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Check your cooking staples

By Elizabeth Andress
University of Georgia

As you start to prepare for the holidays, are you afraid to open your cupboard and look for those baking ingredients? Do you wonder if they are OK or should be thrown out? Do these items ever get too old?

If seasonal baking is all you do, those leftover baking ingredients may be less than fresh. Even if you bake throughout the year, staple ingredients should be refreshed periodically.

It’s a good time of year to take stock of your baking stock. Make sure those homemade holiday cookies and cakes look and taste the best they can.

Dry ingredients like flours and spices are safe to use no matter how old they are. But they might not taste or perform as expected forever.

Be sure to always read labels, follow storage information and look at recommended use-by dates for all ingredients.

Remember that:

White flour keeps six to 12 months when stored in an airtight container or freezer bag in a cool, dry place to keep moisture low. Moisture content can affect your recipe.

For storage longer than a year, keep it in the refrigerator or freezer in an airtight container. All-purpose and bread flour will keep up to two years at 40 F in your refrigerator, according to the Wheat Foods Council. It can be stored indefinitely in the freezer.

Allow the flour to come to room temperature before using it.

Whole wheat flour keeps one to three months at room temperature. It becomes rancid if kept at room temperature for too long. For longer storage, put it in an airtight container or freezer bag in the refrigerator or freezer. It will maintain quality six months in the refrigerator and up to 12 months in the freezer.

White granulated sugar keeps indefinitely if properly stored. However, rotate the supply every two years for ease of use and quality. Store it in an airtight container or a heavy moisture-proof plastic bag. To soften hardened sugar, put it in a sturdy food-quality bag and pound it with a hammer. Smash smaller pieces with a mortar and pestle or break in a spice grinder.

Brown sugar keeps maximum freshness for four to six months. It’s important to store it in an airtight container to retain moisture and prevent hardening. Keep it in its original plastic bag, tightly closed, or transfer it to an airtight container or a moisture-proof plastic bag.

To soften brown sugar, heat it in a 250-degree oven for a few minutes. Or, place it in a microwave-safe container and cover loosely with a white, damp paper towel. Microwave on high and check it every 30 seconds.

Baking powder keeps 12 to 18 months and should be stored tightly covered in a dry place. Discard baking powder after its expiration date.

Make sure to use dry utensils to dip baking powder or soda. To test baking powder for freshness, mix one teaspoon baking powder with one-third cup of hot water. If it foams vigorously, it still has rising power.

Baking soda keeps 12 to 18 months and should be stored tightly covered in a dry place. Discard baking soda after its expiration date. To test its freshness, place one and a half teaspoons in a small bowl with one tablespoon of vinegar. If it fizzes, it will still leaven food. If it doesn't, use it in the fridge to catch odors.

Herbs and ground spices keep up to one year. Whole spices keep up to two years. Store them in a tightly covered container in a dark place. Air, light, moisture and heat speed their flavor and color loss. If you use a spice rack, place it away from light, heat and moisture.

Avoid storing above or near the stove, dishwasher, microwave, refrigerator, sink or heating vent. Use a dry spoon to handle spices or herbs. Don’t sprinkle them directly from the container into a steaming pot.

To check the potency of a ground spice, smell it. If its aroma is immediate, strong and spicy, it should still add flavor to your foods.

To test herbs, crush a small amount in your hand and smell it. If the aroma is still fresh and pleasant, it can still flavor foods. If there's no smell or an off smell, toss it.

Following these tips should help your holiday baked goods taste as fresh as possible. If you don’t check your supplies before the holidays, make a resolution to do it early next year.

(Elizabeth L. Andress is a University of Georgia Cooperative Extension food safety specialist with the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences.)

(April R. Sorrow is a science writer with the University of Georgia Public Affairs Office.)

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