CHRISTINE PATRICK

Should you eat that slice of meat you just found in the back of the freezer? If you don’t know what it is and how long it’s been in there, probably not. That’s just one of the kinds of questions on food safety that the Home and Garden Information Center at Clemson University gets regularly.

Cold storage in the freezer or refrigerator is the best way to protect foods from bacterial growth – 40 ° F or lower in the refrigerator and 0 ° F or lower in the freezer. Foods in the refrigerator will begin to freeze at 32 ° F, so ideal refrigerator temperatures are between 32 and 40 ° F.

The only sure way to know your freezer and refrigerator are set for the proper temperatures is to buy two thermometers made specifically for use in freezers or refrigerators and put them in your cold storage units.

Once you’ve done that, all you need to know is how long different foods will keep, keeping in mind the adage “If in doubt, throw it out!” Sometimes your nose will tell you all you need to know.

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When it comes to refrigerator storage, the following foods will keep no more than two days: fresh ground meats and stew meats; gravy and meat broth; fresh poultry and fresh fish; shrimp, scallops, crayfish, and squid; shucked clams, mussels, and oysters.

The time limit extends to three to four days for fully cooked ham slices, cooked meat and meat casseroles, cooked chicken and chicken casseroles, pizza, and cooked fish and cooked shellfish.

Items to keep no more than three to five days in the fridge include opened packages of luncheon meats or deli meats; fully cooked ham portions; fresh meat steaks, chops, and roasts.

Fresh eggs in the shell will keep for three to five weeks, but hard-cooked eggs for no more than one week. Commercial mayonnaise will last for up to two months after being opened if kept in the refrigerator.

Hard cheeses such as cheddar or Swiss will last three to four weeks in cold storage once opened. Don’t hold milk or soft cheeses such as brie or feta, cottage cheese, and ricotta for more than a week. Yogurt can keep for up to two weeks.

When storing foods in the freezer use moisture-proof, freezer-weight wraps – such as bags and containers specifically intended for use in the freezer, heavy-duty foil, and freezer paper.

Label and date all packages with a permanent marker and practice the “First in, first out!” rule.

Keep ice cream, sausage, ham, and hotdogs for no more than two months. You can keep the following for two to three months: cooked leftover meat, gravy, and meat broth; fresh, fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and tuna.

Three to four months is the limit for fresh giblets, raw ground meat or stew; and shucked shellfish. Four to six months is about the limit for best quality cooked poultry or fresh lean fish such as cod, flounder, and trout.

Use frozen fresh beef, poultry, venison, hard cheese, fruits, and vegetables within a year.

Canned goods will not keep forever, either.

Use home-canned foods that have been properly processed by up-to-date, approved methods within a year. Commercially canned high-acid foods such as juices, tomatoes, fruits, pickles, and sauerkraut will store well for 12 to 18 months.

Commercially canned low-acid foods such as meat and poultry products and vegetables will store well for two to five years. Storage won’t improve the quality of any food, but the quality will not decrease significantly if the goods are stored properly and the food is eaten within the recommended time frame.

For best quality buy cans and jars that are free of dents, cracks, or bulging lids, which can indicate a serious food poisoning threat. Dusty cans or torn labels may indicate old stock.

When you bring home new canned goods, put them on the shelf behind the older cans and use the older goods first.

Store canned foods in dry cabinets at a temperature between 50 ° F and 70 ° F. Avoid storage areas near hot pipes, an oven, a furnace, or in direct sunlight.

For more information on food safety visit the Home and Garden Information Center webpage at http://hgic.clemson.edu.

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