You’re hungry, so you slide into the kitchen to grab something to eat. After looking through your options, you remember that there’s a vegtable, piece of bread, or slice of meat that’s sat in the pantry or refrigerator for a little longer than you’d like. But the food in question seems okay. Surely, if you cook it, it’ll be good to eat, right?
You wouldn’t want to waste food after all, and you’re not alone! We’ve all experienced this dilemna at some point.
The time it takes for different foods to spoil is highly specific to each item and how it’s being stored. Furthermore, while expiration dates can help you decide this, they’re more useful as guidelines instead of unbreakable rules of freshness. So, instead of giving you timelines for each food’s lifespan, we’re going to focus on some general signs that’ll give you a good idea about the freshness or the spoilage of your food. To do this, we’ll look at three of your five senses — sight, touch, and smell (not taste — if you’re unsure about food, don’t taste it).
Signs by Sight
Of the three senses we’re covering, sight is the most pleasant to use to test for freshness — but not necessarily in a good way. A food item that’s gone bad may look a little gross, but at least you’re not touching or smelling it to make that determination!
Is there a visible mold or slime on the item? You’re going to want to toss those items. When a food has really gone bad, it’ll often be obvious just by looking at it!
Coloration is an important factor that’s easy to overlook. Make sure the colors of your fruit and vegetables are vibrant and the right color.
But what about less clear cases, like where there’s no mold or obvious decay? You could still tell by sight, but you’ll need to look a little more closely. Coloration is an important factor that’s easy to overlook. Make sure the colors of your fruit and vegetables are vibrant and correct. Blueberries should be a dark blue or purple, lettuce and leafy greens should be a bright or dark green (depending on the variety), and bananas should be yellow (unless you’re letting them become overripe for a recipe). Potatoes should be brown or red (again, depending on the variety), not green since this is a sign that they may be producing solanine. If they’ve totally changed color from when they were fresh, like leafy greens turning black and looking visibly limp, it’s a sign they’re going bad. Meat discoloration is a little different in that it’s not the most important sign that the food is going bad. If a meat changes color, it’s not always a sign of spoilage, but rather more likely a sign that it’s come into contact with oxygen. Color alone won’t tell you how fresh the meat is.
You should also look for visible changes in texture. Two reliable examples of this are tomatoes and bell peppers. Normally, the skin of these plants would be taut and shiny. If they’ve begun to lose freshness, you’ll notice wrinkles in the skin. This is from a loss of moisture inside. Similarly, if you see that a usually firm or stiff food item, like celery, has gone limp, that is a sign that it’s getting a bit old (though celery can be brought back by rehydrating it). Clearly, visible texture alone doesn’t mean it’s currently rotten, though it may not be as pleasant to eat.
Tell by Touch
Now we’re getting into the more definitive signs of spoilage. Texture can be an important component of freshness. The visible texture clues are helpful, but in many cases, you won’t know the texture until you’ve felt the food. Bread is simple to tell if it’s gone stale, and that’s if it’s developed a hard or overly dry texture. Fruits and vegetables will develop noticeable soft spots, a sign of microbial decay. These soft spots or changes in tactile texture will often appear before mold begins to develop. The food will often be fine to eat, though not as good as it could be, so consider this to be the start of spoilage. As these signs progress, going from a small soft spot to several covering most of the fruit, you’ve likely missed the point where you can eat it.
If meat feels slippery or sticky, these are unpleasant signs you should throw it away immediately since since bacteria can make you pretty sick.
A significant sign of spoilage in meat also comes down to touch. If the meat begins to feel slimy, that’s a sign that bacteria is beginning to grow on the meat. This can manifest as either a slick, slippery feeling when you touch the meat or as a tacky, sticky feeling. Both are unpleasant signs you should throw away the meat immediately since bacteria can make you pretty sick. Some vegetables can develop a slimy film when they’ve gone bad as well.
Spoilage by Smell
For anyone who’s had milk or meat go bad, you’ll know that one of the first signs that (almost literally) hits you is the odor. Once you’ve smelled rancid meat or sour dairy, you’re unlikely to ever forget it. In fact, that smell is one of the clearest signs that the food is going bad because it’s caused by bacteria decomposing and rotting the food. This is true for most perishable foods and is a good sign that the food is beyond edible. Once a food begins to smell off, you should play it safe and get rid of it.
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The most important thing you can take from each of these signs is that most will appear around the same time and that you should look for several when determining the freshness of a food item, or the lack thereof. Generally, if you start seeing the undeniable signs of spoilage (the slimy texture or the foul smell), you’ll have missed some of the earlier signs before that. While some types of spoilage bacteria won’t make you sick, the food item may still taste or feel pretty gross, and if you’re looking to enjoy your meal, it’s likely a good idea to eat something else.