.

• Store tea in an airtight container once the package is open. A real tea can of some sort is a good thing to have.

• Store flour and meal in airtight containers. You can put the whole package of flour or meal into a jar or canister, or you can pour out the contents into the canister. (Remember to store whole-grain meals and flours in the refrigerator.)

• Follow instructions on the labels of ROP and vacuum-packed foods. Many of them require refrigeration, or refrigeration after opening, and are not safe stored on a cabinet shelf.

Pests in the Pantry

Your local extension service may give you advice on this subject that I have never been able to bring myself to follow. If you open your flour or cornmeal and find an association of beetles, weevils, meal worms, or other small creatures enjoying life there, you are not to panic and throw it out, unless the insects are numerous; these types are not harmful. Instead you are to get out a fine-mesh strainer or sifter and sift them out. Next put the flour, meal, or whatever had been infested into an air- and moisture-tight container and freeze it. (This gives you insurance that no progeny are left alive.) Then use the flour or meal with confidence.

I have experienced three such infestations in my housekeeping life, two limited to a single box or package and one that affected several packages. What had happened was that I had bought items that were already inhabited at the market, and, in the third case, the infestation had spread from there at home. I could never manage even the straining or sifting, let alone eating food made of the flour or meal afterward, and so I simply threw all the infested foods out. Perhaps you will be more rational. The advice, in any event, does not apply to cockroaches, which can carry harmful or dangerous microorganisms.

Whatever you choose to do about the infested package, take steps to protect your other foods against infestation. Remove everything from the cabinet and wash it thoroughly. One cooperative extension service I spoke to says you can use a pesticide approved for food areas in cracks and crevices that are difficult to clean. Without using pesticides, I successfully cured all three of my infestations with no recurrence. But your situation may be different, and you may find that you need pesticides.

After you have washed the cabinet, examine all the boxes and packages that were stored in the vicinity of the infested one to be sure there are no insects in any of them. I found insects in a few packages that had never been opened; the insects either had bored through the paper side of the package or had managed to squeeze through a seam somewhere. If the packages are free of insects, replace them on the shelves when the shelves dry. Otherwise, throw out or sift, then freeze, as before.

Remember that cross-infestation can be avoided if you keep vulnerable packages in plastic containers with tight lids. Most important, remember that bugs in the flour or meal have nothing to do with cleanliness, only with your luck. They are in no way due to your housekeeping.



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