Leaving my Salmon Steak in the Sun for a Few Days

As the host apparently intends, I’ve been learning something about myself, about other cultures and about cooking, watching the “Bizarre Foods” series.

To be honest, I haven’t made any great discoveries for my own kitchen, and one thing I tried was so disgusting I can still taste it weeks later. (And I bought it fresh, at an expensive store.)

That all aside, I’ve been making no progress understanding how other cultures get away with intentionally leaving food out to spoil. Yesterday I saw a dish with spoiled rice and spoiled fish.

Wait a minute! What do I have a refrigerator for, if spoiled rice isn’t a health hazard? Why all the USDA warnings/labels/hand-flapping about proper meat storage, if folks in Thailand (in a very expensive restaurant, mind you!) leave pork sitting outside in the sun for three days to ferment?

Because certain amounts and types of “spoilage” in foods are harmless or even advantageous, while other amounts and types can be harmful or fatal.

General food safety guidelines are designed not to keep people skating on the cutting edge of gourmet experience, but to keep people from getting sick. Officially designated safe food handling and storage procedures are designed with pretty wide margins of error.

If you really know what you’re doing, you can “age” or “ripen” many foods successfully by letting natural decay processes operate in a controlled way. If you don’t know what you’re doing, those same natural decay processes can make your food unpalatable or even dangerous and you might not realize it until the food is ruined, or worse, until it starts to make you sick.

Yes, culinary “food spoilage” in its various forms is a fascinating technique that can produce many unique and wonderful comestibles, but don’t get rid of your fridge and freezer just yet.

Anyone have links to recipes/instructions? This stuff sounds delectably fascinating!

Maybe you can think of it as parallel to the burger situation: millions of people eat rare hamburgers and have never had a problem. Experts tell us that rare hamburgers are a known health risk, and many restaurants refuse to serve them. Due to modern ground-beef production practices, these burgers are demonstrably more likely to be dangerous than they were in the past – yet many people still eat them and are fine. Should health experts stop warning us about their risks? No. Are rare burgers delicious? Many think so.

Those were some helpful thoughts, thank you. I’m still not comfortable deciding what to do pragmatically, but it is getting clearer.

My sister, the doctor, thinks I’m nuts for eating sashimi. STOP DOING IT, she says. Well, not only do I do it, but I’ve learned how to make sushi and sashimi at home. I get the fish from a hideously expensive Japanese grocery store. If it’s that bad for me, why don’t all the customers look like plague victims? Why aren’t Japanese dying in the streets of Tokyo?

(Rant almost done.) A recent study showed that 100% of salmon caught in the Pacific Northwest had live bacteria, etc., that is considered harmful.

Ok, so if that’s true, it’s probably true of most other fish, too. Then why does the recipe for Saba (Mackerel) from a recent book of a reliable chef instruct me to leave the fish out, to marinate for hours?

What is going on here? There are two different group philosophies? One that is obsessed with germs and bacteria and bad bugs, and the other that isn’t?

Most marinades contain acidic liquids or have other anti-microbial properties (i.e. lotsa garlic, a known germ-killer, or honey, another one). That’s not the same as the mental image of your thread title, which is just leaving a naked piece of untreated animal flesh out in the warm air.

Nods. I’ve heard this, but again, there seems to be two conflicting thoughts. One group maintains your point, the other warns that ceviche preparation doesn’t cook at all, and is essentially the same as eating uncooked seafood.

But I hear what you’re saying. The Saba preparation I mentioned is first in salt (although exposed to the air), then in vinegar.

This really gets down to perception of risk. Most of the things people do that are dangerous are not guaranteed to cause harm; they might, but don’t always. Some activities that people generally perceive as “mostly safe” (like driving a car) are in fact more likely to result in harm than things people generally perceive as being more dangerous (like riding on a plane). This does not mean that either activity is without risk, just that the likelihood of risk is not judged accurately. Unfamiliar risks are often perceived as being more dangerous than familiar ones.

Eating a food prepared with a traditional technique involving controlled spoilage (which I think mostly involves microbial activity; bacteria or yeast are usually the catalysts, and it’s usually called fermentation) is sometimes perceived as more dangerous than it really is. Sometimes, as in bread, beer, etc., it’s utterly familiar, and may not be perceived as being dangerous enough; home fermentation gone slightly wrong has caused plenty of food poisoning over the years.

I don’t know what specifically you’re referring to. But in general, those “other cultures” have figured out alternative means of preserving food at room temperature, and/or removing the spoiled part and just eating the safe part.

For example, dried fish may sound very dangerous. Or beef jerky, for that matter. It basically involves leaving fish/meat out until it’s completely dried. But if it’s done correctly - i.e. salting it properly first, and ensuring the right temperature, humidity and air flow - it’s quite safe.

Before freezing and canning, fermentation was one fo the few ways to preserve food- and it’s a force we probably learned to control through much deadly trial and error. Different bacteria do different things to different foods at different times, and over thousands of years we have learned which ones are good and which ones will make you sick.

