If you are planning on utilizing one of our birthday cake recipes, you should be sure you are using ingredients that are as fresh as possible.
Let's go over various ingredients in a typical recipe and see how long those various ingredients can be stored and the proper storage techniques.
You can click on any of the items below in the table and it will give you tips on storage and shelf life.
Pure Vanilla Extract
Vanilla enhances our ability to taste other foods and boost our perception of the sweetness in those foods. Some things that taste better with vanilla include chocolate, coffee, fruit, and nuts.
Vanillin is the predominant flavor in natural vanilla and while there are over 230 flavor and aroma compounds in real vanilla, vanillin is the one that does the lions share of making stuff taste better. Vanillin is present in both pure vanilla extract and imitation.
Pure vanilla extract (McCormick Pure Vanilla Extract is rated #1 by Cooks Illustrated) is made through a time and labor intensive process that involves steeping (like tea) the vanilla beans in water and ethyl alcohol. This process is mandated by governmental controls as to the proportion of water and alcohol. The raw ingredient, the beans themselves, are expensive because they are grown on flowering orchid vines which can only be found in a handful of countries with tropical climates. To add to the expense caused by the rarity of the plant, there is processing, shipping and conversion to the extract that further adds to the cost.
Imitation Vanilla Extract
Imitation vanilla is a byproduct of paper production or a derivative of coal tar, chemically manufactured through fairly simple and inexpensive processes. Because it’s so cheap, annual global demand for imitation vastly outstrips that for natural vanilla, at 16,000 metric tons to just 40 metric tons for natural vanilla. (source: Cooks Illustrated, March 2009)
Storage of Vanilla
The shelf life of Vanilla Beans is not as long as that of an extract. The beans themselves can tend to dry out and become hard. This makes them something you will either want to order in an amount you need for the particular short term or buy on a use by use basis.
Vanilla extract has an extremely long shelf life. You should keep your vanilla in a tightly sealed container away from light and heat. You can keep your vanilla for many, many years before it will go bad. There is no flavor difference between fresh vanilla extract and aged extract in your birthday cake recipes. You will find no difference in the flavor of your birthday cake recipes when you bake with real or imitation vanilla extract. You will find a difference in your frostings when you use imitation vanilla extract over pure vanilla extract or beans/paste.
First of all, color has nothing to do with flavor, it is just the color of the shell. More important than the color of the shell is where the egg came from. The color of the shell will not affect the taste of your birthday cake recipes.
Farm Fresh Eggs
The farm-fresh eggs will stand out from all others. The large yolks will have a vibrant orange color and sit very high over the white. The flavor of a farm fresh egg will be exceptionally rich and complex, lending itself well to birthday cake recipes. If you have access to farm fresh eggs, by all means get them and don't look back.
These eggs will come in just behind farm fresh eggs. The yolk will not have the deepness of orange that you will find in a farm fresh egg but it will be close. Expect to pay about a dollar more a dozen for organic eggs than run of the mill supermarket eggs.
Vegetarian diet eggs are next followed by standard supermarket eggs last. You will notice a flavor difference in your birthday cake recipes between farm fresh eggs, and mass produced supermarket eggs. It makes that much difference!
Never put eggs in the tray on the refrigerator door. This location is too warm from proper egg storage. Keep your eggs in the carton to maintain moisture and keep out odors. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they are still fit for consumption three to five weeks past the sell-by date.
As an egg ages, the usefulness in birthday cake recipes will decline. At the outer end of 3 months past the sell by date, the egg whites will no longer hold a stiff peak. I would recommend that you just get new ones if they are more than 5 weeks old. Eggs are cheap. Don't ruin your birthday cake recipes just because you don't want to buy fresh eggs.
You may see eggs in European countries stored in a basket on the table. This is because these eggs are not washed, as they are here in the States. The hen produces a coating called "bloom" that coats the egg and keeps out bacteria and air. When you wash this coating off, the porous shell will allow bacteria and air to get into the egg, causing them to deteriorate over time.
You should not store chocolate (Cooks Illustrated gave the Ghirardelli 60% Cocoa Bittersweet Chocolate Bar a thumbs up) in the refrigerator or freezer for your birthday cake recipes. The cocoa butter from the chocolate will absorb off-flavors from other foods present and the crystalline structure of the chocolate will change as well.
