Getting ready for Christmas baking.

OK, whew! Thanksgiving is behind us, so we can get down to serious business: Baking Christmas cookies. I’m already working on four fantastic Christmas cookie recipes to share with you. As you’re gathering your Christmas cookie recipe inspiration, here are a few tips to help you prepare for your holiday baking:

Freshen up your ingredients. That half-empty bottle of vanilla extract in the pantry? Sure, it’ll make decent cookies. But for real, intense flavor, you’ll want to purchase fresh vanilla (and also peppermint, almond or other extracts you may need for holiday baking). I recently opened a fresh bottle of almond extract and was surprised by the depth of its flavor compared to the old bottle it replaced. I like Penzey’s extracts for quality and taste.

While you’re at it, pick up fresh canisters of baking powder and baking soda; when you get home, use a Sharpie to write the month and year on the lids. These baking essentials lose their leavening power quickly, and it’s recommended that you replace them every six months.

Ditto flour. If you don’t go through it quickly, replace that old bag of all-purpose. Whole-wheat flours especially tend to go “off” with storage of more than 10–12 months, as their oils can get rancid (you can keep whole-grain flours in the freezer to extend their life).

Ditto baking spices. Most spices have a shelf life of 2 years, max. If you’re not sure how long that tin of ground ginger has been lurking in the spice rack, might as well buy fresh. Some groceries and independent spice shops  sell small quantities, so you don’t wind up with more ground cloves than you need. Fresh spices make a huge difference in flavor, and this is the season when you especially don’t want to skimp.

Plan and shop ahead. Bookmark (online and off-) the recipes you want to make, and create a shopping list that aggregates all the ingredients you’ll need. There’s nothing worse than being an egg short when you’re in the middle of a baking project. Too, consider which of your Christmas cookie recipes can be made ahead and frozen.

On Monday, I’ll post a gallery of my past Christmas cookie recipes. And starting next week, I’ll begin sharing this year’s Christmas Cookie-palooza recipes, so stay tuned — and happy baking!

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