Keeping Food Safe – Eat Or Toss?
It smells okay. You don’t see any fuzz on it. So what if that bottle of ginger-garlic paste you made months ago is still sitting in the fridge? Or that frost-covered lamb chop has been in the freezer since January – it’s still good right?
There is always something of indeterminate age in your kitchen, and you may be tempted to sniff, poke and taste it. But not so fast – you could regret it!
Many are the stomach woes that result from improper food handling or eating food that has been too long in the refrigerator. The fridge isn’t the only problem spot, either.
Pregnant women, young children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems are particularly vulnerable to food poisoning.
The deterioration process begins as soon as food comes in contact with air. Oxidation is the main culprit in setting the stage for bacteria multiplication.
Ideally, food should be prepared in amounts that can be consumed immediately. But for working women, this is not practical. The next best thing is knowing when to toss out the contents of your refrigerator. Rather than relying on the smell-prod-and-taste test, follow this simple guide:
Remember that while refrigeration slows bacterial growth, it doesn’t stop it. So, keep track of when you purchased and opened each item. One easy way is to label all edibles as ‘purchased on’ and ‘opened on’. This is an addition to checking the expiry dates of all pre-packed consumables.
The next step is to pay close attention to the recommended storage periods. But be warned – these are based on refrigerator temperatures of 104°F (40°C) and lower. Anything warmer is a breeding ground for bacteria. The more often you open the fridge, the more likely the temperature inside will rise.
Transfer left-overs to the fridge right after a meal or within an hour of cooking, especially seafood, meat, poultry and dairy products. If still hot, hasten cooling by placing the dish in a large tub of water or under a fan. Don’t worry if the food is still a little warm when you place it in the fridge.
- When cooking curries, store food initially in stainless-steel containers which, unlike copper and aluminium, does not react to acids in the curry. Steel, being a good heat conductor, will also cool food faster and more evenly. Once cooled, you can transfer the food to airtight microwavable plastic containers easily found in supermarkets.
- Ideally, you should consume refrigerated cooked food within 24 hours. If you plan to keep it longer, remove and reheat only the amount you want to consume and return the rest to the fridge. Frequent heating, cooling and reheating is a complete no-no. Cooked seafood, poultry and meat should be consumed within three days.
- Fresh milk from door-to-door milkmen should be stored in airtight plastic or stainless steel jugs and consumed within 24 hours. Packet milk has a longer shelf life after opening. Pour only the amount required and return the packet to the fridge.
- Put butter, cheese and yogurt in the fridge, not on the table, when not in use.
As long as food remains frozen, it is safe to eat. The flavor and texture, however, can deteriorate over time, so you may want to rethink serving your mother-in-law that two-month old chicken! And remember: freezing doesn’t kill bacteria – it just puts them to sleep for a while!
Freezer temperatures can also vary. The recommended storage periods will assume that your freezer is 32°F (0°C). For every five degree increase in temperature, you should cut storage time in half. If your refrigerator has only one door, don’t keep food in the freezer for more than a week as these freezers don’t normally maintain temperatures as low as 32°F (0°C).
Fast-foods should be preserved the same way you do cooked foods. Bear in mind, however, that stuffings and toppings for a pizza and a burger may have sat on the counter for hours before you bought it.
Remember that cup-of-noodles you couldn’t finish at lunch? Trash it. Pre-cooked food musn’t be saved for a later meal once you’ve opened it. Warning: Eating food from a bulging or dented can could be potentially fatal because the swelling may signal contamination.
Vegetables And Salads
Raw veggies and fruits retain most of their nutrients in the refrigerator. You can preserve them further by storing them in vacuum-packed containers and zip-lock pouches to slow down oxidation.
For the same reason, avoid cutting them up into smaller pieces. Refrigerated vegetables kept whole remain unspoilt in the crisper for a week if kept in nylon mesh bags. Tip: A spring of curry leaves in each veggie bag can retard deterioration even further!
- Keep salad ingredients separate and mix only when needed.
- Fruits should be consumed within four hours of removal from the fridge.
Food In The Pantry
Dried foods don’t contain enough moisture for bacteria to thrive, while canned food is air-tight – so pantry storage is more a question of quality than safety.
Toss out any cans that are rusting, leaking or bulging, and always put newly purchased items at the back of the shelf so that you use the older items first.
No matter how thorough, there will always be something that slips through your dating system or doesn’t appear on any of your lists. So, stick by this mantra: When in doubt, throw it out!
Cereals, Beans And Pulses
Rice and legumes can stay in your pantry for up to a year. To keep them fresh, put four to five dried chilli in the container.
Refined oils keep longer than non-refined ones. Never pour oil into a hot pan from a plastic bottle as the heat can cause a chemical reaction. Use a steel container instead.
- If not using a microwave, thaw poultry and meat in the refrigerator, not on the kitchen counter, to retard bacterial growth.
- Never taste leftovers, especially meat that looks or smell strange.
- Never dip fingers in food to taste.
- Don’t reuse oil that has been used to fry non-vegetarian items. More than the fear of rancidity (which isn’t really a health risk), the cancer-causing free radicals are a concern. Oil used to fry items are like papaddum can be reused at least two or three times.