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Archive for Wednesday, January 29, 2003

Cooking Q&A: How to properly store food

January 29, 2003

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Q: I'm in the process of cleaning my kitchen cupboards and wondering if it's time to bid some of the food farewell. Could you give me some rule of thumbs to go by?

A: Yes, in fact, here is some information shared by Alice Henneman, extension educator with the University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension -- Lancaster County. I hope it will give you some tips to help you decide whether to toss, move or try to save common kitchen cupboard foods.

The following storage tips are based on food stored at a room temperature of about 70 degrees. The times are those generally cited for maintaining best food quality. A range of times and the more conservative recommendations are given to allow for age of the product when purchased, how long it has been open, etc. Read labels carefully -- they often contain important storage information and recommended "use by" dates.

  • Baking powder -- 12 to 18 months or expiration date on container. Store tightly covered in a dry place. Make sure measuring utensils are dry before dipping into the container. Test for freshness by mixing 1 teaspoon baking powder with 1/3 cup hot water. If it foams vigorously, it still has rising power.
  • Baking soda -- 12 to 18 months or expiration date on container. Store tightly covered in a dry place. Make sure measuring utensils are dry before dipping them into the container. Test for freshness by placing 1 1/2 teaspoons in a small bowl. Add 1 tablespoon vinegar. If it fizzes, then it will still help leaven a food. If it doesn't fizz, use it as an odor catcher in the refrigerator.
  • Shortening -- 3 to 8 months opened; 8 to 12 months unopened. Store in a tightly closed container in a cool, dark place. Shortening that has been stored too long will go rancid and develop an undesirable taste and odor. If you haven't used a shortening for a while, smell it before using it in a recipe.
  • Vinegar -- 2 years unopened, 1 year opened. Keep vinegar tightly covered. White vinegar will maintain unchanged longer than other types of vinegar, according to the Vinegar Institute. The storage life of vinegar is "almost indefinite" because of its acidic nature.
  • Vegetable oil -- 1 to 6 months opened; 6 to 12 months unopened. Times vary according to type of oil, method of processing, etc. Some companies recommend up to 1 year opened and 2 years unopened for certain oils. For oils with a shorter storage time, some companies recommend refrigerating the oil after opening.

Store in a tightly closed container in a cool, dark place. Some of the oils that may have a shorter storage life include walnut, sesame, hazelnut and almond oils. Oil that has been stored too long will go rancid and develop an undesirable taste and odor. If you haven't used an oil for a while, smell it before using it in a recipe. You can prolong the life of oils by storing them in the refrigerator. Some, such as olive oil, may become cloudy in the refrigerator but usually clear after sitting at room temperature to warm up.

Canned goods

  • Canned foods -- 1 to 2 years. The Canned Food Alliance recommends eating canned food within 2 years of processing for best quality. Many cans will include a "for best quality use by" date stamped somewhere on the can.

If you have a concern over how old a food is, call the company's toll-free number (if listed on the can) or write to the address on the can.

Flours

  • White flour -- 6 to 12 months. Store in a cool, dry place. It's important to store flour in an airtight container or freezer bag to preserve the flour's moisture content. Exposure to low or high humidity will affect the flour's moisture content and may influence the outcome of a recipe. For longer storage, keep white flours in the refrigerator in an airtight container. All-purpose and bread flour will keep up to two years at 40 degrees in your refrigerator, according to the Wheat Foods Council.

As a general rule, if measuring flour from refrigerated or frozen flour, allow your measured portion to come to room temperature before using it in baked goods. Remove the flour for your recipe a few hours before use, so it doesn't affect the action of other ingredients such as baking powder or yeast.

  • Whole wheat flour -- 1 to 3 months at room temperature; refrigerate whole wheat flour if you want to keep it longer. For longer storage, whole wheat flour should be stored in an airtight container or freezer bag in the refrigerator or freezer. It will maintain good quality for about 6 months in the refrigerator and up to 12 months in the freezer. The ground wheat germ in whole wheat flour contains oil that can become rancid at room temperature.

