Melissa Clark on Spring Cleaning in the Kitchen

Friday, March 14, 2014

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.


Melissa Clark

Comments [28]

ron kahn from Andover NJ

On storing leeks. Forgot 2 important things. First wet the Soil so it is damp and keep it damp. Next, Store in a cool dark place. The leeks I harvested this past fall, are still going great, have wonderful white, healthy roots that keep absorbing moisture.

Mar. 14 2014 05:18 PM
m graham from nashville

I wish grown women would sound like women. So tired of voices like this one--baby-like, and ultimately silly. I can never make it all the way through an interview with her.

Mar. 14 2014 03:37 PM
Ruth Friedman from glen cive, NY

I missed the caller's tip about preserving oil- something to do with wine and Mellisa thought it was a great tip. What was it?

Mar. 14 2014 01:26 PM
Derm from TriBeCa

It always strikes me as a bit odd that the web comment-section associated with this guest is so awash with earnest, hyper-detailed questions. I'm an uber-foodie and work in the gourmet industry in Manhattan, and I just don't buy it. If I didn't know better, I'd think someone was trying to drown out the (salient) negative comments that this guest garners.

Mar. 14 2014 12:58 PM
Amy from Manhattan

Please don't scrape mold off the top of jams/jellies & then eat what's left. 1st, the mold isn't just what you see on the surface. It has filaments that extend further into the food, which scraping won't remove. This also applies to fruits & vegetables w/mold, &, as John called in to say, soft cheeses, all of which should be thrown out. But I've read that for hard cheeses, you should cut off an inch beyond where the mold extends.

Mar. 14 2014 12:51 PM
ron kahn from Andover NJ

Storing Leeks - Cut off the real green top so height is about 16" for a large leek. At the bottom of a large Plastic storage tub, put a row of sterile seed starting soil (the Soil) (about 2" wide, 2' high and the width length of the tub. Place a row of Leeks, standing upright packed tight against the Soil. Add another row of Soil, another row of Leeks, another row of soil....

Storing food to be frozen - Use a food saver vacuum bag packing device. About $100. Removes Air and therefore helps prevent freezer burn.

Mar. 14 2014 12:48 PM
teresa from winsor terrace

chop herbs and mix with olive oil and place in ice cube trays and freeze. one frozen move to freezer safe container. toss in recipies when needed.

Mar. 14 2014 12:43 PM
Hal from NYC

I dry herbs by chopping them and placing them in the fridge in an open container. Give a light toss once day until they're dry, then store in a jar with the rest of your herbs. I do it with dill, tarragon, oregano, mint, thyme and others.

Mar. 14 2014 12:41 PM
A.Mac from NYC

John from Office, I'm with you. Also, it is so retrograde to have this frequent guest prattling on about such inanities. Her only achievement is that, as John notes, she's a "brand" in the publishing-media-industrial block (which inlcudes NYT, a few key publishing concerns, WNYC, etc.). There are so many gifted writers, thinkers, and speakers. I'm sorry, but It's insulting to everyone to keep having this undistinguished person on the show.

Mar. 14 2014 12:40 PM
Laurence R LeWinn from brooklyn

if you find mold or mush on your vegetables, can you cut the bad parts off and still eat the vegetables?

Mar. 14 2014 12:40 PM
juliana from Manhattan

pls post the wine container idea a caller suggested to Melissa - I missed the comment and heard her commenting what a good idea it was. WHAT WAS IT? Thank you

Mar. 14 2014 12:37 PM
Dee from Montclair

Chocolate does not last forever, I had some Costco fine chocolate and when I bit into it there was a meal moth. Costco looked it up and they were a few weeks past the expiration date. I had no idea chocolate would go bad this quickly.

Mar. 14 2014 12:36 PM

NEVER put food in a glass jar up to the top,screw on the top and then put in freezer!!!

The expanding freezing contents will break the glass

Leave a little room at the top, then freeze w/o the top. Screw on the top after contents are frozen.

Mar. 14 2014 12:35 PM
mtm from Brooklyn

Please check on the accuracy of the nutritional advantage of cooking using iron skillets & pans. This topic has been mentioned at least twice this year on your show. But, I understand, from a chemist friend, that traces of iron on the skillet are not readily available to be absorbed by our bodies, (to improve hemoglobin levels for instance) but rather passed in our stools. I would like to know, and it would be good to inform your audience with accurate information. Thank you, I do enjoy your show!

Mar. 14 2014 12:33 PM
Josh from Brooklyn

put marshmallows in rock hard brown sugar to soften them up

Mar. 14 2014 12:32 PM

There is a reason snack foods are often sold in those aluminized bags- the thin layer of metal blocks air and moisture at least 100x more efficiently than clear plastic. You can buy the aluminized ziplock bags online- will dramatically reduce freezer burn.

Mar. 14 2014 12:32 PM
Lisa from New York

Re brown sugar: store it with a piece of bread. The bread won't stale and the sugar stays soft.

Mar. 14 2014 12:32 PM
Linda from Jersey Shore

My grandmother kept the romano pecorino in a glass "chicken" on top of the refrigerator. But then of course she was sicilian and went through it every few days ;-)

Mar. 14 2014 12:30 PM
Warren from Morristown

I'm a bit offended by the cavalier attitude regarding throwing away food. I'm very reluctant to discard food so easily. I've travelled third world countries and have seen numerous people starving. I think twice before throwing out food.

Mar. 14 2014 12:30 PM
john from office

This woman is the reason many women are harried and feel like they are not doing it ALL. She cooks and cleans and makes her own cleaners and has all the pots and pans and tools she needs.

She has that time because she makes money writting books and then tell other women how to live.

Mar. 14 2014 12:30 PM
Andrew from West Village

I use mason jars in different sizes that are cheap and stack easy in the cupboard

Mar. 14 2014 12:30 PM

I just bought my first, small package of Almond flour. How long can I keep the it unopened? And once opened, how quickly must I use? Does keeping the opened package in the fridge help?

(And any easy recommendations for using the Almond flour other than baking would be nice, too.)

Mar. 14 2014 12:29 PM
Derek from Oyster bay

Melissa, I've tried your suggestion about cleaning my cutting boards. Distilled white vinegar and baking soda. Works GREAT! Thank You!

Mar. 14 2014 12:29 PM
Frank from Lindenhurst

How long do herbs and spices keep in the freezer?

Mar. 14 2014 12:27 PM
Estelle from Brooklyn

I had a been-in-the-freezer-forever steak, freezer burn and all. It made an excellent curry.

Mar. 14 2014 12:26 PM
Julie from Washington Heights

I tend to keep grains around so I have instant meals, and sauces I've made in the freezer. Now I'm storing brown rice in the fridge. How about quinoa? Pastas of all grains (white, whole wheat, rice, quinoa)? Thanks!

Mar. 14 2014 12:26 PM
Carol from Park Slope

Where does Melissa shop for spices?

Mar. 14 2014 12:22 PM

I once found one of Great Aunt Josephine's plum puddings frozen in Aunt Ruth's freezer, dated 12 years after Aunt Jo had died. Eating it was a fine sentimental experience.

Mar. 14 2014 12:18 PM

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