If I can avoid putting something in the fridge or freezer, I do. It’s largely because space is at premium in my overcrowded refrigerator. I’ve always had a hunch that leaving certain edibles in the pantry can hasten their demise, especially as my home heats up in the summer, but I’ve never been sure which items were truly worthy of refrigerator real estate.
For some things on our shopping lists, all we need to do is look at the label to know if they need to be refrigerated. But storage instructions can be hard to come by when we forgo pre-packaged, processed goods for whole foods from farmers’ markets and artisanal shops, and dry foods from bulk bins. And even when we buy seemingly fresher foods, we rarely know how much of their shelf life has already been used up sitting around in the store or elsewhere. Deciding whether or not to keep something chilled also depends on how quickly we plan to eat it, requiring strategic forethought or a crystal ball.
Despite the variables, the foods listed below generally fare better in the fridge or freezer in most households. But no matter how much time has elapsed, what season it is, or where we choose to store our food, it’s always wise to take a good look and big sniff before digging in.
Whether you’re into strawberries, blueberries or blackberries this summer season, they will all last a few more days if kept in the fridge. Put them unwashed in an airtight container layered with paper towels to absorb excess moisture.
According to the experts at University of California at Davis, nuts can maintain their quality at room temperature for a few of months (less time in warmer climates). But even stored in an airtight container, nuts will go rancid more quickly in the pantry than if they are chilled. In the fridge, hulled nuts like almonds, cashews and walnuts can retain their quality for a year or more.
Whole Grains (like Brown Rice, Quinoa and Millet)
White rice can be stored for many years in a cool dry place, but whole grain brown rice will only last about 6 months because of the oil contained in the bran layer. Storing brown rice in the fridge can extend the shelf life for up to a year. To maximize freshness and shelf life, the popular grain purveyor, Bob’s Red Mill, suggests storing rice, quinoa, millet and all other whole grains in the freezer if used less than once a month. According to their website, the icy temps can buy you an extra six months beyond the sell-by date on their packages. Freezing also reduces the risk of lingering insect eggs from hatching in your cupboard.
Ground Flax Seeds
While whole flaxseeds last 6-12 months when stored in a dark, cool spot in your pantry, ground flax seeds only last a week or so before starting to turn. Sealed up in the fridge, the ground seeds can remain edible for up to 90 days.
Dried Fruit, Preservative-free
If you’ve started buying dried apricots, mango and other dehydrated fruits that haven’t been treated with sulfur dioxide (a preservative), your stash of sweet treats may not last as long before starting to degrade. But when sealed up, tucked into a dark corner and stored at room temp, the quality of preservative-free dried fruits will hold up for about 3-4 months, says Becky Courchesne, co-owner of Frog Hollow Farms. Shelf life can stretch to six months in the fridge and a year or more in the freezer. The key, says Courchesne, is making sure that absolutely no moisture gets in your package, which can happen if you take the bag in and out of the cold too often.
Whole Wheat, Oat, Rye and Buckwheat Flours
Unlike white flour, whole-wheat flour retains the wheat germ, making it much more prone to going rancid once exposed to air. Seal it up and stick it in the freezer if you want whole-wheat flour to last more than a few of months. Same goes for other flours made from unrefined grains and cereals such as oat, buckwheat and rye. The Whole Grains Council has a useful chart to help you determine the shelf life of your favorite flours.
The USDA recommends storing all of your nut butters in the fridge, but this is especially important for pure nut butters that don’t contain added preservatives and stabilizers to help stave off mold and rancidness. Refrigeration can cause some natural nut butters to harden and the oil to separate, but if you stir well before chilling and let it sit out for an hour before digging in, it will become spreadable again.
Unlike other onions, green onions will start to perish within just a few days if not stored in the fridge. Stored in plastic bags and stashed in the crisper, they will last you about a week.
Apples are best kept in the crisper drawer of your fridge. Unless you picked them from the tree yourself, chances are those fruits have been sitting around for a while. Leaving apples on the counter can cause them to go soft and shrivel within just a few days, but in the fridge they can last a few weeks or more. If you like your apples at room temperature, just take one out of the fridge an hour or so before you eat it.
Disclaimer: These storage suggestions are intended only as general guidelines. The rate of food degradation can vary greatly depending on many variables, some of which are noted above.