July 1, 2008

Minimizing Loss Before You Toss ; Fridge and Freezer Guidelines for Keeping Fare Fresher Longer


Most of the food waste in the United States occurs right at home in our kitchens. Why do we throw so much away? One explanation is confusion. We're not throwing things out because we want to, but rather 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, partly because when food goes bad it often has a lot more to do with how it's handled once you take it home and when you open the package rather than when the food was picked or processed.

Moreover, food that tastes bad even food that tastes rancid (like sour milk) often isn't dangerous. Surprisingly, most of the time dangerous food (for example, spinach contaminated with E. coli, which can cause sometimes lethal intestinal problems) smells, looks and tastes perfectly fine.

Still, when it comes to quality, use your eyes and nose. Most people know that the best way to judge the ripeness of cantaloupe is to smell it. That technique works with other fruits as well. When buying stone fruits like peaches, plums and nectarines, smell them. Even if they're not yet ripe, they should have a distinctive, delicious aroma. If not, they were picked too early and may not ripen at all.

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 as soon as possible, and clean or switch the container to prevent the mold from spreading.

These guidelines aren't just relevant when you're cleaning out your fridge. Consider them when shopping and cooking so that less food winds up in the garbage.


The refrigerator

Best in the door:

* Condiments: Such as mustard, soy sauce, ketchup, salad dressings.

* Salsa, tomato sauce: Once opened, finish within one week.

Don't store in the door:

* Milk

* Cheese

* Cold cuts

Prepared foods best for the top shelf:

* 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:

* Vegetables and fruits that should be refrigerated: Such as 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:

* Foods that need to stay the coldest: 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 for cookies, cakes and scrambled eggs rather than souffls 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 upon 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.


The freezer

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, and not all stores will accommodate you.

Best 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.


Do not 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 flavors of food. Keep it in an airtight container on the counter. For best results, grind it yourself, and use within one week.

(c) 2008 Record, The; Bergen County, N.J.. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.