How to extend the life of your refrigerated goods once the power goes out in a storm

As catastrophic flooding is accompanied by power outages in areas affected by Hurricane Harvey, it may not take long for the food in your refrigerator to go bad.

Read: How You Can Help the Victims of Hurricane Harvey

For food kept cold by the refrigerator and freezer, the countdown starts the second the power goes out.

But there are ways to extend the life of the food before it goes bad.

Dr. Tom Montville is a food safety expert from Rutgers University in New Jersey.

He urges anyone experiencing an outage not to open the freezer, as Dr. Montville explains the food inside will last "up to 24 hours."

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A man carries a dog after being rescued from rising floodwaters due to Hurricane Harvey in Spring, Texas, U.S., on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017. A deluge of rain and rising floodwaters left�Houston�immersed and helpless,�crippling a global center of the oil industry and testing the economic resiliency of a state thats home to almost 1 in 12 U.S. workers. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A boy hugs his grandmothers' dog after being rescued from rising floodwaters due to Hurricane Harvey in Spring, Texas, U.S., on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017. A deluge of rain and rising floodwaters left�Houston�immersed and helpless,�crippling a global center of the oil industry and testing the economic resiliency of a state thats home to almost 1 in 12 U.S. workers. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 27: Volunteers and officers from the neiborhood security patrol help to rescue residents and their dogs in the upscale River Oaks neighborhood after it was inundated with flooding from Hurricane Harvey on August 27, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Harvey, which made landfall north of Corpus Christi late Friday evening, is expected to dump upwards to 40 inches of rain in Texas over the next couple of days. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 27 2017: Elma Moreno comforts her dog, Simon as they are loaded on to a trucks after being evacuated from their flooded apartment. Tropical Storm Harvey is causing major flooding throughout Houston and Southeast Texas. (Photo by Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
A man carries a dog after being rescued from rising floodwaters due to Hurricane Harvey at the Highland Glen housing development in Spring, Texas, U.S., on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017. A deluge of rain and rising floodwaters left�Houston�immersed and helpless,�crippling a global center of the oil industry and testing the economic resiliency of a state thats home to almost 1 in 12 U.S. workers. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Bentley, a 10 year old maltese, takes refuge with his owner in a school after they lost their home to Hurricane Harvey in Rockport, Texas, U.S. August 26, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
Pets are evacuated from flood waters from Hurricane Harvey in Dickinson, Texas August 27, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
People and their pets are rescued from flood waters from Hurricane Harvey on a boat in Dickinson, Texas August 27, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Kenneth and Minnie Bice prepare to sleep outside the M.O. Campbell Red Cross shelter in Aldine, Texas, United States August 28, 2017. Pets are not allowed inside and so the two are sleeping on the portico with their two dogs and a cat. REUTERS/Peter Henderson
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 27: Residents carry their pets and belongings along Mercury Drive as they flee flood water at their homes in Houston, TX on Sunday, Aug 27, 2017. Rising water from Hurricane Harvey pushed thousands of people to rooftops or higher ground Sunday in Houston. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Flood victims move crates with pets at a shelter in the George R. Brown Convention Center during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Rescue teams in boats, trucks and helicopters scrambled Monday to reach hundreds of Texans marooned on flooded streets in and around the city of Houston before monster storm Harvey returns. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
People check in with their pets to a shelter in the George R. Brown Convention Center during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Rescue teams in boats, trucks and helicopters scrambled Monday to reach hundreds of Texans marooned on flooded streets in and around the city of Houston before monster storm Harvey returns. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Evacuation residence from the Meyerland area are loaded onto a truck on an I-610 overpass during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey August 27, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Hurricane Harvey left a trail of devastation Saturday after the most powerful storm to hit the US mainland in over a decade slammed into Texas, destroying homes, severing power supplies and forcing tens of thousands of residents to flee. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Evacuation residents from the Meyerland wait on an I-610 overpass for further help during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey August 27, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Hurricane Harvey left a trail of devastation Saturday after the most powerful storm to hit the US mainland in over a decade slammed into Texas, destroying homes, severing power supplies and forcing tens of thousands of residents to flee. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 28: People make their way out of a flooded neighborhood after it was inundated with rain water, remnants of Hurricane Harvey, on August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Harvey, which made landfall north of Corpus Christi late Friday evening, is expected to dump upwards to 40 inches of rain in areas of Texas over the next couple of days. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 28: Evacuees make their way to dry land after leaving their homes that were inundated with flooding from Hurricane Harvey on August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Harvey, which made landfall north of Corpus Christi late Friday evening, is expected to dump upwards to 40 inches of rain in Texas over the next couple of days. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
A vet holds a dog at a shelter in the George R. Brown Convention Center during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Rescue teams in boats, trucks and helicopters scrambled Monday to reach hundreds of Texans marooned on flooded streets in and around the city of Houston before monster storm Harvey returns. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 28: People evacuate their homes after the area was inundated with flooding from Hurricane Harvey on August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Harvey, which made landfall north of Corpus Christi late Friday evening, is expected to dump upwards to 40 inches of rain in Texas over the next couple of days. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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He said that once you know a storm is coming, take the perishables, like milk, eggs, and meat, and put those items in the freezer.

