7 Foods That Can Survive Outside the Fridge

Refrigerate After Opening

When Hurricane Irene barreled up the East Coast in late August, many people in the storm’s path rushed out to the grocery store to get canned food and other non-perishable items. After all, in the event that the power did get knocked out, all the food in their fridges would have spoiled and needed to be thrown out – right? Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that. While milk, for instance, will spoil after a few hours at room temperature, some cheeses are safe to eat after the same amount of time. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service put out a special bulletin informing hurricane-stricken residents what they do and do not need to throw out in the event of a prolonged power outage. Apparently, not everything that you normally put in the fridge will quickly go bad if it gets warm. Photo Credit: Getty Images


Food Safety 101

To find out more, we spoke to Jeff Potter, a food science expert and author of Cooking for Geeks. “The important thing to understand about refrigeration is that it slows down how quickly the bacteria multiplies,” he says. “It changes the temperature of the environment so the bacteria don’t multiply fast enough.” And the slower the bacteria multiply, the slower it will take for your food to go bad. That’s not the end of the story, though. Temperature is just one of many factors that determine how hospitable the environment is for the bacteria to make your food go bad. Bacteria need water to survive, for instance, which is why dry foods like crackers are OK at room temperature. Maintaining a proper pH level is also crucial, which is why something like hot sauce (which tends to be vinegar-based and thus acidic) doesn’t need to be refrigerated. It also needs to have oxygen, as well as the right kind of food to munch on (which is why Crisco and other oils, lacking both sugars and water, can be stored on the shelf without going bad for a long time). The result is that some refrigerated foods are simply less prone to spoilage than others, even when they warm up. Here are a few foods that won’t turn rancid on you if they spend more than a few hours outside the fridge. Photo Credit: Getty Images


Salted Butter

It may seem odd that butter would be OK at room temperature, while milk quickly goes bad. But the two dairy products are different in crucial ways. “Milk is mostly water, while butter is mostly fat,” says Potter. That alone means that bacteria won’t multiply as quickly in warm temperatures. But that’s not the whole story. Butter comes in both salted and unsalted varieties (the latter mainly used for baking or for people on low-fat diets), and he says the salted kind should be fine indefinitely at room temperature. “Butter is right on the threshold as for whether it’s safe unrefrigerated, and salt lowers the water available [to the bacteria],” he says. “Unsalted butter should be refrigerated, but salted butter should be OK out on the counter.” Photo Credit: Getty Images


Yogurt

Up to this point we’ve been referring to “bacteria” as if it were a single species. But the bacteria that are not responsible for spoiling food, for instance, are totally different from food-borne illnesses like listeria. In fact, food spoilage bacteria won’t even make you sick – although, since they tend to reproduce under similar conditions as food-borne illnesses, the fact that a food item has spoiled makes it more likely that the nastier bacteria are also present. And as most of us learn in high school science class, some bacteria are actually good for us. Case in point: Yogurt is actually made with bacteria, and some of it is even “probiotic,” meaning it contains microbes thought to be beneficial to humans. Obviously, leaving this stuff at a temperature where the bacteria become more plentiful isn’t a bad thing. “The bacteria that are in that container are actually a strain that’s beneficial to us, so if you accidently leave yogurt out for eight hours, it’s going to be OK,” Potter says. Of course, it will also be warm, and you might not be into warm yogurt. Photo Credit: Veganbaking.net


Hard Cheese

Cheese comes in many varieties, almost all of which are delightful. There are soft cheeses like mozzarella and Brie, and there are hard cheeses like Parmesan and Romano. Surprisingly, these different cheeses spoil at much different rates. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, soft cheeses should be discarded if they spend more than two hours over 40 degrees Fahrenheit. By contrast, hard cheeses (which also include cheddar, Swiss and provolone) should be fine if they get a little warm. Processed cheese is also OK if the fridge loses power. “The difference between Parmesan and soft cheeses is water availability – is there sufficient moisture to reproduce?” says Potter. Photo Credit: FotoosVanRobin


