Melissa Clark on Spring Cleaning in the Kitchen

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Spring is just around the corner, and Melissa Clark tells us about how to spring clean the pantry. She talks about what staples to pitch, how long things like flour and rice and nuts should be kept. And she'll share some tips on things to make with the ingredients you already have in your cabinet. Clark is a New York Times Dining Section columnist and cookbook writer, and her most recent cookbook is Cook This Now: 120 Easy and Delectable Dishes You Can't Wait to Make.

A Few Tips

Shop in stores where there’s a high turnover. It means your products will be fresher because they’re not sitting on the shelves for a long time.

Ideally, go through your cabinets and pantry every year to take stock of what you have, throw out what’s past its prime, and clean. Melissa makes a handmade cleaner with white vinegar, water, and a little dish soap, and keeps it in a spray bottle.

Store things in airtight containers—glass jars, plastic containers, even sealed bags. And it’s a good idea to label and date things.

Spices: Ground spices begin to lose their flavor after about 6 months. They also begin taking on the odor of the cabinets they’re stored in. Light and heat are bad for spices, so it’s best to keep them in a drawer or cabinet away from the stove. Whole spices like cinnamon sticks, nutmegs, star anise, whole peppercorns last longer than ground spices. They’ll last a few years.

Fats go bad and turn rancid pretty quickly—in a matter of months. So oils, nuts, lard should be used up or discarded after 6 months. You can keep them in the refrigerator or freezer if you want them to last longer.

Nuts: Always test them before you use them—if they’ve turned they’ll taste bitter.

Oil goes bad fast! It usually turns within 6 months. Light and heat degrade oil, so it’s best to keep it in dark glass or opaque bottles. When you buy a small bottle of an oil you don’t use often, like hazelnut oil or walnut oil, Melissa Clark suggests finding recipes that call for it and finding ways to use it so it isn’t wasted. A clever caller recommended using a wine saver for oils—keeping out the oxygen helps it last longer.

Flour: White flour will last for years. Whole wheat, rye, corn flours don’t last as long. Keep flour in an airtight container, and if you want whole grain flour or almost flour to last longer, keep it in the fridge.

Rice: White rice will last a long time in an airtight container. But brown rice can get rancid after a year or so. You can smell it and if it smells off, don’t use it.

Brown sugar: If you keep it in a good airtight container, if shouldn’t turn hard, but if it does, here’s what Clark calls an “age-old grandma trick” to soften it again: Put a slice of apple in with the sugar for a day or two to soften the sugar.

Chocolate is best kept in a cool, dark cabinet, not in the refrigerator—moisture is the enemy. Dark chocolate will last for two years or more if wrapped tightly. Sometimes a white film appears on chocolate, but it’s not bad—it’s just sugars that have moved to the surface. Milk chocolate and white chocolate, because they have higher fat content, will not last more than a year.

Frozen meats: Don’t keep meat more than a year. If you freeze fat and lard, it will turn rancid in a year even in the freezer. Things like pie dough won’t last more than three to six months.

Cheese: If there's mold on porous cheeses like mozzarella, there's most likely mold througout the cheese. But for hard cheeses like parmesan or aged gouda, you can usually cut the mold off the outside of the cheese and eat the rest. Grated cheese seems to go moldy quickly, so Clark recommends keeping it in the freezer.