When it comes to keeping or tossing the stuff in our kitchens, we tend to waffle: Do I need to get rid of that old cutting board? Is this leftover chicken still good? To get to the bottom of these debates once and for all, we reached out to Marianne Gravely, a senior technical information specialist at the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the USDA. Here, she points out 11 things you should really throw away ASAP.
Maybe you’re microwaving or boiling it to remove germs, but as Gravely notes, it’s really hard to clean a sponge: “It’s got all those holes in it,” she says. “Even in these studies they did where they boiled them, there will still pathogens there.”
The USDA recommends replacing your dish sponge “frequently,” but Gravely herself doesn’t use them at all. A washcloth is her cleaning agent of choice, because it “won’t hold on to things like a sponge will.” You could also use paper towels, but for environmentally conscious folks, that’s not an option. If you do choose a washcloth, change it up often; Gravely swaps hers out every couple of days, and adds, “If it smells, it needs washing, whether it’s a sponge or a washcloth.”
One caveat? “If you’re cooking, and you’ve got [raw meat] that’s leaked on your counter, that’s when you want to use a paper towel and throw it away.”
Leftovers you don’t remember cooking
Spot leftovers in the back of the fridge that you don’t remember putting there? Your best bet is to toss them. “Use cooked food or leftovers after three to four days,” says Gravely. “If you have no memory of serving it, it’s been there too long. And for heaven’s sake, if you see mold, don’t eat it.” She recommends the USDA “FoodKeeper” app so you can set calendar reminders for freezing (or eating) your leftovers.
Snowy freezer items
If that Tupperware in the freezer is so crystallized it conjures a Disney film, it’s time to let it go. Gravely says that, assuming you handled the food correctly during prep and refrigeration, bacteria aren’t the issue. But if you see “lots of ice crystals, lots of snow, or it’s really dry-looking and you can’t tell what it is, it’s not going to taste very good.”
Expired or separated condiments
Who among us hasn’t held on to a bottle of Sriracha long past its “best used by” date? “Sometimes we buy sauces for special recipes and then never use them again,” Gravely points out. But there’s no good reason to keep expired condiments. “Take a look; if they’re starting to separate, they’re probably no good. If they don’t look right, you probably don’t want to keep them anymore.”
Baking powder that doesn’t work
Baking powder is arguably more likely to lose its oomph than baking soda, because it is not purely sodium bicarbonate, as baking soda is. (It also includes an acid, such as cream of tartar, and a moisture-absorber like cornstarch.) If yours has a shockingly old date stamped on it, test it! The New Food Lover’s Companion recommends combining a teaspoon with 1/3 cup of hot water, and “if it bubbles enthusiastically, it’s fine.”
Open cartons of broth
Pre-made chicken and vegetable broths in cardboard containers can have surprisingly short viability timelines. Often recipes will call for just half a cup, notes Gravely. For the rest, “Either make yourself a note—‘I’m gonna make soup’—or freeze it.”
Sources vary on this front, but most—including Graves—agree that spices lose their potency and flavor after about a year. (Hopefully you’ve Marie Kondo’ed your spices and labeled them!) Spring is a smart time to take a closer look at what’s in your cupboard. “It’s not a safety issue at all,” adds Gravely. “Most dry goods, the fact that they’re dry allows them to last a long time.” (Peanut butter is the one exception, she notes, since it could go rancid.)
Egg yolks or whites
Anyone who loves fresh egg whites in cocktails, or those who use yolks but not whites in their cooking, pay attention: You can save both in the freezer, but you should do so quickly. Gravely recommends that you use or freeze them within 24 hours. Though the USDA site says that yolks “don’t freeze well,” Gravely is a big fan of Avgolemeno, the Greek egg-lemon soup, and saves yolks in her freezer for making the recipe.
Your scratched-up cutting board
“It doesn’t matter if it’s wooden or plastic,” says Gravely. “If there are a lot of cracks in it, it’s time to throw it out.” Bacteria love to live in deep grooves, and it’s hard to properly clean items that are full of them. So whether it’s a rolling pin, wooden spoon, or cutting board, toss it!
Scratched nonstick pans
Once a nonstick pan has a deep scratch, it’s no longer nonstick, Gravely points out. Teflon-coated pans can be problematic, too, because when they’re heated to too high a degree, they give off fumes that can trigger flu-like symptoms.
Meat that smells off
You know to buy and cook meat before its use-by date. But if you can smell the meat through the package, or it doesn’t smell right after it’s been out of the packaging for a few minutes and has drained off some juices, don’t take the chance. As Graves says, “If it smells bad, it’s going to taste bad, too.” (And you might end up with a case of food poisoning.) Let common sense guide the way on this one—and on all other decisions you make when it comes to food safety.