Bulking up

How to buy and store bulk foods

May 10, 2007

We’ve all heard the advice: Keep your nuts, whole grains, and maybe even spices in the freezer to prolong their shelf life. I can’t deny the wisdom of this; I once opened an old container of wheat berries and unleashed a biblical swarm of flies.

But I bought the same wheat berries in the bulk section of a grocery store, at room temperature, under fluorescent lights. So here’s the question of the week: Just how perishable are bulk foods?

What to do when wheat berries go wild?

And how much does perishability vary between spices, grains, and nuts? And how do markets ensure their bulk products are fresh — if they do so at all?

The answer is important to me, because I’m a cheapskate. I’ve been haunting my local bulk section ever since I noticed that steel-cut oats (even organic) can be found there for a fraction of the price of McCann’s (the one in the white can that boasts about its uniformity of granulation). And bulk nuts are, of course, crazy cheap compared to those half-cup packets in the baking aisle.

I’m not accusing my local stores of, uh, mishandling their nuts. As far as I can remember, everything I’ve ever bought from a bulk section has been just fine, which adds to the mystery. The only rancid nuts I ever bought came out of one of those little packets from the baking aisle.

The best bulk section in my Seattle neighborhood is at Madison Market, a natural-foods co-op. So I emailed their bulk buyer, Jeff Milano. I did this with some trepidation, because basically I was asking him, “How do you avoid selling rancid food?”

Anyway, Milano understood that I was not accusing him of the aforementioned nut-mishandling, and he wrote back:

While it’s true that nuts and certain grains are perishable, how they’re packaged, stored, and sold greatly affect the amount of time we have before they spoil. For example, all of our nuts (and some seeds) are stored under refrigeration both at the warehouse we purchase them from and here at Madison Market.

(To be clear, he means that back stock is refrigerated before it goes out into the bulk bins on the retail floor.)

In addition, many of the bags of grain are lined with plastic to prolong their freshness. Probably the biggest factor, though, that prevents spoilage is sales: we sell a ton of nuts! So the nuts you see when you shop bulk don’t sit around for too long before they’re adopted by a shopper and are on their way to a good home. In fact, if it isn’t selling fast enough I will drop the product and look for a better “mover.”
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Your bulk manager may not be as proactive as Milano, but that’s the basic strategy. I take this to mean that if you don’t want your wheat berries to star in a remake of “The Fly,” your best move is to leave the storage to the experts and buy only as much as you need for a particular recipe, or a week or two.

Sometimes, of course, that’s impossible or silly. If you’re mail-ordering grits from Anson Mills, as I recommend, the minimum quantity is three pounds, or what is known to physicists as “a gritload.” Keep them in the freezer.

The same goes for nuts, whose oils tend to be mostly unsaturated and therefore prone to rancidity. (An exception to the freezer rule is macadamia nuts, which are very shelf-stable.) Store a week’s worth of nuts at room temperature and the rest in the freezer.

Or follow Milano’s advice and pour all your raw nuts and whole grains into airtight containers before storing them in the fridge. (Toasting nuts, Milano adds, prolongs their shelf life, so you needn’t keep your toasted crunchies in the fridge or freezer.)

Obviously, I don’t buy spices a teaspoon at a time, either. Instead, I order them once a year from Penzeys. Spices become stale, especially in the presence of direct sunlight, but not rancid or infested.

Toasted nuts, such as these skillet-toasted pine nuts, will stay fresher longer.

Penzeys advises being your own bulk manager and keeping a small quantity of spice in the cupboard (where you’ll see and therefore use it) and the rest in the freezer. I am too lazy for this, and the spices would end up abandoned in the back corner of the freezer with the ice-encrusted pork chops anyway.

Luckily, as the Penzeys spinmeisters put it, “A top-quality spice at two years may be better than a low-quality spice at two months.”

We look forward to our yearly spice order for months. If I took perfect care of my spices, it wouldn’t be as fun to crack open the new jar of ground ginger and smell the difference in freshness.

In short, if you want to keep rancidity and bugs at bay, think like a day trader: Don’t buy and hold. Keep your stock moving.

Matthew Amster-Burton writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.

There are 5 comments on this item
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1. by anonymous on May 11, 2007 at 10:26 AM PDT

When it comes time to do your yearly Penzey’s order, you’ll have to share your list! I’d be interested to see what is on it.

I twice got terrible pantry moth infestations, one of which I can trace back to my bulk food purchases. I now keep all my grains in sealed glass “Slom” jars from Ikea. (Pantry moths can chew through Rubbermaid!)

2. by Neil on May 20, 2007 at 3:39 PM PDT

I’m afraid I must slightly dissent with your nut storage advice. Unless you use a cryovac or some other vacuum device, it has been my experience that nuts will develop freezer burn and off-flavors in the freezer much faster than they will go rancid stored in airtight containers at room temperature. If longer storage is anticipated, then the fridge is a much better option.

Mostly I buy my raw nuts from Trader Joe’s and they seem to be fine stored in their original packaging at room temp for at least a couple of months.

And Mathew, please don’t let me catch you mishandling your nuts.

3. by anonymous on Nov 30, 2008 at 9:15 AM PST

Wow I’m glad I read this article. I stock up on a variety of bulk items like raw peanuts and sunflower seeds, and I have regularly been storing them in old yogurt containers in my pantry for several months at a time. Although I’ve noticed that some of the seeds will start to look a bit off-color after longer then 3 or 4 months, I haven’t noticed any problems with eating them (e.g. taste). Of course it’s pretty dry here most of the year, so maybe that’s it?

4. by Garrett Wilkin on Mar 2, 2009 at 10:39 AM PST

Thanks for your discussion of the topic. I am researching how to best build my own bulk food storage facility. Specifically I’m thinking of storing a variety of dried beans and rices, but probably not nuts. Your article seemed to focus on nuts more than beans or rice. I guess this is because you’re approaching it from more of a cost savings rather than starvation prevention perspective.

5. by LON on Feb 9, 2010 at 11:04 PM PST



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Unexplained Bacon

Matthew Amster-Burton sniffs out the unexplained in the kitchen, the store, and the food world at large. He blogs at Roots and Grubs, podcasts at Spilled Milk, and is the author of the book Hungry Monkey.

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