Is This Still Good ?: Fresh, Stale, Best By, Expired

I am not a milk lover and seeing someone hover there nose over a milk bottle, reel at the scent that wafted out and then stretch out the vessel my way asking me to take a sniff will always be met with a look of disdain. Why is it that we gladly sniff our milk and after an obvious result still ask for confirmation from a presumed love one? Sounds like an exercise best reserved for our enemies. On the other hand we toss other foods willy nilly because of a printed date or a feeling that it might be stale.

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I admit that when it comes to bread I am truly French. Bread is to be bought fresh that morning. By lunch, it is getting stale and appropriate for a sandwich or a slice of cheese. By mid-afternoon, a square of chocolate is about the only thing that will make it acceptable to eat for an after school goûter. By morning, a small generously buttered bit of ‘biscotti’- fied bread will be good to dip in your morning chocolate or coffee. After that, it can be made into breadcrumbs.

Now I know not all bread is like a baguette, but after the first day you will find my bread sliced and in the freezer to be used as toast. Bread ends left out might be ground into crumbs or cubed and used for croutons. Challah lasts a day or two longer and then I slice it and leave it out to get stale for an absorbent French Toast.

Last week, Isabelle made a cake. Over half still sat out on the counter in its Rubbermaid cake container. I thought, “It must be stale by now…”

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…but let me check.”
Today is Tuesday and the cake was made on Friday. I pop open the container and slice through the slight crunch in the icing. I take a bite and the cake has the nice crumb it had. It is slightly dry but the fresh mint flavour in the cake and icing make it taste just as good as it did the day after it was made.

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What about other things? Fruit, vegetables, cheeses, meat and fish?

As someone who shops the farmers markets or gets meat straight from the farm, I’ve learned that food’s freshness is always relative. My vegetables were picked the morning I get them, although some may have been well stored in a root cellar. My beef was slaughtered that morning or if it is frozen they can tell me exactly when. My fish was caught that morning. When I go to the grocery store it’s a bit more of a guessing game.

My rule is to smell, feel, and salvage.

Smell the item. If it smells acidic or pungent and is not a food that should be acidic or pungent, compost it or throw it out.

Feel the item. If meat or fish, feels slimy or sticky then it is probably no good. If fruits or vegetables are too soft they can often be salvaged. Make a smoothie or soup with less than perfect fruit or vegetables.

Cheeses will get white spots or will be shiny on the surface if wrapped in plastic. Learn how to take care of your cheeses. Buy small wedges for the week. Many white spots in cheeses like Parmesan or Gruyère are salt crystals not mold. Do not toss the cheese! As for the surface molds or shininess. Take a knife and prep the cheeses as they do at Formaggio for their famous wall of cheese. A light scraping of the surface will revive your cheese.

Again, use smell and touch. Know what the cheese smelled like before. If it gets overly sticky, slimy or smells vinegary then you can take a small bite and see if it has life left or not. You can then decide to toss it, make a fromage fort, cook with it.

After reading all this you may think I am pretty easy going when it comes to food and freshness, but in fact just as I am with bread, if my apple is a tad mealy, or my tomato has been put in the fridge, if my lettuce is limp, I will not let it pass as food. I’ll compost the outer layers of lettuce and soak the core in ice water to bring it back to life. I’ll cook the tomato and apple. That reminds me I have a great Bolognese recipe to share made with soft apples left over from apple picking. Remind me if I don’t post it soon!

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