Dear Frugal Upstate,
How do you store your rice? I am always tempted to buy a big bag at SAMs or Costco because of the great cost per pound–but I’m afraid it will go bad before I had a chance to use it up. What about other bulk foods? I would love to know how you do it!
Great question Chrystal! Buying in bulk can be a great way to save money, but no matter how cheap it was, if you have to throw it then you’ve wasted money. Luckily there are easy and inexpensive ways to keep your edibles,well, edible!
Let’s start out with an assumption–that the foods we are discussing are already considered “shelf stable”. That means you would normally expect it to be stored in your home without freezing or refrigeration.
There are 5 basic “enemies” for any stored food:
How quickly each of these effect your food depends a lot on what the food is. A box of crackers sitting on the shelf for a couple of months after it’s been opened will go stale, whereas you can open a bag of rice and dip into it occasionally for 2 or 3 months without any loss of quality. The shorter the amount of time you are going to store the food, the less important these factors are.
Let’s look at each one:
In general a lower temperature will extend the storage life of most foods, especially if there are oils present in the food. The higher the temperature, the more chance of an oil going rancid. Proteins within food also start to break down in higher temperatures and you can lose vitamins from your food. Standard “room temperature” (75F) is acceptable for most foods, but if you drop the temperature to 50F-60F range you will increase the shelf life of many items significantly.
Food will absorb moisture over time. That’s why your crackers go stale and your pasta can get that funny white spotting–the dry grain/flour has absorbed moisture from the air over time. Moisture in food also provides an environment more hospitable for the micro-organisms that destroy food to grow in.
We need air to live, and so do all sorts of little nasties that can cause spoilage and degradation of your food. Whatever you can do too keep O2 away from your foodstuff will increase their life. That’s why the home vacuum sealing units like the Foodsaver are so popular–they suck all the oxygen out of a bag and then seal it which significantly increases the life of your food!
Light might not seem like a big deal-but it’s much more powerful than most people assume! Just think about how sunlight can fade furniture, or naturally bleach clothes out on a line. That same light can affect food colors, cause vitamin loss, and break down fats & proteins.
The ideas of bugs and rodents getting into your food really isn’t a pleasant one. Sometimes bugs are a big problem–in the warmer and more humid climates especially! Older homes–no matter how clean–can have issues with rats and mice. Pest proof packaging and cleanliness in the food storage area can help reduce any pest problems.
So back to Chrystal’s bulk purchased goods. To determine the best way to store it we need to consider what it is and what it’s basic shelf life is and then determine how long we reasonably expect to store it for. Then you simply need to put the food into a container that minimizes the moisture, O2, and light, and then place it somewhere with appropriate temperature.
Back to the example of the rice in the Frugal Upstate Village Homestead. Rice naturally has a storage life of at least 2 years if it’s kept room temperature and dry. We typically eat rice once or twice a week, and I live in the Northeast where it is quite cool to downright cold for a lot of the year. For quite a few years I would just buy the bulk 25lb rice bag at my local Asian grocery and store it in my big cupboard on the stairs. That was it. The bag it came in had a zipper in the top and my kitchen is actually quite cold on that side in the winter. It was always fine. Over time I became more concerned about food storage and I changed my storage technique.
I knew that animals like mice would think my rice was a feast, so I wanted something that would keep them out. I also wanted to limit the amount of moisture that came into contact with it. Since rice naturally has a very long shelf life I wasn’t too worried about the amount of oxygen for the 6 months or so it would take me to go through a 25lb bag (Still Tasty has great data on shelf life, or you can just google “shelf life” and then then name of the item).
My final storage decision was a 5 gallon food safe bucket with a Gamma Seal Lid. I have three of these buckets set up-one for rice, one for sugar and one for white flour:
Why I chose this method:
1-I was able to get the used 5 gallon food grade buckets for $1 each from the Walmart Bakery. They used to contain icing. Unfortunately Walmart has shifted to square buckets in my area. Check with your local bakeries, grocery stores etc and ask if they have used 5 gallon buckets-worse they can say is no!
2-The buckets are strong, have handles and are stackable. I don’t imagine much in the way of rodents could get through the plastic. Although I’m not particularly worried about light in this case it is nice to know that the plastic is opaque. And heck, if I ever decide to do something else with my rice there are 100 other uses for a bucket!
3-It’s nice to have the entire bag of rice in one container instead of lots of little ones. Sure, you could pack that 25lbs of rice into a bunch of gallon zippered baggies (not as rodent proof) or you could fill up a bazillion 1 quart glass canning jars (glass is rodent proof but heavier and of course breakable) but both of those would be sort of a pain to store and move around.
4-The lids that come with 5 gallon buckets are really a pain to get off. Even if you use the special “Bucket Lid Wrench” you can buy to help open them it still takes some muscle. Since I get into the rice bucket every couple of days to take some out I went with the easier Gamma Seal lids. They can be a bit pricey (around $10 ea–sometimes buying in bigger lots gets a better per item price) but they last for a long long time and you simply spin them open and closed–the rubber gasket means you don’t have to worry about it being super tight to get a seal.
Please note–these are FOOD SAFE 5 gallon buckets. Please-do not use a bucket for direct storage if you are not sure it is food safe. I’ve heard that the buckets sold at some home improvement centers are food safe and others aren’t–just because it’s a white 5 gallon paint bucket at Lowes doesn’t mean it is food safe. It may be, it may not-it depends on which plastics were used. That’s why I like either getting them from a food establishment (bakery, deli etc) or ordering them online (more expensive).
If you are interested in having a really deep pantry and in storing food for longer periods of time there are more things you can do. For example all plastic over time actually do allow some air through, so there are Mylar Bags (impermeable to oxygen) that can be purchased for reasonable prices to seal food inside of. There are Desiccants Packets to remove moisture (like you get in pill bottles or electronics) and Oxygen Absorbers to remove air inside of sealed containers. There is plenty of great information available online–in particular many Mormon (LDS) bloggers address long term storage (LTS) because their church advocates having 6 months-year of food stored. They’ve sort of got that nut cracked 😉
I hope that answers your questions about how we store our rice and other bulk goods!