Generally, if measuring flour from refrigerated or frozen flour, allow your measured portion to come to room temperature before using it in baked goods. Remove the flour for your recipe a few hours before use, so it doesn't affect the action of other ingredients such as baking powder or yeast.

Sweet items

  • Honey -- 12 months. Honey stores best at room temperature. It tends to crystallize more rapidly, a natural process in which its liquid turns solid, in the refrigerator. The National Honey Board recommends revitalizing crystallized honey by placing the jar in warm water and stirring the honey until the crystals dissolve.
  • Brown sugar -- 4 months to 6 months for maximum flavor. It's important to store brown sugar in an airtight container to retain its moisture and prevent it from becoming hard. Either store it in its original plastic bag, tightly closed, or transfer to an airtight container or a heavy moisture-proof plastic bag, such as a freezer bag.

Brown sugar becomes hard when the moisture in it has evaporated. Several methods have been suggested to help restore the moisture to brown sugar; here's an overview of those mentioned most frequently:

  • Oven method: Heat the brown sugar in a 250 degree oven for a few minutes. Watch it carefully and as soon as it is soft, measure the amount you need. When the sugar cools, it will become hard again. Warning: the sugar will be very hot.
  • Microwave method. Place brown sugar in a microwave-safe container and cover loosely with a clean, white, wet (but not dripping wet) paper towel. Microwave on high (100 percent power) and check about every 30 seconds. When the sugar cools, it will become hard again. Warning: the sugar will be very hot.
  • White granulated sugar -- 2 years. Store sugar in an airtight container or a heavy moisture-proof plastic bag, such as a freezer bag. Properly stored sugar keeps indefinitely.

When white granulated sugar absorbs moisture, it becomes hard. Here are some possible suggestions for breaking up hard sugar:

  • Put hard sugar in a sturdy food-quality bag and pound it with a hammer, meat pounder or flat side of a meat mallet.
  • Smash smaller pieces with a mortar and pestle.
  • Break up small pieces in a spice grinder.

Snack

  • Popcorn -- 2 years. Store in an airtight glass or plastic container in a cool place, such as a cupboard. The National Popcorn Board recommends against storing popcorn in the refrigerator. The kernels are more likely to dry out in the refrigerator and do not pop as well. It's the water inside a popcorn kernel that expands when the popcorn is heated, causing the kernel to explode or "pop."

If popcorn is too dry and won't pop, the Popcorn Board recommends filling a one-quart jar three-fourths full of kernels and adding a tablespoon of water. Place an airtight lid on the jar and give the jar a "few good shakes every few minutes" until the water is absorbed. Store the jar in a cool place and in two to three days, test-pop a batch. If the kernels still don't pop, add a few more drops of water to the jar, shake some more and let it sit another few days.

Seasonings

  • Spices and herbs -- 1 year for herbs or ground spices and 2 years for whole spices. Air, light, moisture and heat speed flavor and color loss of herbs and spices. Store in a tightly covered container in a dark place away from sunlight, such as inside a cupboard or drawer. For open spice rack storage, choose a site away from light, heat and moisture. Keep moisture out of containers by:
  • Avoiding storage above or near the stove, dishwasher, microwave, refrigerator, sink or a heating vent.
  • Always using a dry spoon to remove spices or herbs.
  • Never sprinkling directly from the container into a steaming pot.

Refrigerate paprika, chili powder and red pepper for best color retention, especially in summer or hotter climates. Be aware herbs and spices can get wet if condensation forms when a cold container from your refrigerator or freezer is left open in a humid kitchen.

As a check to see if a ground spice is potent, smell it. If its aroma is immediate, strong and spicy, it should still add flavor to your foods. For a whole spice, such as a clove or cinnamon stick -- break, crush or scrape the spice before you smell it. Do not smell pepper or chili powder as they can irritate your nose.

For 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. Get in the habit of smelling your spices and herbs periodically. You'll learn what fresh smells like so you can begin to detect if they are getting old.

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