Special Report

20 Foods That Spoil Faster Than You'd Think

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Dried herbs and spices

Almost every kitchen has a spice rack or shelf full of dried herbs and spices — sometimes purchased for a single recipe and never used again. These will rarely spoil in any common sense of the word, but they do lose their potency — which is to say their flavor and aroma — over time. This is especially true of softer herbs like chives, basil, and cilantro. Experts recommend that dried herbs, especially these latter varieties, should be replaced every year or so, and that spices and woody herbs like rosemary or oregano should be swapped out every three years.

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Fresh herbs

When many people buy fresh herbs at the grocery store or farmers’ market, they treat them like salad greens, stashing them in the crisper drawer — where they often turn limp and soggy, or (depending on the variety) dry out within a few days. The experts say to treat fresh herbs like flowers: Make sure the leaves are as dry as possible, then snip off the root ends and put them into a cup or jar of water, as if they were roses or tulips, and stick them into the refrigerator. (Basil does better at room temperature.) Most herbs, treated this way, will last for as long as a couple of weeks — though they do lose some flavor and aroma, so it’s best to use them as quickly as possible.

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Ground meat

Ground meat goes bad much more quickly than steaks and chops, because grinding forms tiny air pockets throughout the meat in which bacteria, which may have been on the meat’s surface, can breed in moisture and darkness. Ground meat should be either cooked or frozen within a day of purchase — no matter what the sell-by date says. If the meat smells funny, has a slimy surface, and/or is starting to turn from its normal reddish or pinkish hue to gray, it’s bad. Bacteria can also develop in frozen ground meat if it’s thawed incorrectly. It should be transferred to the refrigerator for 24 hours before cooking or sealed in a baggy and placed in a bowl of cold — not warm — water for one to two hours until it softens.

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Hard-boiled eggs

Fresh raw eggs will last at least a month unrefrigerated — though some say they start to lose flavor after a couple of weeks — and longer if they’re refrigerated in their original cartons. (Don’t wash eggs before storing them, as a natural bloom on their surface helps seal their porous shells against bacteria and oxygen.) These rules don’t apply to hard-boiled eggs, whether peeled or still in their shell. These will last a week at the most in the refrigerator, but if they’re left out at room temperature for more than a couple of hours, they should be discarded. This goes for deviled eggs, too.

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Iced tea

Stored in airtight containers, away from excessive heat (and the sink), tea leaves should last for as long as two years without beginning to spoil — and without losing flavor. Iced tea is another matter. Though there’s some controversy around this question, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that iced tea should be kept for no more than eight hours, even in the refrigerator. It also notes that raw tea leaves may be contaminated with bacteria, and if the tea isn’t brewed at the proper temperature to begin with (the CDC recommends 195º for three to five minutes), these may survive into the finished product. In addition, improperly cleaned vessels may contaminate the tea — with the risk being higher for so-called sun tea because the process gives bacteria more time to develop.

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