Once you lose power, the greens are the first to go. Dr. Montville advises throwing out raw lettuce or leafy greens after four hours.

Eggs can last longer and will remain edible up to eight hours after the power goes out.

Read: Hundreds Plucked From Catastrophic Floods as Texas Officials Plea for Harvey Aid: 'People Are in Need'

Condiments are generally fine to keep, especially if they have a vinaigrette base. Any creamy dressings should be thrown out, according to Dr. Montville.

He says hot dogs are a "tough call," because they are precooked, but there might be bacteria in the packaging. He believes they can last up to eight hours.

Dr. Montville also advises not to do a taste test because there could be germs in the food that cannot be detected.

"The mantra for food safety is, 'If in doubt, throw it out,'" he said.

Watch: Food Safety Expert Surprises Homeowners and Puts Their Kitchens to the Test

Related: Embarrassing food safety questions

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Embarrassing food safety questions answered
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Embarrassing food safety questions answered

Should you wash your turkey before cooking it?

Whether it’s a Thanksgiving turkey or a weeknight piece of pork, rinsing poultry, meat or eggs before cooking them is likely to do more harm than good. Besides the fact that any bacteria you think you’re washing away should be killed off when cooked, “you’re increasing your chances for cross-contamination,” since the meat’s juices can land in your sink or on your countertop and mingle with other foods, Steinberg says.

Should you wash pre-washed produce?

Giving your spinach or snap peas another scrub-down isn’t being safe, it’s being sorry for potentially exposing the greens to harmful bacteria in the sink or on your countertop – and for wasting your time. "If bacteria managed to survive the chlorinated wash in the processing plant, it will likely survive the additional rinsing at home," says Steinberg, who recommends buying non-bagged produce if you’re going to wash it anyway. Just be sure to rinse it under running water – not soap, detergent, bleach or commercial washes, suggests Foodsafety.gov, which is run by the Food Safety and Inspection Service, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Can you wash potatoes in the dishwasher?

Speaking of detergent, Steinberg has been surprised by how many people think washing potatoes in the dishwasher is a cute hack rather than a bad idea. “The dishwasher wasn’t designed to wash food; it was designed to wash dishes,” she says. “And whether or not there’s soap in there that cycle, you have residual chemicals that have gone through that machine.” And don’t even try arguing that eating dishwasher-cleaned potatoes is the same as eating off a dishwasher-cleaned plate: Your potatoes, unlike your dishes, are sponges for risky agents, Steinberg says.

Do you need to wash watermelon?

Among the foods you actually do need to wash – but may assume get a pass – are fruits with rinds like watermelon, cantaloupe and oranges. “Wash all produce because whatever’s on the outside will be transferred to the inside” when you slice into it, Steinberg says. Even food with peels like bananas should ideally be washed since your hands can transfer bacteria on the peel to your mouth. To wash sturdy fruits and vegetables thoroughly (cucumbers count, too!), use a clean produce brush, Foodsafety.gov suggests.

