Keeping an informed eye on food is essential in preventing waste and early expiration — it also helps keep you from spending long hours with a bucket! Megan Jane de Paulo spills the beans.
IT'S EARLY morning. You’ve stumbled bleary-eyed into your kitchen, grabbed a bowl, shaken in some cereal and doused it in milk, but it tastes all wrong. It's only then that you spy the "use-by" date…
As we move towards being more conscious of wasting food, it helps with menu planning to be aware of and track the use-by dates of products — it also assists with keeping you from spending long hours on the toilet with a bucket!
There is a difference between "use by" and "best before" dates — and it’s not simply a matter of language or marketing.
Products marked "use by" must be used by the date noted since there is a risk of illness if consuming them after that date. Such items include milk, sliced meats and prepared food.
These products can be frozen before their date and used later. The use-by date is also only an indication — if there has been improper storage on its journey to your fridge or since residing there, food can go off before the date noted.
Before you go running off to the internet with a picture of the suspicious item to ask random people if it’s safe to eat, perhaps use more than your nose: if there are any changes in colour or texture, bubbles present or a slight sliminess, then chuck it into the compost bin, the safety ship has sailed on that item!
Best-before dates are more of a general guide to when food is at its best; after that date, the quality will have degenerated, but it won’t be dangerous for you to consume. Except, of course, if it is showing signs of bacteria, smells bad or has changed colour and texture. Mostly, you see these dates on packaged, tinned or canned food products.
There is a third label which is only for baked goods: the "baked on" date. Here, you are left up to your own judgement on freshness. Keep in mind that if you find mould spots on any one slice, you can be assured the entire loaf is infected with mould. The rest is just invisible to you — so far. Bread mould is not considered safe to consume. Definitely compost time.
There is also a difference in expiration after the product is open. While the date might be a year away from purchase, once opened, it might be a matter of days before the product is deemed expired. With packaged goods using vacuum or jar preservation techniques – like the first pee on a beer bender – all bets are off once the seal is broken.
Safe storage at home is important in preventing waste and early food expiration. And despite the lengthy debates on what should be kept in the fridge or not, generally following the manufacturing instructions is best.
Safe storage can also depend on circumstances like your location — it may say to keep in a cool dark pantry, but if you are in the middle of a Cairns summer, that place might just be the fridge.
Things to go into the pantry after opening: Vegemite, peanut butter, honey and coffee. Yes, coffee! It wants to be kept in a dark place in an air-tight container, not the fridge.
Maple syrup: This should be kept in the fridge after opening to inhibit the growth of the xerophilic fungus Wallemia sebi — not toxic, but you’ll end up with a carpet of mould on your pancakes.
Tomato sauce: While some maintain the acetic acid (vinegar) preserves it, manufacturers recommend keeping it in the fridge to maintain consistency.
Mustard: While it might not necessarily spoil in the pantry, the flavour will be maintained for longer in the fridge, especially Dijon and horse-radish-based mustards.
Soy sauce: This can be in the pantry for a few months after opening. However, fish sauce should be stored in the pantry, not the fridge, to prevent the salts from crystallising.
Commercial jam: Due to the sugar content, after opening, jam can be stored in the pantry, but home-jarred jam should be stored in the fridge.
Do not store raw and cooked food together!
Label and date items in your freezer.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO):
'Foodborne illnesses are usually infectious or toxic in nature and caused by bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances entering the body through contaminated food.'
While, fortunately, death rates in Australia from these diseases are quite low, case numbers are high.
Food safety in the home can save you hours of agony and toilet paper usage: a good guide – according to the Better Health Victoria website – is to keep leftovers for a maximum of three days and store cooked food in the fridge as soon as it’s stopped steaming.
Cleaning your fridge and freezer regularly is also important. Wash with dish soap and water. Bicarbonate of soda can be used for more stubborn spots and to deodorise the fridge.
Regularly does not mean once a year, but every couple of months. Consider this as a reminder to conclude your current bacteria experiment!
Think of using leftovers as more of a creative adventure than a chore — sure, almost anything can be made into a soup, but, let’s face it, one can tire of soups quickly. Here’s a recipe for leftover steamed pumpkin that means you're not just settling for soup.
This makes around eight tortillas.
Fill with beans, meat and sauce. Roll; top with cheese sauce and bake, or use as a flatbread for dips.
- 180g plain flour
- 2g baking powder
- 2g salt
- 50ml oil
- 120g pumpkin purée
To make the pumpkin purée, peel, dice and steam pumpkin pieces, squash with a fork or stick blender and then in a fine sieve, leave to drain for at least an hour.
Mix all ingredients together.
Knead dough for around ten minutes until smooth.
Divide into eight pieces; roll into balls and rest for 15 minutes.
Heat up a (preferably) cast iron skillet.
Roll balls out into large thin circles.
Cook in a dry, hot skillet for a couple of minutes on each side — you’ll know to turn when it blisters and starts to brown.
Keep cooked tortillas stacked under a clean tea towel to keep them warm and soft.
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