The fact that broccoli isn’t the tastiest leafy green in the world makes it extra hard to tell when it’s gone bad. Here’s how.
There’s no doubt that broccoli, which my little nephew fittingly calls farty greens, can be hard to love.
Yes, they’re good for you—according to WebMD, a cup of broccoli packs 30 calories, 6 grams of carbs, 2 grams of protein, and, what do you know, about as much vitamin C as an orange.
But if you cook them too long as most of us do, they turn out mushy and smelly. That smell comes from the fact that broccoli is a relative of cabbage and, as such, it smells more and more sulfurous the longer it’s cooked.
Whether you love it or tolerate it, you’re here because you want to know one thing: how to tell when broccoli stops being good for you and goes bad. So let’s waste no more time with introductions and get to the meat of it.
How Do You Know If Your Broccoli Has Gone Bad?
If you kept broccoli, cooked or frozen, for more than 1-2 hours at room temperature or longer than 3-4 days in the fridge, assume that they are unsafe to eat and throw them away.
The tell-tale signs of spoiled food are discoloration, sticky consistency, off odor, sour taste, and mold. If you notice any of these signs on your broccoli, throw it away and don’t eat it.
Fresh broccoli is bright green in color, firm to the touch, and smells and tastes appealing. When broccoli spoils, the florets turn yellow and mushy, and they begin to stink. In some cases, fuzzy spots of mold can be seen on the surface.
How Long Does Broccoli Last?
How long broccoli lasts depends on how you store it. Generally, food lasts for months in the freezer, a few days in the fridge, and a couple of hours at room temperature.
Freezing temperatures put the bacteria that spoil our food and cause food poisoning on pause. So, technically, frozen broccoli is safe to eat forever. Sooner or later, though, the florets dry out and lose their flavor, which means they only retain their best quality for so long.
Stored in the freezer in its original packaging, raw broccoli retains its best quality for 6 to 9 months. Cooked broccoli frozen in a freezer bag or food storage container, on the other hand, retains its best quality for 3 to 4 months.
Fridge temperatures inhibit the growth of spoilage and pathogenic bacteria, but they don’t halt it altogether. This is why broccoli lasts only 3 to 4 days in the fridge, no matter if it’s thawing or already cooked.
If you suspect that the broccoli has been in your fridge for longer than that, you should throw them away. Contrary to what many home cooks think, there’s no way to determine if they are still safe to eat or not.
When left out:
Bacteria grow the fastest in the temperature range of 40°F (4.4°C) to 140°F (60°C). Most people refer to this range as “room temperature,” but food safety experts have a less flattering name for it—they call it “the danger zone.”
Per the USDA, broccoli can only be left out for 2 hours. In the summer, when the outside temperature is 90°F (32°C) and above, this time is reduced to just 1 hour.
Don’t leave frozen broccoli to thaw on the counter for more than 1-2 hours and refrigerate all leftovers immediately.
How to Keep Broccoli Fresh
Keep fresh broccoli in the crisper drawer, loosely wrapped in a plastic bag. Broccoli releases ethylene gas as it sits. So if you wrap the bag too tightly, the gas will build up on the inside and cause the broccoli to rot faster.
Frozen broccoli should be kept frozen, at a temperature of 0°F (-18°C), and can be cooked without thawing. If your recipe requires you to thaw the florets before cooking, transfer them to a large bowl, bring a pot or kettle of water to a boil, pour the hot water into the bowl, and drain after 30 seconds.
Cooked broccoli should be cooled and refrigerated immediately after cooking (for meal prep) or eating (for storing leftovers), and within no longer than 1-2 hours of preparation. Seal the broccoli in an airtight food storage container with the lid shut.
If It Smells and Tastes Fine, Isn’t It Still Safe to Eat?
The bacteria that spoil our food are not the same as the germs that give us food poisoning. Spoiled food is kind of hard to miss; it smells gross and looks disgusting.
The same can’t be said for food that’s been kept for too long at room temperature or in the fridge. Broccoli that’s been left out may smell and taste perfectly fine, and yet still be overrun with pathogens.
Rule number one of food safety is, “When in doubt, throw it out.” If a serving of broccoli has been sitting on the kitchen counter or dining room table for more than 1-2 hours, or in the fridge for more than 3-4 days, you cannot know if it’s edible or not.
The basics of food safety should always be followed, but they are especially important when it comes to dairy. In other words, if you made broccoli with cheese or cream, you should put the leftovers in the refrigerator promptly and eat them up within a few days.
Won’t Heating the Broccoli Make It Safe to Eat Again?
A great people think that heating bad food makes it safe to eat again—before I started learning about food safety, I used to be one of them—but this simply isn’t true.
Yes, the heat will kill the pathogenic bacteria on the broccoli. As culinary author Harold McGee explains in his 2009 book, Keys to Good Cooking, 15 seconds of exposure to a temperature of 155°F (68°C) effectively eliminates bacteria.
What the exposure to heat won’t do, however, is inactivate the poisonous, heat-resistant toxins that these bacteria have left in our food. These toxins can make us sick within hours—and are just as capable of inducing food poisoning as the bacteria that created them in the first place.
Even if you have made the most delicious broccoli in the world, (more power to you!), food poisoning is not worth the risk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 48 million Americans contract food poisoning each year. Of them, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.
To tell if your broccoli has gone bad, apply common sense and trust your senses. Never eat food that smells gross and looks disgusting. And remember that heating it won’t make it safe to eat.
Don’t leave broccoli, raw or cooked, on the counter or dining table for more than 1-2 hours, and don’t store it in the fridge for more than 3-4 days. Frozen broccoli is safe to eat forever but only keeps its best quality for 6 to 9 months.