Best before, sell by, use by date, display by…do you know the difference between the dates our food comes stamped with? Studies show that, in fact, many of us don’t. And we’re throwing out tonnes of perfectly edible food as a result.
Here’s a guide to show you how to tell the difference between these confusing labels, and what to do when your staples look a bit past their best.
First things first. The use by date is the only number you should pay attention to.
The use by date refers to highly perishable ingredients, like meat and fish, which tell you at what point the food is dangerous to eat. All the other dates are arbitrary enough, used by supermarkets and food stores to rotate their stock so they know which foods are fresh and at their prime.
That’s not to say they’re bad to eat, of course. A carrot that’s past it’s best before date is likely to be delicious, or will at least do well chopped into a stew. Same goes for that slightly floppy celery or wilted bunch of herbs at the back of your fridge.
Over time, we’ve stopped trusting our good sense. Many of us forego sniffing old milk or testing our eggs for freshness, perhaps because we’ve forgotten how to. We’ve put together a foolproof, simple guide to help you out.
Milk & yoghurt
Properly refrigerated, milk and yoghurt can last a good few days passed their best before. General rule of thumb is if it smells ok, it’s probably ok. However, if there’s a thick layer of mould on your yoghurt, it’s best to get rid.
Did you know? You can freeze milk for up to 3 months – a perfect way to preserve that pint if you’re going away.
You can’t eat mouldy soft cheese, but it’s okay to cut the mould off hard cheese. Just make sure you clean your knife after slicing off the mould to ensure it doesn’t spread.
Did you know? Parmesan rinds freeze well so save them to add directly to soups or stews for a delicious umami boost. Remember to take it out before serving.
To check for freshness, place your egg in tall glass or bowl of cold water. If it’s fresh, the egg will lie horizontally at the bottom of the glass or bowl, but if it’s stale, it’ll float vertically. When the egg floats at a tilted angle, it’s probably only a week or so old, and still good to eat.
Did you know? Eggs bought at the supermarket can be up to four weeks old! Farmdrop’s eggs are laid by farmers’ free-roaming hens and can be laid as freshly as the day before they land on your doorstep.
A smattering of blue mould (not black!) is fine as long as you cut it off first. As for stale bread, don’t chuck it! It’s a brilliant ingredient in its own right; blitz it into breadcrumbs and store in an airtight container for sprinkling over gratins or pasta dishes, chop into chunks and use as croutons for soup or tossed through a juicy Italian panzanella, or slice it up for a good old-fashioned bread and butter pudding.
Unless they’re very wrinkly or mouldy, fruits are perfectly edible, whatever the packaging might say. To use up a seasonal glut, try stewing them down with a bit of sugar to make a compote (it freezes well).
Did you know? Keeping bananas in your fruit bowl will speed up the ripeness of your other fruit. If you want to keep fruit for longer, keep your bananas separate!
The same rule for fruit goes for veggies too. Keep them for longer by storing them properly. Root veg, like potatoes, squash and onions are happiest in a dark, cool place. Revive a wilting celery or lettuce head by placing them in a glass with a little water in the bottom – much like a plant! – and be sure to remove as much suffocating plastic packaging from veggies like courgettes and peppers.
Did you know? Tomatoes should never be stored in the fridge; for maximum juicy flavour, store at room temperature.
If you don’t grow herbs yourself, you must know the frustration of buying a packaged bunch to use a just few sprigs for your dinner. Keep them for longer by wrapping your herbs in slightly damp kitchen paper and storing them in the fridge. And if they need using up, here are a few ideas: for soft herbs, like parsley, coriander or mint, try chopping up the leftovers into a salsa verde to drizzle over grilled fish, ricotta toasts or a sizzling steak. Try mixing any chopped herbs into softened butter with minced garlic and fresh chilli for a fragrant way to kick off your cooking. Or add pop them into ice cube trays, top with water or oil, freeze and throw into stews and bolognese when you need them.