I've been a big fan of buying in bulk for a long time and you've heard me blog quite a bit about how to buy family packs of chicken or whole pork loins on sale and break it up for frozen storage. However, I haven't discussed other items like dry goods and things you wouldn't ordinarily think you could freeze. I thought I'd take a minute to talk about some of those things.
How Do Dry Goods "Go Bad"?
Things like flours, nuts, whole grains, and cereals are highly affected by heat because they contain natural oils and oils can break-down and become "rancid" under warm conditions. If you've ever stored a tub of vegetable shortening for several months in a warm cupboard or a bottle of oil in a location near your oven, you probably noticed the waxy, almost motor-oil odor and taste it acquired. Or perhaps your bag of whole wheat flour, which has a lot of the natural oil still in it, developed a bitter flavor and an off-odor when stored in similar conditions. This is called rancidity. While eating rancid flour or baked goods that have gone rancid probably won't do you any harm, it certainly won't taste very good. The moral of the story is that if something has any amount of fat in it, you want to keep it cool.
Light and air can also affect the quality of most dry goods. Air oxidizes foods (causes them to change color and flavor). Air with an odor to it (such as a musty basement) will transfer that odor into your food--especially foods with fats in them. Because of this, you want to store your dry goods in airtight containers and store those containers in areas where they're kept cool and preferably, dark.
Let's Get Started...
There are a number of things I like to buy in bulk besides meat and I have very particular ways of storing them. Here are a few...
Cereal - Name brand cereal is often upwards of half-price per pound when you buy double-sized boxes at the wholesale club. Thankfully, they're usually packaged in normal-sized bags within the big box, so all you need to do is keep one bag fresh at a time. If you eat a lot of cereal, this shouldn't be a problem. If you don't, plastic cereal containers may help. With any box of cereal, I like to make sure I fold open bags down inside the box and clip them with bag clips as you would potato chips.
Rice - We've all seen 25+ pound bags of rice and wondered, "Who could EVER eat all that rice?" If you do the math, you're saving a *lot* of money by buying the big bag even if you don't consume it that fast. The trick is how to store it. The good news is that white rice doesn't go bad nearly as fast as brown rice because the bran, which contains all of the natural oil, has been removed. All you need is a good air-tight bin to put it in. We like to use dog food bins like these. They're a bit of an investment but worth every penny. They even come with wheels so you can roll them in and out of the pantry. If you have a relatively odor-free basement, that's an even better place to store these as it tends to be cooler. You can keep a smaller container upstairs that gets refilled from the larger bin as needed.
Sugar - I love baking and we drink a lot of Kool-Aid (that's a subject for another day). Needless to say, a five-pound bag of sugar doesn't last long around here. That's why I buy sugar in 25-pound bags and store it in the same dog food bins I mentioned above. The important point to note is that sugar is incredibly hygroscopic, meaning that it attracts water and any odors carried in the moist air. You want to keep your bin in a relatively moisiture-free environment and open it as little as possible, else you'll end-up with a solid brick of smelly white sugar.
Flour - If you do a tremendous amount of baking, you can do the same with flour as with the sugar. However, keep in mind that flour is highly affected by heat. Many recommend that it be stored in the freezer. I find that we don't have any clean odor-free places in our house that are cool enough and I don't have the freezer space for 25 pounds of flour (nor the containers that fit into the freezer). Instead, I buy flour in 10-pound bags, which is still more economical than the 5-pounders and I try to use it quickly.
Nuts - Nuts seem to get extremely expensive in this country and I can't figure out the reason since most of them are domestic products. As with most other things, you can often find a great per-pound discount by buying in bulk. But at up to $10 per pound, you don't want those nuts to go rancid. Recently, I've taken to storing nuts in quart sized canning jars in the freezer. It seems to work really well.
Chocolate Chips - A 12-oz bag of quality chocolate chips seems to run $3.50 or more lately at the supermarket. If they happen to have your favorite brand at the wholesale warehouse, you can often save quite a bit of money. Chocolate chips are pretty shelf-stable at room temperature. If you plan to store them longer than 6 months or your house runs particularly warm, consider storing them in glass jars in the fridge or freezer.
Cheese - Most cheeses freeze and thaw remarkably well. The trick is to portion it before freezing so you don't end-up having to defrost a large brick of it all at once. For blocks, cut into pieces sized such that you can use them within 3-4 days of defrosting. Wrap each block tightly in 2 or more layers of plastic wrap. the closer the wrap gets to the cheese, the less freezer burn you'll get. For shredded cheese, portion into 1-pound increments and pack into heavy zip-top bags. Get as much air out of the bags as you can (or use a vacuum sealer if you have one). Shredded cheese will develop freezer burn faster than block cheese because it has more surface area. However, it thaws much faster--making last minute weeknight pizza a possibility. It's your choice. Whatever you do, don't try to defrost cheese in the microwave. The obvious WILL happen. And yes, I speak from personal experience.
Butter - If you like to bake with real butter but don't like the $4 price tag, then once again, the wholesale club is your friend. I've gotten butter for as little as $2 per pound in the past, but it comes in huge 5 to 6 pound multi-packs. Because it's nearly all fat, butter stores marvelously for months in the freezer. Just make sure you leave butter in its original packaging. Butter takes on "freezer funk" (read: odors) very easily and the original packaging is designed to withstand it better than your best plastic wrap.
Milk Products - Cook's Illustrated magazine did a test awhile back where they attempted to freeze, thaw, then use heavy cream. It turns out that this works quite well (although I think they did notice that it didn't whip-up quite as well). As long as you're not relying on it for structure in a recipe (like whipped cream), feel free to freeze milk, cream, cream cheese, yogurt, ricotta cheese, and other dairy products if you find you've purchased more than what you need for one recipe.
Coffee & Tea - The research is pretty clear that coffee and tea are highly susceptible to light and heat. However, disagreements abound as to whether or not you should store your coffee beans (or grounds) in the freezer or fridge. It makes sense that it'll keep the essential oils from oxidizing or going rancid. However, some people who are really finicky about their coffee claim the oils don't dissolve into as nice of a brew once they've been frozen and defrosted. Bottom line? Freezing or refrigerating coffee will give you a longer shelf life but may affect the flavor. Use your own judgment and follow your taste buds.