Leftover Life: The Actual Breakdown

Almost everything we put into our refrigerator comes with an expiration date on it. And almost everyone has a mess of foods in their refrigerator whose expiration dates have come and gone. Most of us tend to toss the stuff, troubled by the thought we’ll wind up sick as dogs from having eaten spoiled foods. We’re wasting a lot of money by doing that, since most foods last a lot longer than any of us suspect.

Word to the wise — those expiration dates are pretty much just suggestions. The moment the stamp reads today’s date, your food won’t go toxic. Spoilage is a slow process, and you can head it off with a little know how.

Meats spoil the fastest because everything spoilage needs to do its nasty handiwork is there in quantity. Meat swarms with microbes, most of which are benign or killed when heated, moisture, and contact with air. It takes only a few days for meat to go bad. When you buy a piece of chicken or a steak, you need to cook it within 3 days (maybe 4 if your fridge is seriously cold). Fish goes even quicker: if you aren’t going to eat that salmon within 2 days, freeze it.

Deli meats are usually cooked, which keeps spoilage at bay for a much longer period. Your turkey breast, roast beef, and pastrami are good for around 5 days (the same holds true for holiday turkey leftovers). Something like ham, which is most often cured before it gets to your deli, adds a few more days to its lifespan and will last for around 7 to 10 days.

Note: This is obviously not YOUR fridge

Vegetables will last quite a bit longer. A zucchini stays good for weeks; potatoes for months, onions for just as long. The trick with vegetables is to keep them out of the light and open air, both of which tend to sap a vegetable of its vitality. Once you cook a vegetable, it will go pretty quickly-air and enzymes conspire to make them start tasting bad within a couple of days.

But what about all those foods like mayonnaise, pickles and soy sauce, that say “good until June 6, 2030”? Again — that’s just a suggestion. Mayonnaise is chock full of preservatives, and your jar of Hellmann’s is good for more than a month after it expires. Butter will be fine for about a month after its date, and eggs for at least three weeks.

Pickles, soy sauce, et al, don’t really have much in them that can go bad, at least before you do wind up eventually eating them. An open jar of pickles is good for 2-4 months. Soy sauce for 2-3 years, ketchup for a year, and a container of hot fudge sauce for 6-8 months. Microbes can’t grow so well in foods that contain or are soaked in a lot of vinegar, salt, or sugar. For that reason mustard will last more than a year and Worcestershire sauce for three.

And some foods will last forever. Archeologists found honey in ancient Egyptian tombs that’s still edible today, although there probably isn’t a crush of people wanting to put that to the test. Maple syrup is another food that theoretically lasts forever. Salt and sugar will stay good until the cows come home. And rumor has it, Twinkies might outlast us all.