How often do you need to wash your hands when cooking?

In the case of hand-washing while cooking, more is better. Foodsafety.gov recommends doing so for 20 seconds with plain soap and warm water before, during and after preparing food, and especially after handling uncooked eggs, raw meat, seafood or poultry. And don’t forget to remove your jewelry before cooking, adds Monica Amsterdam, director of nutrition at the Medical and Wellness Center of New Jersey. “Jewelry can hold and harbor microorganisms contaminating the food that we’re eating,” she says, as can touch-screen devices. “If you have to use your electronic device while cooking, make sure to disinfect it first,” Amsterdam says.

What's a recipe's 'rest time'?

Recipes that have rest times – or how long the dish should rest off the heat before digging in – have them for a reason: “to allow the product to cook thoroughly,” says Janell Goodwin, a technical information specialist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Take that goal a step further, she suggests, by using a food thermometer to see if your meal has reached what the USDA considers safe. “The most underutilized utensil that is really the secret of cooking is the food thermometer,” Steinberg says, since you're also likely to overcook foods if you rely solely on, say, the juices' color.

Is the 5-second rule legit?

If you drop that steamy, buttery croissant on the ground, resist the temptation to grab it and pretend like nothing happened, Goodwin says. New research supports her: In a recent study, researchers found that all kinds of foods can become contaminated with harmful bacteria after less than one second on the floor, although the longer they’re grounded and the wetter the food, the riskier it seems. If your dog or cat licks your food, consider it untouchable, too, Goodwin adds. “Our pets, although we love them dearly, can carry harmful bacteria in their mouths that aren't necessarily harmful to them, but can be harmful to us,” she says.

Can you cool food in the refrigerator?

Your guests are hungry and you’ve got a hot pot of chili to appease them – key word being “hot.” How can you serve it quickly without burning their tongues? While you can put hot food in the fridge, Steinberg says, it’s important to do it in smaller portions so that the food cools uniformly and as quickly as possible. “Improper cooling,” she adds, “is a big way that people get foodborne illness.” If you want to store, not serve, hot food, follow the same protocol or put it in shallow containers or an ice bath, while stirring every 10 minutes or so, Steinberg suggests.

How long is food safe on the counter?

Good food, drink and conversation can make it easy to forget just how long ago you abandoned that casserole on the counter. But if it’s been close to or over two hours, don’t try to salvage it, experts say. “Throw it out; it should never be reheated” at that point, Steinberg says, since a couple of hours at room temperature is plenty of time to accumulate bacteria that won’t be killed off. Hot or cold foods shouldn’t be transported at room temperature for more than two hours either, she adds. “Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.”

How long can I keep leftovers?

Nothing beats a thick sandwich stuffed with leftovers from yesterday’s Thanksgiving feast. A lot beats a thick sandwich stuffed with leftovers from last week’s Thanksgiving feast. “Never [eat leftovers] beyond seven days,” says Steinberg, who recommends an even more conservative three or four day limit for meats and poultry. Remaining food, however, doesn’t have to go to waste: Almost all food can be frozen indefinitely, Goodwin says. “Freezing … prevents the growth of microorganisms that cause both food spoilage and foodborne illness,” she says. Check out the USDA’s app to look up the recommended storage times for thousands of foods.

How many times can you reheat something?

Every time you reheat, say, mashed potatoes, you’re sending them into what Steinberg calls “the temperature danger zone” – that range between 40 and 140 degrees F that’s prime for harmful bacteria growth. While one zap through the microwave is safe so long as your food's cooked to 165 degrees F, thoroughly stirred and reheated in an explicitly “microwave-safe” container, reheating and re-refrigerating the same batch day in and out just multiplies the food’s visits through the danger zone, Steinberg says. Instead, only reheat what you know you can eat. “You get one try,” she says.

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