Saturday, November 30, 2013

How to keep bugs out of your kitchen pantry

Short Answer:  Keep every dry good in glass or very heavy plastic containers.  Absolutely everything, no matter how small the quantity, if you're planning to store it for longer than about a week or two.  Make exceptions to this rule at your own peril. 

Long Explanation:  Ah, the pleasures of maintaining a kitchen pantry full of organic and exotic foods and spices.  I buy a large amounts of both organic and imported dry goods for my family, and both are prone to infestations.  There's a reason why so many pesticides are used in conventional agriculture - and the reason is insect control. But I myself would rather deal with insects than with chemicals, so this is how I manage the issue. 

Dry goods don't usually come in glass or plastic containers, so you need to remove the contents from their bag or box as soon as you get them home from the store, and keep them in your own bug-proof containers instead. 
Does your pasta come in a cardboard box or thin plastic wrap?  Forget that.  That's a red-carpet invitation to insects. 
Repackage dry pasta into glass or plastic bottles.  You don't have to spend a lot of money on the bottles.  I wash out spaghetti sauce jars and large stew jars and use them for the job. 
If you store a lot of dry goods, it's not if you will get an insect outbreak - it's when.  But if you have everything in glass, it will be restricted to just one container when it does occur.  I prefer glass over plastic because of the transparency - I can see insect problems in the earliest stages of development and nip them in the bud. 

Repackaging in glass also has the advantage of showing you just what food products are your biggest offenders.  If you wait until an infestation is underway to respond to it, then you won't know whether your rice infected your pasta, or your pasta infected your rice. 
I use locally-grown Texmati rice where I can, but for some dishes including the biryani I talked about in this post, I haven't found a substitute for true imported Asian basmati rice. 

I have never, not once, had an outbreak in Texmati in all the years I have used it, but Asian basmati is a different story. 
Ewww.... the contents of this container are now destined for my compost pile

I know that the basmati is the offending insect source because it has been sealed in this air-tight glass jar since the day I brought it home.  These guys hatched out a few months after purchase (white rice keeps for up to a year). 

With respect to rice, heating it at low temperature in the oven and freezing it for a few days is said to take care of the problem of any viable insect eggs remaining in the product when you buy it.  I'm currently experimenting with both of those methods and I'll let you know what I find out. 
I mentioned organic and imported foods as being potential sources of problems, but my glass storage strategy has revealed that there are certain conventional domestic American food products that also pose a high risk of bringing insects into my pantry.
Those popular seafood spice bags that you toss into your big pot of boiling water before you add your shrimp or crabs??  Bad news.  The spice blends are encased in a loose mesh bag which, in turn, is stuffed into a small cardboard box.  Those things are totally permeable to insects and, in my experience, are among the worst offenders.  As soon as I get one home from the grocery store, I take the sack out of the cardboard box and put it into an air-tight glass container so I can see if problems develop before I use it. 
As a matter of fact, every single one of my spices is stored in a glass container, regardless of brand.  I have found that spices in general are among the worst offenders for spawning insect outbreaks, no matter what the source (foreign or domestic).  And if you keep your spices in the factory-packed small skinny bottles with the labels plastered all over the front, you might not be able to spot the insects until the moment arrives when you're shaking the container over your cooking.  No bueno. 

I turned these spice racks into a contemporary art piece which defines our dining area wall.  I'm going to get emails asking, "WOW, those are the coolest spice racks ever... where can I buy some?!"  Sorry guys. Those racks were custom made for me by a friend who is a woodworking hobbyist.  And the jars are surplus laboratory-grade containers with Teflon-lined lids.  There's nothing even remotely like this for sale on the American consumer market.  Not that I know of, anyway.   
Let me emphasize again that it's not just dry good packaged in cardboard that is the problem.  Thin plastic is also vulnerable. 
You are often safe with heavy plastic wraps, but most packaged food wraps are not heavy, and insects can cut through thin wraps without a problem.  Here we see an organic bag of breakfast cereal with a tell-tale hole.  Given that the flap is pushed outward, the forensic analysis suggests that this was made by a bug who was emerging from the organic cereal, rather than one going into the cereal. 
And now you know the rrrrest of the story as to why I made over my kitchen pantry in a rather unconventional manner last weekend.
It's because I needed to improve my visibility in order to spot uninvited house guests of the kind that have six legs.  So now I have shelves and sub-shelves set less than six inches apart, and a whole lotta stuff repackaged into my own glass jars.  The little buggers can't hide from me now. 

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