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What? Flour goes BAD?

Notes From The Sweet Kitchen: Volume 1: Getting Fresh

Picture it: it’s the holidays. A cozy fire crackles in the grate, $94 worth of wrapping paper sits waiting in the corner, and you are overcome with the slightly unfamiliar yet powerful urge to bake something. Cookies! You’ll make cookies! Nothing fancy, but you pull out the batter-stained recipe card for your grandmother’s best ever Snickerdoodles and get to work. Nana Mouskouri warbles in the background as your kitchen fills with the comforting aromas of butter and cinnamon. You mix, you cream, you bake, and you smile an only slightly smug smile to yourself as you envision family and friends swooning with delight at your awesome baking prowess. Finally, the cookies are cool enough to eat. Selecting the most tender and sparkly, you taste your efforts. And……

Meh.

Not bad, really, but, well, Grandma’s they ain’t. But you did everything right! So what went wrong?

Well, it might just come down to the ingredients. Technique is important, but to be honest, a whole lot of the to-doing in baking consists of mixing thing together. Generally, it’s not the brain surgery of the culinary world. Most recipes in baking consist of a very few ingredients; their freshness and quality is critical to the overall product.

I’m going to go out on a limb, and say that in the above scenario, the baker in question doesn’t routinely spend evenings kneading dough and icing cupcakes. It’s entirely likely that he or she bakes a few times a year at the most, not counting the odd batch of banana bread or muffins. This doesn’t mean he or she is an incompetent baker; far from it. But it does likely mean that the ingredients he or she is pulling out of the pantry have been there for a while. Like, last Christmas.

What does that matter, you say? They are DRY GOODS after all. Bomb-shelter food. Right? I mean, if it’s not furry or petrified, it’s pretty much good to go, yes?

Well, no. Even the pantry staples in your kitchen have best-before dates, and using them past their prime can be a sure-fire way to sabotage your hard work. And while old flour might just make your cookies taste dull and stale, old baking powder can prevent your cake from rising properly. So how long should you keep things hanging around? Below is a handy chart; tape it to the inside of your pantry door, and hang a Sharpie on a string beside it. When you bring home new ingredients, just mark the Use By date on the container, and you’ll never be caught holding a stale bag. And remember: keep all dry goods in airtight containers in a cool, dark, dry place.

Sweet Kitchen Pantry Staples Best-Before Dates

All Purpose Flour: 1 year

Whole grain flours and meals (oatmeal, oatbran, whole wheat flour, cornmeal, etc.): 3 to 6 months

Baking powder and baking soda: 6 months to 1 year

Nuts and seeds: 3 months (That’s if they’re fresh to begin with! Many stores with low-turnover sell already-rancid nuts. Always taste before using.)

Dried fruit: 3 to 6 months

Dark chocolate: 1 year

Milk and white chocolate: 6 months

Ground spices: 6 months to 1 year

Sugar and other sweeteners keep indefinitely, as long as they’re free from moisture

6 comments to What? Flour goes BAD?

  • Sarah

    I love the idea that chocolate will last 6 months to 1 year. Do you know how many bars of baker’s dark chocolate I eat in a month?! Never mind baking with it…

  • Oh all theoretical as far as the chocolate is concerned, naturally!

  • Ola

    What about keeping nuts in the freezer? And can you add a subscribe option to this blog too?

  • Ola: yes, nuts in freezer is a great idea; they keep really well for a year or so. And re. the Subscribe feature, I’m working on it! (Ok, actually, it’s on Rob’s list of things to work on…) :-)

  • Erica

    I love your blog Regan! Like Ola, I keep my nuts in the freezer, but I also keep all of my grains and flour. Will this prolong their shelf life?

  • Adrienne

    What do you think about self-raising flour? We were recently in Amsterdam and had the best dutch apple pie and I wanted to try to replicate it. All the recipes I found called for self-raising flour. I did find some self-raising flour at the store but it seemed like it had been sitting on the shelf a while. The crust is an important part and I’m wondering if it was the recipe or the flour.

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