Every culture has forms of fermented food, and in general most cultures look in disgust at the fermented foods of other cultures. Chinese people, for example, generally regard cheese as rotten milk that has congealed into some disgusting stinky mass. We look at their “stinky tofu” with the same disdain.

We probably have a natural distaste for fermented food, but are able to acquire a taste for fermented foods from our culture. Basically, our parents feed us (cheese, sauerkraut, sausage, whatever) as kids and we learn to like it.

I was aghast at Zimern eating the fecal sausage in Uganda. Apparently cooking rendered it safe to eat, but as Zimern noted, it still tasted of poo.


Here’s an anecdote detailing the importance of controlled spoilage:

A family member enjoys making beer. The beer-making process basically involves sterilizing all the ingredients through serious boiling, then adding just the yeast you want to grow in the beer. Let the yeast do its work and you get tasty beer a few days later. On one early batch of beer, this family member wiped out the inside of the fermentation bucket with a sponge after sterilizing with bleach and didn’t think about re-sterilizing. When he opened the bucket a couple of days later… it was neither safe nor appetizing. The sponge had reintroduced all the random microbes that produce undesirable spoilage.

In terms of the risks of sashimi or rare burgers, I think of it like seat belts. Driving without a seat belt won’t kill you most of the time. Wearing a seat belt won’t save you every time. However, you can show that people who wear seat belts die less often. This doesn’t stop me from enjoying rare (well, medium) burgers and raw fish, but I am aware of the fact that I’m increasing my odds of a fatal accident.

I don’t think that sun-drying salmon is a good idea. yet, sun-dried cod is a staple in much of northern europe-it has been eaten for centuries, without mass casualties.
What really amazes me-the native American sun-dried oysters and clams-two shellfish that are notorious for culturing pretty nasty bacteria-does the dangerous bacterially-produced toxins get destroyed with exposure to sunlight?
Bad oysters can KILL you-how did they get away with sun-drying them?

For whatever reason, I’m re-reading the Clan of the Cave Bear series. It strikes me that Ayla and Jondalor ate everything that didn’t bite back or fight them off. I’ve never eaten a pine tree and everything I do eat, I buy in a supermarket. For those of you who have read these books, it is remotely possible to survive on the stuff those two scarfed down?

So if you don’t liked “spoiled” food, you don’t eat bread (spoiled dough), cheese/ yoghourt (spoiled milk), sauerkraut (spoiled cabbage), don’t drink beer (spoiled dough again), wine (spoiled juice), mead (spoiled honey water), hard apple cider (spoiled apple juice), use vinegar (spoiled wine)?

All of these are fermentation processes using yeast or bacteria or enzymes (cheese made with lab, coming from a calfs stomach! Ewww.) And while bread is baked afterwards, yoghurt, cheese, sauerkraut etc aren’t heated after the fermentation. They are sometimes warmed/ heated to kill the undesirable bacteria/ yeast, after which the desirable stuff is introduced.

Certain types of blue cheese are deliberatly spoiled with mold even. As long as only the right strain of mold is added, everything is delicious; in the 80s I think, a wrong strain got into it, and people got very sick.

But when you buy food at the store that hasn’t gone through this process, you still run a risk. Some meat may contain parasites that survive cooking; some bacteria leave toxins behind that cooking doesn’t break down. There is no 100% safety.

As others have pointed out, it’s not spoilage. It’s controlled fermentation (or drying), just as farmers make silage from their grass to prevent it from spoiling. It’s how we managed to preserve our food before freezers, fridges and canning were invented.

Lean fish like cod can be dried with or without salt, you just have to have the right conditions, so the microbes can’t bloom before the conditions on the surface makes it impossible for them.

Fat fish like salmon: Same thing, but the exposure to the air would turn it rancid quite fast. That’s why fermented trout or herring is a traditional delicacy in Northern Scandinavia: conservation without “wasting” all that expensive salt you needed for salting.

Good cured meat is not only dried, but there’s something more happening. A good Parma ham takes two years, is that spoiled? As others have pointed out, salami-type sausages are not only dried, they’re also fermented.

The only risk I can see with all this stuff, is the fermented trout or herring. Insufficient hygiene combined with too little salt and too high temperature gives a definite risk for botulism.

I think this is a rotten analogy.

Ground beef is more prone to contamination because of all the processing and handling, compounded with the fact that it doesn’t have much natural defense against things like e coli, etc. Get some human or other waste in the mix and the problem is compounded yet again, because the waste/bacteria could be well protected in a nice thick burger patty AND become more problematic when someone cooks it such that the inside does not reach a sufficient temperature to kill the bacteria in question.

Aging meat filets/loins/etc, like fish and some others, don’t necessarily face all these challenges.


Hanging game is effectively allowing it to decompose (spoil) to a point where the meat is more tender; anything up to a month for beef/venison or a few days for game birds.

And of course there is always this lovely.

From the wikipedia link in emmaliminal’s post, I learned a new word today:

The science of fermentation is known as zymurgy.

Learn sumpin’ new every day. :slight_smile: