Whether I’m spring-cleaning my kitchen at home or here in the Chatelaine Test Kitchen, scrubbing, washing and wiping are obvious chores. But if you want a kitchen where preparing delicious meals will be a pleasure, open your cupboards and make sure the ingredients are fresh, and the equipment is in clean, working order.
The spice cupboard
Arranging the bottles in your spice cupboard might make it look tidy, but do the seasonings still taste fresh? Like anything else, dried herbs and spices lose their flavour over time – and they may not last as long as you think.
The pros at herb and spice manufacturer McCormick say dried herbs can last from one to three years and spices will last two to four years. Still, it’s worth checking them annually for oomph. Signs of freshness are colour, smell and taste. Check to see if the colour has faded and lightly crush spices or herbs in your hand – they should release an obvious aroma. Still not sure? Put a little on your tongue – if you can’t discern a distinctive taste, it’s time to pitch it, regardless of how long you’ve had the seasoning. For optimum freshness, store dried herbs and spices in airtight bottles, away from light or heat.
Even canned goods can lose their flavour. Depending on the temperature and duration of their storage, canned foods may lose five to 20 per cent of their nutritional content every year. For optimum flavour and nutrition, store canned foods in a cool, dry, dark place and use within a year of purchasing. When you’re stocking your cupboards, don’t forget to move older cans to the front and put newer ones in the back.
Most packaged goods have an expiry date printed somewhere on the package. It’s worth keeping an eye on products packaged in cartons, such as soups and broths, throughout the year – they tend to expire more quickly than canned goods. And don’t forget about peanut butter! Commercial brands will last up to nine months, but be sure to move open jars to the fridge after three months.
Dried pasta and tea bags taste best when used within two years. Even rice expires – if you’ve had it longer than two years, get rid of it! The only thing you don’t have to worry about is honey – it won’t spoil, but it will crystalize over time. If it does, just pop it in the microwave to melt the crystals; the honey is still fine to use. Running out of room? Donate some of your unopened canned or packaged goods (before they expire) to your local food bank.
The baking cupboard
Baking soda should keep for about a year if stored in an airtight container. This will also keep it from absorbing other aromas in the cupboard. If you’ve stored your baking soda in an open container, check for freshness by stirring 1/4 tsp (1 mL) with 2 tsp (10 mL) white vinegar. If the mixture bubbles immediately, the baking soda is still good.
Flour is always messy to store – keep it clean and pest-free by storing it in an airtight plastic container. For optimum freshness, keep white flour in a cool dark place for up to one year. Whole wheat flour should be stored in the fridge and will last up to eight months.
Store chocolate at room temperature in a dry place. If the package is open, rewrap it with foil, then plastic. Avoid storing chocolate in the refrigerator, where humidity will accumulate and cause it to bloom – leaving a greyish-white film on the outer surface. The chocolate is still good to use, however, because the discolouration will only slightly affect the taste and texture. White and milk chocolate will keep well up to one year; darker varieties, such as semi-sweet, bitter-sweet and dark chocolate, will keep up to two years.
My fridge is often overrun with an assortment of half-full jars and curious-looking bottles of mustards, jams and sticky Asian sauces. Sometimes I have more than one open jar of the same thing. When cleaning, resist the temptation to incorporate the end bits into one jar. Even though they contain the same product, the expiry dates will be different depending on when you bought the jars and how long they’ve been open.
In the Chatelaine Test Kitchen, our fridge is crammed with condiments. To keep track of expiration dates, we always place a sticker right on the lid showing the date the bottle was opened. That way, even if the label falls off, we still know when the product is past its prime. While it’s always a good idea to check the expiry date, here are some general guidelines for how long to keep open condiments.
Ketchup: Six months – the colour may lighten before that, but it’s still safe to use.
Mayonnaise: Six to eight weeks.
Mustard: One year – the colour may lighten or darken and texture may become watery, but it’s still safe. Just shake well before using.
Salad dressing: Three months.
Soy sauce: Four to six months – the colour may change, but it’s still safe to use.
Ice cube tray
It’s a good idea to clean your ice trays each season and empty out your stash of ice cubes every few months. Ice that sits around for a while takes on freezer smells – and there’s nothing worse than a hint of fish in your favourite iced cocktail! Wash trays well with soap and water before refilling. If you have a large ice buildup on the shelves or around the freezer door, consult the appliance manual for the best removal method.
Wash the outside of your toaster with warm soapy water and empty the crumb tray. To keep your counter crumb-free, store the toaster on a small tray or dish. I keep mine on a metal baking dish, so when I need extra counter space, it’s easy to stash the pair in a cupboard without making a mess.
Use some extra elbow grease on your cutting boards to keep them going for another year. To clean wooden boards, sprinkle table salt on any stained areas and rub with a lemon wedge. For tougher stains, you can use an abrasive antibacterial cleaner. To maintain the finish, use a food-safe mineral oil to polish if you wish. Always make sure the board is completely dry before storing.
Sanitize both wooden and plastic cutting boards in the dishwasher, or wash with warm soapy water or a solution of 1 tsp (5 mL) bleach in 3 cups (750 mL) of water.
The dishwasher is a cook’s best friend – keeping yours clean, inside and out, will help it run smoother and last longer. The inside has nooks and crannies where old food collects, so make sure to wipe up any visible gunk. An older model will have a food tray – the small basket found on the bottom of the dishwasher. It’s a good idea to empty this out every few months. For a thorough cleaning, put a bowl with two cups (500 mL) of vinegar on the bottom rack, then run the dishwasher empty.