You should wrap any open bars of chocolate tightly in plastic and store them in the relative coolness of your pantry. If you have one or feel like a smart purchase, a Food Saver vacuum sealer will help your chocolate stay fresh, longer. I have one of these, the results of a late night t. v. purchase and it has turned out to be one of the best, most used kitchen appliances I have.
Dark chocolate will keep for about 2 years.
White and Milk Chocolate will keep for about 6 months due to the milk solids.
If your chocolate is exposed to rapid changes in temperature or humidity, you can see a discoloration of the surface caused by migration of sugar and/or fat to the surface of the chocolate. It won't affect flavor of the chocolate or your birthday cake recipes and is purely cosmetic.
The shelf life on both of these leavening agents is rather short, 1 year according to the manufacturers of both baking powder and baking soda. My experience tells me they become much less effective in a far shorter period of time. I would recommend you replace either of these if they are more than 6 months old. Your birthday cake recipes will turn out much better with fresh leavening agents.
You do have a good use for expired baking soda. You can use it to clean your sinks and freshen your garbage disposal or boost your laundry detergent. Don't just throw it away.
Sugar storage and shelf life
Sugar basically has an indefinite shelf life as long as you store it properly. Keep the sugar in an airtight storage container to keep out moisture, dust and bugs. I recommend the Rubbermaid-4 Qt. Clear Square Carb X Space Saving Container because it will let you put a whole 5 pound bag of flour or sugar inside. The top opening is really large which will let you easily dip out the required amounts of either dry ingredient you would need for your birthday cake recipes.
Shelf-life and Storage of Flour
There is a difference in the shelf life of all-purpose flour, cake flour and whole wheat flour. Due to the oils in whole wheat flour if you aren't going to use it in three months you should store it in the freezer in an airtight container. Again, I recommend the Rubbermaid-4 Qt. Clear Square Carb X Space Saving Container. If you don't, the rancid flavor of the oils going bad will ruin your birthday cake recipes.
Use of an airtight container for the cake flour and all-purpose flour will keep out bugs and humidity, both of which will ruin the flour and subsequently your birthday cake recipes. Don't leave it in the bag in your pantry, the humidity will go right through the paper.
Milk Storage and Shelf Life
Depending on where you live, milk shelf lives can vary greatly. Since the movement towards pasteurized milk at the turn of the century, shelf lives have continued to rise. Run of the mill pasteurized milk from the grocery store will have a shelf life of two to three weeks.
In Europe, UHT pasteurized milk when combined with sterile packaging can sit on the shelf, un refrigerated for 3-4 months. I can tell you from experience this milk is not good. It tastes like drinking plaster water. There are some UHT pasteurized milks here in the US but I personally don't like them. The flavor is all wrong. It tastes flat.
According to an entry in Wikipedia, a growing body of research supports the belief that pasteurization was not so much a response to any hazards or contamination issues with milk itself, but rather may have been a response to the hazards and contamination issues that resulted from the newly-emerging "industrialized" dairy industry. It's likely that, with the burgeoning growth of large-scale, longer-distance distribution networks, the rise of chain-store supermarkets, and the resulting impetus for larger-herd dairy operations and mechanized milking, there came a corresponding inability to preserve the quality and inherent bacterial-resistance qualities of fresh milk being marketed in a localized area.
I personally support this belief but we all need to make our own choices. I get my milk for my family from a raw milk dairy. Neither of my children have had milk from a store more than a few times in their lives.
I can tell you the whole milk from the dairy where we get our milk makes very moist cakes. I attribute this to the high percentage of fat in the milk adding extra fats to the birthday cake recipes.
If you are interested in raw milk, perhaps The Untold Story of Milk, Revised and Updated: The History, Politics and Science of Nature's Perfect Food: Raw Milk from Pasture-Fed Cows might interest you.
Butter Storage and Shelf Life
Butter does not have a very long shelf life in the refrigerator. One month is the maximum you should keep your unsalted (or salted for that matter) in the refrigerator. If you want to keep the butter longer your should freeze it. You can then get four months in the freezer of shelf life before the butter begins to pick up off-flavors and affects your birthday cake recipes.
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