Items that have begun to spoil are safe to eat if they have been stored properly. But they may eventually start to look unappealing or taste or smell bad. If the food is mouldy it should generally be discarded.
Get meat and fish into the refrigerator as fast as possible. The colder the spot, the longer they keep. That is particular true of shellfish, minced meat, raw fish and other sensitive items. Use a thermometer to figure out where the coldest spot is.
Ham, turkey, sausage, liver pâté and other sandwich toppings keep a lot longer if you don’t leave them out at room temperature during leisurely Sunday brunches.
Meat and fish can be frozen instead. Put the food in an airtight container to keep it moist and label it with the date. You can confidently eat food that has been in the freezer for a long time – no bacteria grow there. But fat can turn rancid and create a bad smell. The fattier the food, the shorter its shelf life. Fatty sausage may spoil within a month or two, whereas lean game meat keeps for more than a year.
Milk, cream, soured milk, yoghurt, crème fraiche, fat spreads and other dairy products need to be refrigerated. The colder the spot, the longer they keep. Milk is generally good long after the best-before date if refrigerated but can spoil prematurely if left out at room temperature for hours on end. The moral of the story is to put milk back in the refrigerator at the end of the meal. Always taste and smell dairy products before throwing out the container – if the flavour is normal, they are safe to eat regardless of the best-before date.
Milk, cream, butter and margarine can be frozen if you won’t use them in time. Frozen cream cannot be whipped but is fine for cooking purposes.
Cheese keeps for a long time in the refrigerator but can also be frozen; the only problem is that it can get crumbly. Cut off crusty cheese, freeze it and use it later in gratins and quiche. Hard cheese that has become mouldy can be saved, as long as the mould is cut 1 inch around the spot.
The best-before date on egg cartons assumes storage at room temperature. Refrigerate eggs if you want them to keep a few weeks longer. You can also freeze whites and yokes that you don’t use when baking or preparing meals.
Households throw away more fruits and vegetables than any other kinds of food. The secret is not to buy more than you need and to store them properly so they will keep longer. Handle them carefully – fruits and vegetables spoils quickly once it has been dropped or damaged. You might want to eat more carrots, beets, cabbage, swedes, cauliflower and other easily stored vegetables while cutting back on highly perishable items like lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers.
Storing fruits and vegetables in plastic containers may seem like overkill, but it actually extends their life quite a bit. Keep them in the package or bag if you want to prevent them from shrivelling and ripening too fast. That also protects them from ethylene, a gas secreted by for example apples, bananas and tomatoes If you put the package in the refrigerator, leave a little opening to minimize the amount of condensation. Or why not punch small holes in the plastic?
Most vegetables, as well as some fruits, thrive best in the refrigerator, particularly if you won’t be eating them any time soon. The vegetable drawer is an ideal place to keep them. Bowls of fruit are a welcome addition to a table or dining room, but keep an eye on them and make sure that their contents are eaten before they start to spoil. Of course, you can’t forget about them in the refrigerator either.
Some fruit and vegetables suffers chilling injury if refrigerated but does well if stored in a cool place at 12-15° C. Among such items are
Tomatoes and avocados should be allowed to ripen at room temperature but they keep longer if subsequently refrigerated.
Fruit and vegs that has started to shrivel is completely safe to eat. Overripe fruit is often fine in a salad or smoothie, and shrivelled vegetables taste just as good in a casserole or omelette. Lettuce, carrots and other roots that have lost their resilience liven up and get crispier if you refrigerator them in a bowl of water for several hours.
Mouldy fruit and vegetables should generally be discarded, but small mould spots can be removed. Cut off at least 1 inch around the spot.
Fruit and berries can be frozen, but fruit must be cut into smaller pieces first. If you have some vegetables you want to freeze, first boil some water, put them in the pot briefly and then rinse them in cold water. Frozen fruits, vegetables and berries keep for a year or more. Because bacteria can’t grow at that temperature, the food remains safe to eat but may dry out and lose its taste and consistency eventually.
Potatoes may look hardy but they are actually quite fragile. Keep them in a dark place, handle them gingerly and protect them from being bumped against; otherwise they are vulnerable to the formation of solanine, a toxic substance. If the pantry is also cool, you can retard softening and sprouting as well. Otherwise room temperature works just fine.
Bread does best at room temperature, not in the refrigerator. Soft bread quickly becomes dry and crumbly when refrigerated, but can be frozen if need be. If you don’t eat a lot of bread, you might want to slice it before freezing. That way you can take out a little at a time.
Hard bread should be stored in a dry place. Due to its low moisture content, it will keep for a long time.
Many kinds of soft bread get mouldy after a week or so, while others last longer. Whether they contain preservatives does not necessarily explain the difference. Bread is often baked under extremely hygienic conditions these days, which shields it from mould spores and considerably extends its shelf life. Sourdough bread keeps longer than other types. Moldy bread should be discarded.
Jam, ketchup, salsa, bouillon, pesto and other condiments are usually fine at room temperature as long as the containers are unopened. Check the label on the jar or bottle to see if it should be refrigerated after opening.
Opened jars of marmalade, salsa and certain other condiments tend to keep for a long time because they are unfriendly to bacteria. They can get mouldy, but you’ll notice right away when it happens. They can be safely used up until that point. Salsa and many other condiments can be frozen if you know that you won’t be using them any time soon.
Hermetically sealed tinned goods can be stored at room temperature for a year or longer. Once the tin has been open, refrigerate its contents. In the fridge it will keep as long as other leftovers.
Semi-preserved products should be refrigerated. The length of time that an opened container lasts will vary from food to food. Many pickled herring products will keep for several months, whereas some types of roe go bad after a few days. The label will often tell you how long the contents will last after opening.
Flour, pasta, rice, sugar, grains and other dry goods last for a long time. Keep them in a dry place, preferably not too warm. Store them below room temperature and they will usually last after the best-before date. Dry goods are safe to eat indefinitely, but the fat in flour can become rancid and make it taste bad.
Store oil at room temperature if you like but put it in a dark place to prevent rancidity. It will keep even longer in a cool spot. Olive oil and certain other types coagulate in the refrigerator but become liquid again when exposed to room temperature.
Nuts keep for several years in the shell but for a much shorter time outside the shell. Their high fat content makes them vulnerable to rancidity, but they last longer in the refrigerator, tight containers and the dark. Store shelled nuts in the refrigerator if you don’t plan to eat them in the near future. You can also freeze them. Mouldy nuts can contain toxins and should not be eaten.
The shelf life of chilled goods can decrease significantly in the car or when otherwise exposed to high temperature. If it takes a long time to get home from the store and it is warm outside, you might want to take an ice chest along. Some ice chests have a cooling unit that can be plugged into a socket in the car.
Ice chests are also good for picnics or long trips. If you only have a small amount of food like a lunch box or sandwich, putting it in a plastic bag along with some ice packs will do just as well.