Top | Unexplained Bacon

Bulking up

(article, Matthew Amster-Burton)

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We've all heard the advice: Keep your nuts, whole grains, and maybe even spices in the freezer to prolong their shelf life. I can't deny the wisdom of this; I once opened an old container of wheat berries and unleashed a biblical swarm of flies.

But I bought the same wheat berries in the bulk section of a grocery store, at room temperature, under fluorescent lights. So here’s the question of the week: Just how perishable are bulk foods?

[%image wheatberries float=left width=250 caption="What to do when wheat berries go wild?" credit="Photo: iStockphoto/Suzifoo"]

And how much does perishability vary between spices, grains, and nuts? And how do markets ensure their bulk products are fresh — if they do so at all?

The answer is important to me, because I'm a cheapskate. I've been haunting my local bulk section ever since I noticed that steel-cut oats (even organic) can be found there for a fraction of the price of McCann's (the one in the white can that boasts about its uniformity of granulation). And bulk nuts are, of course, crazy cheap compared to those half-cup packets in the baking aisle.

I'm not accusing my local stores of, uh, mishandling their nuts. As far as I can remember, everything I've ever bought from a bulk section has been just fine, which adds to the mystery. The only rancid nuts I ever bought came out of one of those little packets from the baking aisle.

The best bulk section in my Seattle neighborhood is at Madison Market, a natural-foods co-op. So I emailed their bulk buyer, Jeff Milano. I did this with some trepidation, because basically I was asking him, "How do you avoid selling rancid food?"

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Highly perishable bulk foods include raw nuts, whole grains (wheat berries, brown rice, millet, flaxseed, etc.), and whole-grain flours. Use these quickly or keep them in the fridge or freezer.

More durable bulk foods include popcorn, macadamia nuts (and any roasted nuts), beans, hulled grains (such as barley), sugar, granola, chocolate, dried fruit, and any refined flours or grains, such as white flour or white rice. Stash these in airtight jars in your pantry.

As for spices, store them at room temperature in a sealed container.

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Anyway, Milano understood that I was not accusing him of the aforementioned nut-mishandling, and he wrote back:

bq. While it's true that nuts and certain grains are perishable, how they're packaged, stored, and sold greatly affect the amount of time we have before they spoil. For example, all of our nuts (and some seeds) are stored under refrigeration both at the warehouse we purchase them from and here at Madison Market.

(To be clear, he means that back stock is refrigerated before it goes out into the bulk bins on the retail floor.)

bq. In addition, many of the bags of grain are lined with plastic to prolong their freshness. Probably the biggest factor, though, that prevents spoilage is sales: we sell a ton of nuts! So the nuts you see when you shop bulk don't sit around for too long before they're adopted by a shopper and are on their way to a good home. In fact, if it isn't selling fast enough I will drop the product and look for a better "mover."

Your bulk manager may not be as proactive as Milano, but that's the basic strategy. I take this to mean that if you don't want your wheat berries to star in a remake of “The Fly,” your best move is to leave the storage to the experts and buy only as much as you need for a particular recipe, or a week or two.

Sometimes, of course, that's impossible or silly. If you're mail-ordering grits from Anson Mills, as I recommend, the minimum quantity is three pounds, or what is known to physicists as "a gritload." Keep them in the freezer. 

The same goes for nuts, whose oils tend to be mostly unsaturated and therefore prone to rancidity. (An exception to the freezer rule is macadamia nuts, which are very shelf-stable.) Store a week’s worth of nuts at room temperature and the rest in the freezer. 

Or follow Milano’s advice and pour all your raw nuts and whole grains into airtight containers before storing them in the fridge. (Toasting nuts, Milano adds, prolongs their shelf life, so you needn't keep your toasted crunchies in the fridge or freezer.)

Obviously, I don't buy spices a teaspoon at a time, either. Instead, I order them once a year from Penzeys. Spices become stale, especially in the presence of direct sunlight, but not rancid or infested. 

[%image pinenuts float=left caption="Toasted nuts, such as these skillet-toasted pine nuts, will stay fresher longer." credit="Photo: iStockphoto/Glassbottle"]

Penzeys advises being your own bulk manager and keeping a small quantity of spice in the cupboard (where you'll see and therefore use it) and the rest in the freezer. I am too lazy for this, and the spices would end up abandoned in the back corner of the freezer with the ice-encrusted pork chops anyway.

Luckily, as the Penzeys spinmeisters put it, "A top-quality spice at two years may be better than a low-quality spice at two months." 

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We look forward to our yearly spice order for months. If I took perfect care of my spices, it wouldn't be as fun to crack open the new jar of ground ginger and smell the difference in freshness.

In short, if you want to keep rancidity and bugs at bay, think like a day trader: Don't buy and hold. Keep your stock moving.

p(bio). [matthew.reviews@gmail.com "Matthew Amster-Burton"] writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.


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