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……
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