In the dark, dank recesses of the frigid wasteland lies the domain of the forsaken and forgotten; a truly frightening place, where disease and even possible death lurk and steal away in wait for the damned souls unwise enough to venture into its chilly depths. Pull out any of this chamber of horrors’ macabre offerings and you will reveal all manner of abominations. What could this nameless morass be? It’s green like guacamole, but real guacamole would be brown after having been neglected this long. And besides, it’s in a paper container with a wire handle that plainly reveals its Asian origins. What’s this? A salad dressing no one really liked from day one has been left to languish for months beyond the date on its label. It smells fine. But do you dare become its next nauseated, cramping, victim?
There are some simple tricks that can keep your refrigerator from becoming a dead zone. And I promise that if you read to the end there will be one trick that will allow you to enjoy a real treat everyday. Get a Sharpie-type permanent marker and hide it in the fridge or freezer. They still write just fine no matter how cold they get. Use it to label the tops of all those Styrofoam clamshells filled with restaurant leftovers. Even better is to label the side so you can still know what’s in there without having to drag it out from the back of the fridge. A marker stashed in the freezer can help you tell if that frosty red surface is chili or spaghetti sauce. Almost all food containers these days are cheap and disposable. So go ahead and write on it. Even if you reuse it, you can easily scratch out the old name and date and substitute a new one.
As far as dates, let’s clear up some frightening confusion. Food that is too old is almost always a taste and smell disaster and not a real health hazard you should fear. Food borne illnesses can be found on fresh food you bought that day. When you see “sell by” or “best by” dates on food, it means that after that date the food starts to lose its quality and might taste a bit funky. Most food can be safely consumed for weeks or months past these dates. The exception would be an “expiration date”, or one that says, “use or freeze by”.
You can definitely push it by a few days, but I would be tossing it if it’s been more than a week.
Foods that are properly chilled and stored stay fresh a long while. But open up a container of sour cream based chip dip and put it on the coffee table for the entire 4-hour football game, and you are inviting trouble. You exposed it to all kinds of microscopic critters floating in the air which will grow on the now room temperature surface. When you go back to the same container for next weekend’s game, it’s likely to have a green or black mold growing on top. The mold probably wouldn’t make you deathly ill, either. But it won’t taste right and might cause indigestion and stomach acid problems. A better solution would have been to scoop out only what you wanted and return the rest immediately to the fridge. Kept at proper temperatures and not exposed to open air, the same dip will probably last an entire football season depending on your appetite. What about the date, you ask? It’s SOUR cream dip, are they afraid that it might suddenly turn fresh again?
Exposing food to open air for long periods is probably the worst thing you can do, especially for foods that require refrigeration. But there is one food that falls in between those two requirements. And once you find out the truth, your entire relationship with it will change. Most folks have a butter dish, but is yours the kind that has a top? If it doesn’t, it’s meant to be used to store unwrapped sticks of butter in the refrigerator. But most butter dishes have a rectangular top because butter left at room temperature will keep just fine for several weeks if it is covered. Butter does not require refrigeration, and, if it is chilled, it is a pain to use and adds very little in the way of taste.
You can get a proper butter dish at the dollar store, or spend big bucks at a high-end kitchen gadget retailer. But either way, take my advice and do it. The difference is like night and day. Now instead of cold chunks that rip your toast, biscuits, and pancakes to shards, you have smooth, creamy, spreadable butter to put on just about anything you choose. And you will start using more of it, because it is delicious at room temperature. If you can’t use an entire stick of butter in two weeks it will start to taste a little off, as the composite parts start to separate from each other. But my guess is a stick of butter won’t last you nearly that long once you get a proper butter dish and make the switch.
Dee Marcus writes food centric commentary for Birmingham. Please send your comments to email@example.com