It doesn’t take long for potatoes au gratin to become potatoes au rotten.
All it takes is a week or so. The cheese-flavored side dish leaves the Sunday dinner table, is spooned into Tupperware for Monday or Tuesday leftovers and promptly forgotten behind a front four of Schlitz, Heinz, Freihofer and Hellman.
Once rediscovered after 10 days — maybe 20 or 30 days — the potatoes have lost their aroma and maybe some of their color. They have become the culinary equivalent of all those zombies on “The Walking Dead” television show — advanced decay has set in. They are just too far gone.
Food storage experts say refrigerators need not turn into horror stories. A little vigilance and planning can prevent shocking discoveries — and maybe a case of food poisoning.
Diane Whitten, nutrition educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Saratoga County in Ballston Spa, said simple foods such as deli-sliced ham can go bad after five days. Take out slices for a sandwich after a week and take a chance on an upset stomach.
“Bacteria starts to grow on it,” Whitten said. “It gets to a point where it’s going to make you sick. Your body can’t fight it off if there’s too much bacteria in it. You can get nauseous, you can get diarrhea.”
Many foods are stamped with expiration dates. Sight and scent will clue in people that other foods are past their primes — little green spots on bread mean mold is taking over loaves of pumpernickel and wheat. And sour milk is a smell nobody ever forgets. If in doubt, Whitten added, throw it out.
Whitten consults “The Food Keeper,” a brochure developed by the Food Marketing Institute along with Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Cornell University Institute of Food Science.
Anyone can access the brochure at Cooperative Extension’s Website, www.ccesaratoga.org. People can also mail Whitten a self-addressed, stamped envelope (the address is listed at the bottom of this story) and she will mail them back free copies.
Here are a few food deadlines, for refrigeration section only (frozen foods will last longer):
– Cream cheese: 2 weeks
– Butter: 1-3 months
– Shrimp: 1-2 days
– Ground meat: 1-2 days
– Bacon: 1 week
– Hot dogs (sealed:): 2 weeks
– Grapes: 1 week
– Lunch meats: 3-5 days
– Olives: 2 weeks
– Ketchup: 6 months
– Eggs: 3-5 weeks
– Juices in cartons: 7-10 days after opening.
“If you think you’re going to keep something longer than it will keep in the refrigerator, you should consider freezing it,” Whitten said. “Food in the freezer will remain safe indefinitely, although their qualities tend to go down.”
Whitten said people can also be food smart by placing perishable foods that must be refrigerated into ice boxes as soon as they return from supermarkets. They should guard against cross contamination — if they are storing raw meats on one shelf, they should never have something like lettuce or other fresh vegetables or fruit on the shelf underneath. If the meats leak, the produce can become contaminated.
Sometimes, Whitten said, people will keep foods in their freezers too long. It might be a Thanksgiving turkey that survived the holiday season and is still frosted on the Fourth of July.
It’s still salvageable.
“If you think the quality is not exactly as good as you want it to be, you might want to consider cooking it in a moist way, like put it in a stew or soup as opposed to just roasting the turkey,” Whitten said. “A lot of people call me about that, ‘I’ve had a turkey in my freezer for over a year, is it safe to eat?’ It’s safe, but the quality starts to deteriorate.”
Cool people who want their foods to stay cool should also:
-Never let raw meat, poultry, eggs, cooked food or cut fresh fruits or vegetables sit at room temperature more than two hours before putting them in the refrigerator or freezer (one hour when the temperature is above 90 degrees.)
-Never defrost food at room temperature. Food must be kept at a safe temperature during thawing. Safe ways to defrost food include in the refrigerator, in cold water and in the microwave. Food thawed in cold water or in the microwave should be cooked immediately.
– Always marinate food in the refrigerator.
– Divide large amounts of leftovers into shallow containers for quicker cooling in the refrigerator.
– Use or discard refrigerated food on a regular basis.
– The last rule can be tricky. Especially in office refrigerators used by many people.
“We always have that person who loves to clean the refrigerator,” said Sarah Pechar, executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension in Schenectady County. “It gets to the point where somebody’s got to clean the fridge, you really have no idea how old something is sometimes, you don’t want to open the containers to see if the food is bad. Sometimes, it’s ‘What is this? Oh my goodness!’ ”
To offer full disclosure: The Daily Gazette’s news room refrigerator was inspected for this story and required a severe edit. Among items discovered were a plastic baggie that contained weeks-old ham; a plastic tub of roasted red pepper hummus (opened) teamed up with two hardboiled eggs (unopened); one container of blackberry yogurt, a half-full bottle of savory beef gravy and two chicken sausages — all best eaten by last December; a plastic tub of something that resembled macaroni and ground beef; and a mystery in plastic that looked like an exploded tomato. One reporter thought it looked like a deer heart.
A newsroom policy of labeling by name and discarding all abandoned items at week’s end has failed. But sorting and tossing are still good ideas, and this story posted on the black Whirlpool may inspire a better appreciation for law and order.
Shopping trips should be planned with refrigerator storage in mind. People might think they’re saving money if they buy 10 cups of yogurt for $10 — but those savings are tossed when the product spoils and must be trashed.
Pechar said people should also know what they have at home before they replenish their food stocks.
“So you don’t end up with five bottles of ketchup,” she said. “Every time you go to the store you think, ‘Oh, I’m out of ketchup’ and you keep buying ketchup. I think it’s a good habit to get into, periodically do a check of what’s in the refrigerator.”
If chicken is on sale at the store, Pechar added, people should also have plan before they spend big money on a big deal. “It’s ‘OK, I’m going to cook some of it now, I’m going to freeze some of it,’ ” she said. “It’s a waste of money if you end up just throwing it out.”
For clean-outs, Pechar added, people might consider getting rid of the bad and the ugly on the night before garbage collection days.
“So it’s not sitting in my garage,” she said. “If it’s the middle of the summer, the last thing I want to do is throw out leftovers when it’s 100 degrees outside.”
To receive a free copy of “The Food Keeper” brochure, send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Diane Whitten at Cornell Cooperative Extension-Saratoga County, 50 West High St., Ballston Spa, NY 12020.
Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at [email protected] or @jeffwilkin1 on Twitter. His blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/wilkin.