Which brings us back to the heart of the matter: You've kept too many things on your shelves for far too long. Here are some rules of thumb for various foods:
SPICES This category includes especially egregious examples of a shelf life gone bad.
• Spices are best used within three months to one year of purchase, according to folks who make them and researchers who test them. Over-the-hill, pre-ground and powdered spices retain their basic color and smell, as you can attest; that's why you keep them around. A half-teaspoon of dried herbs past their prime won't ruin a recipe, but it's akin to adding the visual without the audio.
My pal Rhonda surrendered to me her 25-year-old, 1.5-ounce tin of Kroger paprika (hey, how fast do any of us blow through paprika?), which came to Washington with her from her college days in Arkansas. It's older than her children. If you can think back to the decade you bought it, do you really need me to tell you to pitch it?
• Nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, allspice and peppercorns kept whole are among the notable exceptions to this rule and are supposed to remain "best" for 24 months.
• Varieties of dried chili peppers, which are usually sold whole in cellophane and hard-plastic, see-through boxes, are said to have an "indefinite" shelf life. But a spokesman for Coosemans Worldwide, an international consortium of growers, shippers, brokers and importers, says such foods may start to lose their flavor after six months. More sell-by dates are appearing on their products these days, though. Take heart.
• I'll sneak salt into this section since it's often a spice jar's next-door neighbor. Salt is a mineral, and its shelf life is also listed as indefinite. But the folks at Morton Salt suggest replacing your carton of their Iodized Table Salt after 42 months, because the iodide therein may volatize, or vaporize, after that time. The salt itself remains stable.
CONDIMENTS AND CO. An unopened container of ketchup can live well for 12 months, but opening and storing it in the fridge cuts its shelf life to six months. It's not alone, productwise, in this way; cold is often good, and moisture and air can be bad. But the stabilizer-free, sugar-free banana ketchup you can order from Larry the Ketchupman (www.ketchupworld.com) is good for up to three years, unopened.
Kudos to the Heinz Co., by the way, which began standardizing the codes on all its products in 2002 and has translated its coding system on the company's Web site, where shelf life data is provided in plain English (www.heinz.com/jps/consumer_faq.jsp).
• Vinegar is usually listed as having an indefinite shelf life, but some manufacturers (Heinz included) will give it 42 months unopened, because its "mother," or natural carbohydrate produced by harmless vinegar bacteria, may cause a cloudy appearance in herbal or fruit vinegars; that's why distilled vinegar keeps longer than cider vinegar. The cloudiness does not affect the taste, they say.
• Some types of pickles, which you're used to seeing lying about in jars of vinegar and briny solutions, are best eaten within 18 months, and their suggested shelf life dwindles to three days to a couple of months after they've been opened and refrigerated. (This has to do with standards of pickle texture.) We'd better eat our pickles much faster, or buy more jars in smaller sizes.
• We also tip our hat to the McIlhenny Co., which produces Tabasco sauce with a shelf life of 60 months (for best quality) and many years beyond that for useability. If your bottle of its red pepper sauce looks a bit off-color, don't worry. Peppers are light-sensitive and will darken in time, but the Tabasco flavor remains true, and the sauce is safe to use.
The internationals in your pantry are more of a mixed lot than you reckoned. There is date-of-manufacture information for the ones packaged through American companies, but you'll have to rely on your memory of the date of purchase or on the good graces of retailers when it comes to Rose Flower Water from France. Britain and Northern Ireland mandated manufacture dating of its products in 1996. A sampling:
• Fish Sauce: three years, unopened; one year, opened
© 2004 The Washington Post Company