Eggs (Sort of)

We’re wary of saying this after last year’s massive salmonella outbreak, but eggs are probably OK to leave at room temperature for a little while, according to our expert. The main concern here is not spoilage but salmonella, and as such it’s a matter of playing your odds. Potter points out that in parts of Europe salmonella is virtually non-existent, and even in the U.S. only 1 in 10,000 eggs actually has the disease. And even if it does, cooking it properly will kill the bacteria. Whether or not you decide to take your chances should depend on who you are. Salmonella can be more serious for certain groups. “If you’re a healthy male adult, you’ll have a couple of uncomfortable days,” says Potter. “If you’re really young or old, or you’re pregnant or sick, it could lead to secondary complications.” Eggs won’t spoil if you leave them out for more than a few hours, and even if there’s salmonella present there’s a low chance of it causing serious health problems. But that doesn’t mean we can recommend taking the chance. Photo Credit: Getty Images


Bread

Most people know that they can store bread for long periods of time by freezing it, and therefore logically conclude that keeping it cool in the fridge will extend its shelf life over the short term. Unfortunately, that’s not true. Putting bread in the fridge actually makes your bread go stale more quickly than simply leaving it at room temperature. As Potter explains, freshly baked bread (and other baked goods) should be moist on the inside and dry on the outside when first baked. When bread goes stale, it’s because the water has migrated around and become more uniformly moist. Keeping bread at a cool temperature actually accelerates this process, though actually freezing it obviously keeps the water in place. In other words, you’re not doing your bread any favors by sticking it in the fridge, but it’s OK to put it in the freezer or leave it at room temperature. Photo Credit: Getty Images


Condiments

Ketchup, mustard and other vinegar-based condiments are able to survive warm environments for the same reason that hot sauce doesn’t need to be in the fridge: The high acidity of these foods makes them poor breeding grounds for bacteria. The USDA also lists pickles as being OK at room temperature for much the same reason. “The pH of ketchup is around 3.6, which is acidic enough to avoid needing to refrigerate it,” says Potter. “Likewise, as long as the mustard is of low enough pH (less than 4.0, according to the FDA), then there’s no need to refrigerate it, although a number of mustard manufacturers recommend keeping their product refrigerated to help maintain flavor.” Basically, if you’re having a barbecue, it’s OK if the burger toppings sit outside all afternoon. The exception is mayonnaise (if you’re a mayo-on-your-burger type). The USDA says that mayonnaise, tartar sauce and horseradish should be discarded if they spend more than eight hours above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Photo Credit: WindyWinters


Jam

Beef jerky is created by removing all the moisture from a piece of meat, thereby making it inhospitable to bacteria and able to last a long time. Jam is a similar situation: While there is water present, the high levels of sugar means that the water is not “bioavailable,” which means the bacteria can’t access it. “There’s a lot of water in jam, but it’s locked up in sugar so the bacteria can’t get to it,” explains Potter. “Keep in mind that there has to be sufficient sugar in the jam for this to be true, so heed the advice on the label.” Basically, think of the bacteria as floating in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean: There’s water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink. That’s why jam is sometimes referred to as “fruit preserves.” Photo Credit: Getty Images


Disclaimer

Health department guidelines generally say that refrigerated foods shouldn’t be held between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit for either two or four hours, depending on which state you live in. The foods listed here are the ones that can survive longer than that at room temperature. Still, food safety is full of grey areas, for reasons which should be clear: There are numerous variables that determine whether bacteria can reproduce, and it’s not always obvious which foods do or don’t fall in the danger zone. Is this cheese soft or hard? Is this butter sufficiently salted? Are these pickles acidic enough? For this reason, it’s always better to err on the side of caution and stick it in the fridge (with the exception of bread, obviously). Chances are you have enough room in the fridge for that carton of eggs, so there’s no reason to tempt fate and leave it out. “It’s always safer to refrigerate,” says Potter. “When in doubt, put it in the fridge.” Photo Credit: Mike Licht


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