Most people have an instinct for keeping their refrigerators clean. Things go bad, space is limited, and a piece of fruit languishing in the bottom drawer will eventually make its presence known. The pantry, on the other hand, requires a little discipline. Since it stores items with seemingly endless shelf lives, it can be tempting to leave everything as is, but about every three months, I like to clean it out and start fresh. I pull everything off the shelves, give it a good wipe-down, and go into re-org mode. Here are a few habits that I learned working in restaurants and have found just as useful in our test kitchen (not to mention my tiny New York apartment!).
1. Decant and consolidate.
For bulk items like flour, sugar, and anything else that comes in a flimsy paper bag guaranteed to spill everywhere, invest in some food-safe bins of varying sizes (like these from Cambro). Not only will they minimize spillage, but they will also keep your ingredients fresher longer. Plus, they come in every size you'll ever need and can be stacked neatly inside one another when you’re not using them.
Two simple supplies will help you stay organized: a roll of blue painter’s tape and a Sharpie. Once you decant your bulk items, stick a label on them (and a date if you're really feeling type A). This is also a great habit for foods you plan to stash in the freezer.
Contrary to popular belief, dry ingredients do not keep forever. Spices lose their potency after about six months, and flours, nuts, seeds, and oils can go rancid quickly. To avoid wasting precious (and expensive) groceries, try buying spices whole and grinding them yourself, and keep delicate items like olive oil and vinegars in the coolest area of your dry storage. Nuts and seeds are best kept in the freezer while nut and seed oils and specialty flours should be kept in the fridge.
For those items that do need to be sacrificed for more space? Don't just throw them out, get creative. The dregs of a bag of dried mushrooms can be pulverized in a coffee grinder and used to season a steak. The last few ounces of pasta (and other grains) can be mixed together and added to a big pot of soup in the last few minutes of cooking. Loose-leaf tea that has spent a lifetime in your pantry but you're never going to drink? Simmer on the stove top as a room deodorizer. It's amazing what you can do with odds and ends from your pantry!
Now you've cleaned and purged, make sure you're stocked up with the 15 ingredients our test kitchen can't live without.