Developing an intuition for food spoilage

One of the modern wonders of US society that I think is underlooked by most people is how safe the US food safety standards are compared to many other countries, as well basically the entirety of past societies. I’m by no means saying our food safety standards are perfect; all regulations have problems and unintended consequences of course. However, in US society, I’d say for the most part you could probably get away with just eating out at restaurants, and following the expiry dates of items and pretty much never worry about having to deal with food poisoning or illnesses related to food, outside of major outbreaks or personal afflictions like allergies. That is, if you just follow the general guidelines, you can get by without ever having to develop a good intuition for food spoilage.

So, what do I mean by having a food spoilage intuition? I’m talking about your general sense of “knowing” when to throw something out, maybe by looks, smell, or even just experience. Maybe you left out your pot of chili for half a day, and even though it smells fine, you don’t trust it – it’s been sitting out in the danger zone for too long. (Though I have known someone who’d left a pot of chili out unrefrigerated for several (!) days, eaten it throughout that time period, and never indicated any issues with food poisoning. How? I have no idea.)

Some things are “common sense”, like dried beans keeping for a long time, provided proper storage conditions. I had a bag of dried red beans that had been sitting in my room for more than a year, uneaten. When I found them one day after tidying up, I boiled them to eat – they were hard, but I read that adding some baking soda would soften them up. It worked, and the beans tasted fine. This is to be expected – eating year old beans is known to be relatively safe. Obviously not so with things like meat or other produce. I can’t imagine being able to store a cucumber for a year and somehow have it still be edible, outside of freezing it.

However, there are other things that wouldn’t seem like they would store for long, that I’ve had personal success in experimenting with. For example, about two summers back I purchased a whole watermelon from the grocery store. As a single bachelor, I kept putting off cutting it open and eating it, because I knew once I cracked it open, I’d have to eat the rest of it singlehandedly in a relatively short amount of time before it went bad, as cut watermelon spoils a lot faster than a whole watermelon. During this interim, I’d made sure to flip the watermelon every couple of days so it wouldn’t develop a soft spot or mold. Anyways, I kept putting off eating it until I finally ended up moving out of my rental, around November/December. By this point, it’d been around 5-6 months, and since I didn’t plan on taking the watermelon with me, I was going to chuck it. However, my landlord, who’d also seen this watermelon sitting on the counter for months, asked to open it up and see what it was like – she also wanted to see if it was actually edible, or had fermented into some nature’s version of some sick alcohol spiked melon. I figured, what the hell, let’s open it up to take a look – after all, what’s the worst that could happen?

Surprisingly, the watermelon was totally fine. Might have been a little mushy, but that’s to be expected with how old it was. Other than that, it didn’t taste off. I was really surprised, because everything I read on the internet said watermelons would only keep for a few weeks max. This one threw my food intuition off a bit, because I wouldn’t ever expect things with a lot of moisture and/or sugar to keep for particularly long – moisture in particular invites mold, and sugar attracts bugs. However, I guess since the watermelon is an enclosed space with a tough outer layer, it kinda makes more sense that it could go longer without spoiling.

Two year old sour cream

One other case that surprised me was this tub of sour cream I kept that was over two years past its expiration date. In theory, I guess it could kind of make sense that it wouldn’t spoil. However, in practice, I was expecting incredibly bad things when I ripped off the protective foil, because dairy in particular is known for spoiling quickly. To my surprise, there wasn’t anything off about the sour cream – it looked fine, smelled fine, and tasted fine. I still have it in my fridge, actually.

Looks a little grotty, but I think it’s just from being tossed around – the interior looked totally normal when I grabbed a spoonful.

My last case was this old variety box of chips I purchased about two years ago as well. These chips were 2+ years past its expiration date, but I figured since these types of food products are loaded up with preservatives, they’d probably be fine, albeit a bit stale tasting. I was wrong. While they looked fine, most of the chips, particularly the hot cheetos, smelled off. They had a smell similar to gasoline, and tasted like it as well (Of course I tried it). After doing some internet research, I found that this gasoline smell can be a side effect of rancidity. Which makes sense, as these chips were way past their expiry date. The doritos tasted a little stale, but were surprisingly edible. I think what tripped me up about these chips going bad is that common knowledge says that these types of processed foods will last pretty long due to being processed with salt and preservatives, ala the infamous “Twinkies lasting forever” meme. However, to the surprise of my food intuition, certain produce like watermelons will last for a surprisingly long amount of time given the proper storage conditions.

Chip order date for posterity

In conclusion: my personal guideline for food safety if you’re (and by you, I mean me, not you as in the audience. Nothing I write here is advice. copy me only at your own peril) not living paycheck to paycheck or in abject poverty, just follow the expiration dates for things when throwing them out. Actually, scratch that – first, you should do a visual inspection and a smell test. Sometimes, even if an item’s expiration date hasn’t hit, things can be contaminated or compromised. It should be obvious in that the product differs from how it is normally. If it passes your tests, then follow the expiration dates. You can also typically stretch things past their expiration dates if you really want to, but it’s also highly dependent on the item. The drier it is, the safer it’ll probably be eating it past the expiration date. I basically never throw out cereal. Also, frozen foods will last essentially forever, they just probably taste worse over time due to freezer burn and other weirdness.

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