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Contrary to popular belief, expiration or "sell by" dates on foods aren’t really a reliable way of telling whether something has gone bad. In fact, food safety dates are mostly aimed at retailers, not necessarily consumers. They let grocery stores know the date by which the product should be sold or removed from the shelf.
So ditch the sell-by dates and use your sense of sight and smell instead. When it comes to going through your stash of groceries at home, you just need a small amount of know-how to tell if something should be tossed or kept.
The absolute best way to store butter is on the counter at room temperature, so when you’re making mouthwatering grilled cheese the butter is silky and spreadable. But you might be wondering: won’t it go bad? Room temperature butter can go bad, but it will take up to two weeks before turning. And when it has gone bad, you’ll know because it will taste slightly stale with a sour smell.
Whether you make your own bread or grab a loaf from the supermarket, everyone should know when to keep and when to toss. Grocery store bread is good for three to five days after opening, but it can be consumed even after that as long as there is no mold growth. Porous foods like bread can be contaminated with mold below the surface, which means you shouldn’t discard the moldy spot and continue eating it. You can usually spot fuzzy, green growth on bread, so it’s easy to tell when it’s time to toss.
This may be something your parents taught you: If an egg is bad, it floats in water, and if it’s good, it sinks to the bottom. There's actually some truth to it, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food Safety. If an egg floats, it means it is old, but before you toss it, you should do a second check to see if it really went bad. Crack the egg into a bowl and check for an off odor or unusual appearance before deciding to use or toss it. A spoiled egg will have a funky odor when you break open the shell, whether raw or cooked. With so many ways to make eggs, it helps to know how long they last.
The best way to tell if milk has gone bad is usually through your senses. Some common signs of bad milk are chunky or lumpy texture, discoloration and a pungent sour smell that you’ll notice right when you open the lid. If your milk is about to expire and you can’t possibly drink it all, use some of these recipes to finish off the gallon.
Most of the time, ice cream doesn’t last long enough in the freezer to go bad, but you should still know what to look for just in case. Unopened ice cream can actually last for two to three months past the “best before” date on the container. And a sign of spoiled ice cream is tiny ice shards on top of the ice cream and under the lid, which is sometimes OK if it’s just beginning to turn. But very quickly, the ice cream can turn gooey and sticky — that means you should not be eating it.
Hard cheese like Parmesan or pecorino Romano last a lot longer than soft cheese like mozzarella. You can tell if hard cheeses have gone bad if there is deep mold throughout the block. According to the USDA, if hard cheese has only spots of surface mold, you can trim off the mold (at least an inch around and below the mold) and wrap the rest in fresh cling wrap.
For soft cheeses like cream cheese, cottage cheese, mozzarella, etc., any and all mold growth is reason enough to discard. This is also true for bags of shredded cheese — if you see any mold inside, throw the entire package out.
If you have a few slabs of red meat in the fridge but haven’t gotten around to making a pot of stew or juicy steaks, you might want to take a look to see if they’re still OK to use. And don’t be alarmed if you see discoloration alone, as that can happen with refrigerated meats. But if in addition to the color change, you smell an off odor and find the meat to be sticky or slimy to the touch, it’s time to toss. Here’s how long other meats and foods last in the fridge and freezer.
If you’re not storing your onions in a straw basket away from the fridge, you're doing it wrong. Onions need to be kept in well-ventilated places away from moisture. So if you see moisture and soft spots, it can be a sign that your stash of onions is going bad.
You should always buy whole, unpeeled bulbs of garlic — not only do they taste fresher but they also last longer. (If you buy pre-prepped garlic because you hate taking the skins off, try this genius hack that chefs use to peel them.) To tell if your garlic has gone bad, look for dark spots, signs of rot, or patches of green growth. You can also squeeze the garlic and if it feels too soft, it should be thrown away.
Raw fish only lasts in the fridge for a couple of days. If your fish is cooked, it can remain sealed in your refrigerator for five to seven days. Frozen, store-bought uncooked fish can last four to six months. Signs of spoilage include a slimy film growing on the fish, an extra-fishy stench or any sign of discoloration. Salmon, for instance, can take on dark or white spots as it expires. Cooking salmon that’s gone bad is a surefire way to ruin an otherwise tasty heart-healthy dinner.
