There are daily, weekly and only-after-a-spill kitchen cleaning tasks that aren’t hard to forget to do. Other things, like cleaning the refrigerator or weeding the spice rack, are easy to let slip. Spring is the perfect time for an annual check-up.
The refrigerator: Cleaning the fridge is straightforward, because there’s really only one right way to do it.
Step 1: Remove everything, checking for leaking bags or bottles.
Step 2. Wipe everything down with a mixture of warm water and baking soda, including the undersides of shelves. (If you want to be really thorough, remove the shelves and wipe them outside the fridge.)
Step 3: Do another round of wiping with dry paper towels, and return the foods to their proper places.
Now for the details: Use one quart of warm water and 2 tablespoons of baking soda for your cleaning solution. Soak a clean rag, then wring it out thoroughly and start wiping down the fridge.
Why baking soda? I think most people are generally aware you clean your fridge with baking soda, but there are two main reasons. First, baking soda neutralizes odors (that why it’s good to keep a box of it in your fridge all the time). Second, and most importantly, baking soda has no odor of its own and it doesn’t produce suds that require a heavy rinsing. Clean your fridge with bleach and it will smell (along with all of your food) like bleach. Clean with a scented cleaner and you’ll be having lemon-scented turkey on your sandwich.
The pantry: My pantry generally has good turnover, except for one place – the spice shelf. Even though I cook and bake frequently, I know I have spices that are older than the date stamped on the bottom. More important than spices, you want to check your leaveners: yeast, baking soda and baking powder. Yeast you should move from the pantry to the freezer.
Before we get to baking soda and powder, allow me to tell a quick anecdote:
Last Christmas my wife, brother and I cooked dinner. I had tested most of what we were cooking once at my apartment, including the cornbread. It had risen beautifully, with a golden crust and springing interior. At my parents’ house everything turned out perfectly – except for that cornbread. When I pulled it out of the oven, I knew something was wrong. It didn’t look like it had risen at all, and the bread was incredibly dense. It was even hard to slice. In the moment, I couldn’t think what the problem might be. The eggs and the cornmeal were fresh. After dinner I had a flash of realization and went to check the date stamped on the bottom of the baking powder canister – it had expired in 2007.
Since then, I’ve learned baking powder actually looses its full strength quite quickly. According to America’s Test Kitchen (go to 17:45 in this episode), it’s six months. After Christmas, I checked my own baking powder – it had expired a couple of months earlier.
Here’s an easy test to see if your powder is still viable: Fill a small glass with 1/4-cup warm water, and place 1 teaspoon of baking powder in it. The water should start fizzing loudly, and bubbles should fill the surface of the water. When I did this test with my old baking powder, I got a few half-hearted bubbles, even after stirring the water. With the new baking powder, the water began fizzing instantly (second picture). Although there are tales online of old baking powder working, I’m not going to take any chances. From now on I mark my own personal expiration date on my baking powder.
The baking soda test is similar. Instead of water, use 1/4-cup white vinegar and add a teaspoon of baking soda. The cup should fill almost instantly with bubbles. If it doesn’t your soda has been exposed to too much moisture and should be replaced. Baking soda doesn’t expire as quickly as powder – use the expiration date on the box as a guide.
We all buy spices for one special recipe, crossing our fingers we’ll get to use the spice again before it expires. Ground spices generally have expiration dates two years later, and they start to loose their flavor long before that. The best way to preserve spices is to keep them in the dark, away from the heat of the stove and the moisture of the sink. My spice storage system is suboptimal at best – the shelf is open and the spices are exposed to light.
When I was looking through spices at my in-laws’ house recently, I came across a few archeological treasures – spices from 1985 and before. No amount of good storage practices was going to save those cloves.