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Extending the Shelf Life of Your Food

June 29, 2008

By CHINA MILLMAN

Most of the food that’s wasted in the United States occurs right at home in our kitchens. Why do we throw so much away?

One reason: confusion. We’re not throwing things out because we want to but because we’re uncertain about how long food lasts and when it’s safe to eat.

“Best by July 6, 2008.” On July 7, should you throw it out?

There’s a bit of blue mold on the edge of that expensive aged cheddar cheese. Does the whole thing go in the trash?

With growing concern about the amount of food that Americans are wasting at a time of soaring food prices, it’s critical to know how to extend the shelf life of as much of your food as possible. Fridge and freezer storage mostly addresses the question of when to eat food so that it will still taste good, so that’s the focus of these recommendations, with a little food safety thrown in.

Note, however, that how long your food lasts and how good it tastes depend upon a number of conditions that vary widely from person to person and situation to situation.

Another thing to keep in mind: Food bought locally will almost always last longer and taste fresher than food bought from a grocery store because it has traveled fewer miles over less time.

When you’re grocery shopping, look for food with an expiration date as distant as possible. Expiration dates are most often “sell by” or “best by” dates rather than “don’t use after” dates. They ensure quality rather than safety.

If an item doesn’t have an expiration date or obviously deteriorates in quality, such as soups, casseroles or frozen meat, label it with masking tape and the date by which you want to use it.

Finally, what about that pesky mold? If the mold is black, throw it out. If it’s blue, green or white, cut (or scoop) it out down to about an inch away from the moldy area. If a piece of fruit in a bowl or container is moldy, throw it away, and clean or switch the container.

These guidelines aren’t just relevant when you’re cleaning out your fridge. Consider them when shopping and cooking.

Freezer

As long as the freezer is cold enough, it’s the ideal environment for long-term preservation of many foods. A good rule of thumb for freezer temperature is that it should be cold enough to keep a pint of ice cream brick-solid.

Items in the freezer are at risk for freezer burn, which can be minimized by storing things properly – everything should be tightly wrapped or placed in a tightly sealed container – and minimizing surface area.

Best in the main freezer compartment:

–Ground meat, use within three months

–Pork, use within six months

–Beef, lamb, veal, use within eight months

–Poultry, whole, use within four months; cut-up pieces, six months (the air cavity in the whole bird speeds freezer burn)

–Bacon, use within two months.

–Home-cooked foods, use within one month

–Shrimp: Because most shrimp are previously frozen, they can be acceptably frozen for up to two weeks, but it’s best to buy still- frozen shrimp rather than the display shrimp that have already thawed.

In the freezer door:

–All-purpose flour (optional), whole-wheat flour, use within six months.

–Nuts, use within two months.

–Fruits and vegetables, use within six months.

–Butter, use within six months.

Refrigerator

In the refrigerator door: This is the warmest place in the fridge, so keep items here that are less at risk for spoilage.

–Condiments like mustard, ketchup, salad dressings.

–Salsa, tomato sauce, once opened, finish within one week.

Don’t store in the door:

–Milk

–Cheese

–Cold cuts

Best for the top shelf: prepared foods

–Chicken salad, egg salad, use within one day.

–Soups, casseroles, use within one week or freeze.

–Cooked meat and poultry, use within three days.

Best in crisper drawers: This is the best place for vegetables and fruits that should be refrigerated, like apples. Line drawers with paper towels to absorb condensation. Fruits and vegetables that don’t fit or are too delicate can be placed in plastic bags or in covered containers inside the fridge for the same effect.

Best on the bottom, back of the shelf: Keep foods that need to stay the coldest in the back, such as raw meat, seafood and milk. Fish and shellfish should always be used within a day. Meat and poultry should be used within two days or placed in the freezer.

–Cold cuts: If open, use within four days. Discard at “use by” date.

–Eggs: If properly refrigerated can maintain quality up to five weeks past expiration date. But as they get older, the membranes thin and weaken, so they’re best used for cookies, cakes and scrambled eggs rather than souffles or poached eggs.

Best in the cheese drawer: The cheese drawer, like the crispers, is designed to be more humid and warmer than the rest of the fridge because cold air is not circulated through it. Principles of cheese storage vary widely depending on the type of cheese, but most will benefit from being wrapped in waxed paper, then placed in a plastic bag with the top folded over.

Butter shelf: Butter absorbs other flavors very easily, so it needs to be segregated from other foods. Use within two months.

Don’t refrigerate

–Tomatoes, because they will become mealy. Keep at cool room temperature.

–Bananas or avocados because they release ethylene, which speeds ripening (and rotting). Can refrigerate once ripe to minimize decay, but it may have adverse effect on other goods.

–Citrus fruits, keep at cool room temperature, use within two weeks.

–Potatoes and onions, keep in cool, dark area, use within two weeks or before they sprout.

–Basil, keep at room temperature with cut ends in water.

–Coffee, because it will take on the flavors of other foods. Keep it in an airtight container on the counter. For best results, grind the coffee yourself, and use within one week.

ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO

Originally published by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

(c) 2008 Richmond Times – Dispatch. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.