In the kitchen, use your sense of smell, or risk disaster

By Katherine Larson

As 2019 staggered toward its weary end, I thought to cheer us up with a rare treat: a steak dinner. As it happened, we did indeed have steak for dinner—just steak, steak sitting alone, forlorn on the plate. With an apple for dessert.
That was not my plan. I had planned on a flavorful pilaf, with eggplant and onions and garlic. Since it was a wintry day, I chose brown rice for its nutty heartiness and added a hefty dose of complex spices.
Brown rice takes much longer to cook than white rice, usually 45 minutes, so I got things started in plenty of time. Soon spicy aromas curled from the pot, lifting our spirits. Steak, lightly salted and heavily peppered, waited for its turn on the stove. A glass of wine added anticipation.
With five minutes to go on the rice, I got the cast-iron skillet piping hot. The steak seared and sizzled, the symphony of smells reached a crescendo, and we flourished knife and fork with gusto.
But the pilaf was inedible. Gummy at best and crunchy at worst, the rice had scarcely cooked at all, while the vegetables swam in the liquid that the rice should have absorbed. We scraped the mess back into the pot for another go on the stove while we sat down to our steak.
Delicious as the steak proved, my husband needs his carbs. With the rice showing no signs of softening, he popped a couple of pieces of bread into the toaster. But the evening was jinxed: the toaster failed to disgorge the toast, and soon a couple of charred remnants lay smoking in the trash can. As for the rice? Even after another hour on the stove, it remained gummy and inedible, and it joined the toast in the trash.
Well, there was always the wine.
But what the heck happened to my rice?
Belated research provided an important clue: unlike white rice, which can last almost indefinitely, brown rice goes bad.
It actually goes bad fairly quickly, within no more than six months even when stored in a sealed jar in the pantry. Storing brown rice in the freezer extends its life to about a year, but beyond that it’s dubious.
The difference between the rices lies in the bran—that same bran which gives brown rice its characteristic nutty flavor and its superior nutritional value. Good brown rice is both extra tasty and extra nutritious, but it also contains oils that, with age, become rancid. Rancidity occurs when oils oxidize. They taste bad, they lose nutritive value, they even form toxic compounds.
Fortunately, the test for rancid rice is simple: smell it. If it smells bad, it is bad. Rancidity has been described as a “stale, grassy, paint-like odor.” To me, it just smells bad.
So where did I go wrong? At the very outset, when I failed to sniff the uncooked rice. Once it got cooking, all those glorious spices masked the problem until the mess emerged from the pot. Only later, perplexed, did I open the jar of uncooked rice to take a whiff.
Ugh. Rancid.
The nose knows. The human nose is remarkably sensitive. It used to be thought that our noses could distinguish among 10,000 different odors, but recent research suggests that we can actually sense the differences among as many as a trillion different compounds.
“Odorant molecules”—smells—float into the nasal cavity when we inhale. They attach to olfactory receptors and generate a tiny electrical impulse that whizzes right to the olfactory bulb, a sort of switching station that sends the impulse off in three directions: to the limbic system—the part of the brain that deals with emotion; through the thalamus to the orbitofrontal cortex to combine with information coming in from the taste buds; and to the piriform cortex for more intellectual processing. Connections between emotions, experience, and thought do the rest.
My nose taught me my mistake, which was actually fairly elementary. I know not to buy large quantities of vegetable oil because it goes rancid, and I know to sniff at any oil that’s been in my pantry for a while. I know not to buy large quantities of nuts because their oils go rancid, I know to store any leftovers in the freezer to ward off that evil day, and I know to sniff at any nuts before chomping. Now I’ll add brown rice to the list.
The same thing happens with whole-wheat flour, for the same reason. And wheat germ, wheat bran, and flax seed. And peanut butter.
Compare these shelf lives, all of which assume that the product in question is being kept at room temperature (except the olive oil, which demands a cool dark place) in a sealed air-tight container:

white rice                               indefinite

brown rice                          3-6 months

white flour                           up to 1 year

whole wheat flour             2-3 months

hydrogenated shortening       8 years

olive oil                                        1 year

sesame oil                             6 months

walnut oil                              3 months

What gives? All the highly processed foods—white flour, white rice, trans fats—are quite stable on the shelf; they last a long time. They are also less healthy, in some cases significantly so. When we turn to the healthier, less processed versions, we do our bodies and our taste buds a huge favor, but there’s an important consequence: we must pay more attention to shelf life.
This is why I love the bulk section of my local food co-op. For me, “buying bulk” doesn’t mean buying in bulk quantities; it means the opposite. Because the store buys in bulk, I don’t have to. I can buy a quantity that suits my family’s appetite for that day or week, and know that it’s fresh because the store’s turnover is high. I don’t have to worry about storing large quantities, and usually I don’t have to worry about shelf life.
Except, of course, when I do. My recent disaster came about because for some months I’ve been focusing on other rices. I failed to notice that I was neglecting the brown rice, and on that fateful night I failed to check the quality of my ingredients.
This is the broader lesson that I draw from my debacle, a variant on a lesson that all cooks know. We all know we need to taste; we all know that we can’t be sure that the creation we are about to serve forth will satisfy until we nab a spoonful, roll it around our tongues, assess the blend of flavors and textures and correct seasonings as necessary. We all know this, though sometimes in the chaotic swirl to feed the troops this basic truth gets left behind.
I add, now, that smelling is equally important, and it should come much earlier in the process. Before any ingredient is allowed to join the party, it deserves a good hard sniff—often a taste, too, but at least a sniff.
Give your clever nose a chance to weigh in on the preparation process; pay attention to what it’s telling you; let it warn you of the rancid smells, and reward you with the fragrant aroma of a truly good meal.
(Have a comment or question for At The Table author Katherine Larson? She can be contacted at

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