Know the signs of spoilage

Know the signs of spoilage

The Labor Day holiday brought storms and the accompanying indoor darkness, or as we like to refer to it, the perfect day. We lit candles and eyed the gathering clouds, knowing they were going to make dinner plans a challenge.

Some weeks ago I picked up a rack of baby back ribs, planning to make them over that summer weekend. Plans changed, and the ribs went from the fridge into the freezer a couple of days later.

Labor Day morning, we pulled them from the freezer to thaw slowly through the day. I put them on a tray, sat them out on the counter and kept an eye on the weather forecast.

I’m not above lighting the grill and cooking in a light rain, so when the late afternoon began to settle in and there was no major gale, I opened the now-thawed package of ribs to get them rubbed up with spices. Here, the story becomes cautionary. Knowing what signs indicate spoilage can save you a lot of problems.

I remember my mother smelling absolutely everything she was going to eat or cook, every time. Milk, lunch meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables — everything got the sniff test. I asked her about it eventually, and I remembered her answer: “You would be surprised how many times I’ve saved us from getting really sick.”

The ribs smelled off, rather like a beagle just in from the rain, and felt just slimy enough that I threw them out with no plan B. Martha Stewart was trying very hard to love me that day.

I wondered about how someone with little experience in the kitchen, a young man or woman cooking for themselves or a mate for the first time perhaps, might miss some of those signs and plow ahead cooking something dangerous anyway.

Depending on the ingredient, It can be easy to miss what your food is telling you. You might think it would be perfectly obvious, like the bread has green mold so don’t eat it. But by the time bacteria has become pervasive enough to be visible in spots, the entire loaf is teaming with scary gunk.

Spot a meal worm in the flour and you can bet the worm has a whole family buried in there somewhere; that’s part of why most older recipes advise sifting flour before using it.

I think most of us are guilty of moving the uneaten yogurt out of the way in the fridge while we reach for the pickles, until we actually notice there’s yogurt and it has expired. It’s better to go through the refrigerator shelves and drawers at least weekly looking for things to toss out or throw into the compost bin. Leafy things can get gross fast, and you’ll only need to smell a bad bunch of parsley once to become a convert to watchfulness.

There’s a point at which you can trust your instincts and your nose, but until then, you can rely on websites like, an information source provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

I have to admit the acceptable use times listed there are more strict than I would expect, and my poor ribs were probably ready for the knacker yard before they ever went into the freezer. Of course, I also thawed them in the most unsafe way.

They should have thawed in the fridge overnight or more quickly under cool running water. I knew better than to just let them thaw for hours at room temperature and can’t imagine what I was thinking. Experienced cooks can be dunces too.

Food poisoning is not at all pleasant and can bring about a quite serous illness. Being careful about what you’re preparing, taking the time to check for spoilage no matter what the date code says and keeping everything in your kitchen scrupulously clean will keep you and everyone around your table safer.

With the ribs out of the question and no desire to go pick up anything, we happily fell back on grilled-cheese sandwiches and fries with a side of reality TV bingeing and jittery dogs as the storm roared outside.

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