From tortilla soup to quesadillas, there is plenty to do with leftover chicken. If you have a lot to use up, keep in mind that cooked chicken should generally be tossed out after about four days, which is when bacteria starts to grow. And if you can’t remember when you stored it, look out for a sour smell or a slimy, mushy texture, which will indicate the chicken is a no-go.
Sliced deli meats like turkey, ham or salami are great to have on hand for the best sandwiches, but they don’t have the longest fridge life. If your sandwich meats develop a foul odor, throw them out immediately. As a general rule of thumb, make sure to eat deli meats within three to five days of opening the package.
Mayo is the ultimate sandwich condiment, and though it stores well in the fridge for long periods of time, there are a few things to look out for to know if it's gone south. When it starts to go bad, mayonnaise will begin to look a little more yellow instead of its normal creamy white color and get lumpier than usual. Another glaring sign is mold, and you should always discard the entire jar if there are any traces of it.
Pizza, like most cooked foods, should not be left out of the refrigerator for more than two hours. After that point, it’s at risk of growing food-borne bacteria. But once in the fridge, leftover pizza can be enjoyed for up to four days. The same rules apply for both delivery and homemade pizza.
Lasagna is a perfect home-cooked meal that can cure any weeknight slump. Leftovers are even better because you don’t have to cook. And the best way to figure out whether or not lasagna has gone bad is to look for a sour smell coming from the tomato sauce and cheese. The noodles will likely look dried out too.
The rules for takeout are similar to the rules for most home-cooked leftovers. Make sure the food isn’t left at room temperature for more than two hours. After that, the food is usually still good for around three days. Just watch out for signs of spoilage — mold, an odor or a slimy film.
If you’re looking to cook up a vintage recipe no one makes anymore, such as tuna noodle casserole, or you’re trying to add some healthy fatty fish like salmon to your diet, know that canned fish can be consumed up to three years after the pack date. But if you open the can and smell a foul odor or notice discoloration, don’t eat it.
With some canned soup and beans, you can make some delicious and quick dinners for a cozy night in. Canned soup is good for two to three years after the pack date. Similar to canned fish, discard the cans if there’s an off-putting smell.
Yogurt is generally good to eat seven days beyond the printed sell-by date, and sometimes even much longer. The easiest way to tell if yogurt has gone bad is if you smell a sour odor or spot mold growth. Another indicator of spoiled yogurt is a lumpy texture similar to cottage cheese.
Fresh fruit can last for days, depending on the kind of fruit and its exterior. The signs of overripe fruit vary depending on the fruit. Bananas are a special case since overripe bananas can be made into scrumptious banana bread. But bad fruits like apples, pears, oranges and stone fruit become overly mushy, brown and might develop mold. Insect holes can also indicate that another critter has munched on the fruit before you have, which means you should toss it.
Strawberries, blueberries and other berries become wrinkly when they’ve been kept too long. And when you see mold growing on them, discard the entire carton right away. If you know you’re not going to use all your berries before they go bad, throw them in the freezer for smoothies.
Fresh herbs can be pricey compared to dried ones so you want to be able to use every last leaf. There are two types of herbs — soft herbs and hard herbs. Soft herbs have a bendy, soft stem, like mint, cilantro or basil, [which is one of the foods you should never refrigerate]. Hard herbs include rosemary, oregano and thyme, which have a tougher stem you can snap. For soft herbs, you can tell they’ve gone bad if the leaves turn slimy, wilted and black. When hard herbs go bad, the leaves usually dry out and tend to change from green to yellow or brown.
When most greens begin to go bad, they become less green and more yellow. This is usually the case with broccoli, kale and celery tops, but it could apply to other fresh vegetables too.
Uncooked rice easily lasts a year or two after being opened, and cooked rice has a pretty long life as well. Leftover cooked rice is perfectly safe to eat for four to six days after being refrigerated and can even be kept outside the fridge for a couple days if the room temperature is cool. But if the cooked rice appears dry or crunchy, you should throw it away. If you stocked up on rice and other dry items, you should brush up on the shelf life of rice, flour and other pantry staples.
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