No stranger to mouldy yoghurt, Sophie Morris looks at how to make the most of elderly produce
Another day, another supermarket announces that it is scrapping use-by dates to reduce food waste. This time it’s M&S, which from now on will display only best before dates on its milk, urging customers to instead use the “sniff test” to decide whether the product is safe to drink or not.
After sniffing some double cream this morning, a week out of date, I used half to make ice cream and whipped the rest to have with berries this evening. I’ve never been one to take fright at a bit of mould (isn’t it preserving what’s underneath?) or feel sick at a slightly sour scent (get your good gut bacteria wherever you can).
At the weekend, I opened a five-year old jar of M&S olives preserved in oil and nobody who enjoyed them has died yet. We ate half and I will use the rest in a beef and olive stew.
I understand that not everybody feels the same. Maybe you can’t enjoy food if you think it sullied with even the slightest speck of blight. But such queasiness is mostly cultural and something we can unlearn as swiftly as we learned it - which was when large food manufacturers began stamping sell by, use by and best before dates over any product possible, boosting sales and making us more reliant on imprecise data instead of the ability to follow our nose and trust it.
SAVE WITH THE SNIFF TEST
Along with milk, other dairy products can be sniffed for freshness. This includes cream, as well as yoghurt, sour cream and crème fraîche, which have already been slightly soured, or fermented, with a souring agent (bacteria; at home we’d use salt or lemon).
If the sour smell is strong and off putting, or there is visible curdling or mould, the product is past its best.
I scrape mould off yoghurt but apparently this could be unsafe as the spores may have spread around the pot. But with harder products such as cheese, it’s unlikely the mould can spread further than what you can see, so cut that part off with a small margin.
Milk is the UK’s third most wasted food product, after potatoes and bread, and a typical household throws away 18 pints a year. Morrisons led the way on milk labelling, announcing it was to remove use by dates on the majority of its own-brand bottles in January 2022. Sainsbury’s and the Co-op have taken use by dates off some yoghurts.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) urges us to stick to any use by date that a manufacturer decides to stick on a product, warning that “we cannot see or smell the bugs that can cause food poisoning.”
BREAD AND BISCUITS
But with many popular products that only carry best before dates, the FSA recommends a common sense touch-and-smell approach, suggesting we use “sensory cues” to make our own judgments. With bread, look for visible mould - as with yoghurt you can scrape or cut this off, but it might have spread through the slice or loaf.
Biscuits and crisps may have gone soft or stale and lost their taste and texture, but you could still bash up biscuits to use as a cheesecake base or as an ice cream topping, and soft crisps will work in a speedy cheat’s tortilla.
FRESH FRUIT AND VEG
Most supermarkets have focused on tackling best before dates, with M&S, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Asda taking best before stamps off hundreds of fresh product lines, a move Tesco began back in 2018.
The best chance of prolonging the life of fresh produce is to store it in the right way, whether in a fridge at the right temperature (less than 5°C) or in a dark, cool cupboard.
Leaves go off quickly, but can be rescued by cooking or freezing. Add soft or discoloured herbs to soups, stews, omelettes and curries. The same with spinach and other leafy greens. Lettuce and cabbage is delicious braised in stock or given a very quick steam then charred on the barbecue. Even greens that have lost all their crunch can go in the freezer to be cooked and blitzed for a soup or smoothie.
Potatoes, our most wasted food, can be saved in a few ways. Dig out any sprouting bits and slice into chunks, making sure to discard any green or brown parts. Use these either for mash or a soup base.
And did you know you can freeze potatoes? Parboil and shake in cooking fat, salt and flour or cornflour - however you usually do your roasties - cool and freeze in a baking dish profile tray. These can be roasted straight from the freezer.
Stew any fruits with a little lemon and sugar for breakfast, cakes, pies, crumbles or the freezer.
It’s tempting to chuck anything in the freezer, but it will need to be eaten or thrown away one day. Try and freeze in usable portions, for example handfuls of herbs, or a few sausages so you don’t have to defrost the whole pack.
The guidelines given for how long you can freeze meat relate to both safety and quality. Meat that has been processed and handled more - eg mince or sliced pork products - and therefore more at risk of having picked up bacteria, should only be kept for a few months in the freezer while larger cuts are given longer.
Must we stick to these rules? I think we all know how long we’re happy to freeze food for, but be aware that freezing will not kill dangerous bacteria, only slow their growth. Once you thoroughly defrost meat or fish, it should be obvious from its appearance and smell whether it is safe to cook and eat.
The main issue is quality - the fibres will break down and your meat will not taste good if frozen for years on end. My freezer is also full of loose vegetables, but they don’t all emerge tasting great. If you’re worried about this, don’t make the older ingredients the stars of your meal.
USE BY VS BEST BEFORE
Use by dates indicate how safe a product is to eat. Best before is connected to quality. This means that use by dates on dairy products estimate when that milk or yoghurt should go off, given how long such things usually remain safe to consume.