The reality is that supermarkets have groomed us, the food shopping public, to expect sanitised perfection.
I feel especially sorry for younger generations brought up to think that ‘fresh’ food comes in a box or a plastic pot and that ‘Best Before’ dates must be religiously adhered to.
After the terrifying food safety lessons they had at school, many youngsters are scared of food in its raw state, whether it’s meat on a butcher’s slab or unpackaged salads in a market.
And if a piece of fruit is blemished, or a vegetable is wonky, they reject it.
It didn’t used to be this way. My grandmother, an ordinary Glaswegian woman who lived through the war and the era of rationing, never let any piece of food go to waste.
She’d scrape off the mould from a piece of cheese and eat what was underneath it with relish — and she lived to a ripe old age. I daresay her resistance to bacteria, built up over a lifetime of fearless eating, boosted her health.
Indeed, the population of microbes in the human gut, which is profoundly influenced by what we eat, is crucial to human health.
According to Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College, London, ‘less than a tiny fraction of [microbe] species are harmful to us.
‘Most are not only essential to how we digest food, but they control the calories we absorb and provide vital enzymes and vitamins as well as keeping our immune system healthy.’
Some of us in the West have been living with near-sterile, factory-made food for so long, our bodies have forgotten how to cope with bacteria.
What my grandmother and others of her generation relied on was the ‘smell and test’ test. If it smelled bad, then it probably tasted bad, too. If the smell was acceptable, tasting it would confirm the food’s state of decay.
It’s something we should remember, because the decisions about what we eat are often made arbitrarily by manufacturers and retailers — with an eye on profit margins. And we pay the price.
So what dates do you need to take notice of — and which can you take a more relaxed approach to?
The crucial date-stamp is the ‘Use By’ date. That’s the one to take seriously: some foods, including meat and dairy, are prone to contamination with microbes that can make you very ill or kill you.
Don’t, for instance, take any risks with supermarket chicken, which is likely to have very dangerous food poisoning bacteria on its surface, or with ready-meals, which also may contain high levels of bacteria beyond the ‘Use By’ date.
In contrast, the ‘Sell by’ and ‘Best Before’ dates are merely advisory standards. They may vary widely and are usually set by supermarkets as part of their stock rotation system.
Instead of leaving food on the shelf until it sells, supermarkets refresh their displays regularly: ‘Sell By’ was actually invented to help staff choose what to chuck — much of it perfectly nutritious and healthy — and not to scare shoppers.
Armed with the information above, and a good sense of smell and taste to help you, here’s my guide to eating safely — while minimising waste.
Hard cheese is fine to eat long after the ‘Best Before’ date. If a mould has formed on the skin, just trim it off with a sharp knife: the cheese underneath will be quite safe. Really hard cheese, such as Parmesan, is routinely aged for two years or more.
This maturation gives it its distinctive texture and depth of flavour. Much more care should be taken with soft cheeses, such as brie, Camembert, or creamy goat’s cheese.
Toxic bacteria can be present — including listeria — that can be fatal to vulnerable groups including the elderly and unborn children.
Never take risks with soft cheeses and check the ‘Use By’ dates carefully. If in doubt, cook it well.
Drying is one of many methods that preserves food almost indefinitely. Pulses and rice can sit happily in the cupboard for long after the ‘Best Before’ date.
You might notice that they taste a bit stale, and they take longer to cook, but they won’t do you any harm.
Dried spices are practically everlasting. When you buy a jar of turmeric, coriander or some other spice, you have no way of knowing, apart from colour fading, how long ago it was prepared . . . and, of course, these products have a knack of hiding unseen at the back of cupboards for years. I recently used some dried cumin that was years old. Frankly, it was a bit flavourless — nothing like as aromatic as freshly ground spices.
But using up old stocks certainly can’t hurt you.
If the can isn’t damaged, and you store it out of direct sunlight, then whatever is inside — whether it’s beans, vegetables, tomatoes or fish — will be fine to eat a good few years from now, regardless of the ‘Best Before’ date.
BREAD & BISCUITS
Many loaves of supermarket bread last much longer than the label implies, thanks to high levels of chemical preservatives in the manufacturing process.
I don’t buy bread that contains these E number additives. I find sourdough bread, made solely from simple, homespun ingredients, tastes superior and keeps much better.
And there’s so many good things you can do with stale bread: toast, obviously, but don’t forget breadcrumbs or bread-and-butter pudding and traditional bread sauce for Christmas.
Biscuits go soggy, especially if left in an open packet, but a little moisture isn’t dangerous. To revive the biscuity snap, warm them in the oven. When they have cooled, the crunch will be back.
Freezing is an ideal way to preserve produce and, providing your freezer is working properly, there’s no need to throw out food willy-nilly. Even if the label on steak or fish fingers, for example, says the contents should be used within a month/three months, that’s a completely arbitrary date.
As long as it was thoroughly frozen in the first place, in my opinion you won’t be able to taste the difference after it is cooked if you’ve stored it for three months or six months. Over time, it is possible it will deteriorate in eating terms, affecting taste and texture.
Never thaw and re-frost food, though — that’s a recipe for food poisoning.
Never drink water or other non-preserved beverages from a bottle that has been open for more than a few hours, and not it if it has been exposed to direct sunlight — the heat makes bacteria blossom.
There’s no need to throw out a whole bag of potatoes just because one or two have started to sprout eyes.
Take a vegetable knife and core the eye, or cut away a wedge. If the flesh under the skin is dark or green, keep cutting it back till you find a normal potato colour.
Other vegetables, such as celery or leek, go soft or turn brown and dry as they age, but they’ll taste just as good as stock for soup or a multitude of savoury cooked dishes.
Just strip off or cut off any tired leaves and proceed as usual.
These often have short ‘Best Before’ windows, but whole heads of lettuce put in the fridge will keep for days, provided they were fresh to start with. Limp lettuce is are also ideal for liquidising and heating in soup.
Tomatoes actually taste better if you mature them a bit — always store them outside the fridge so that they ripen and redden. This improves their flavour.
Pay no mind to the ‘Best Before’ date, and never throw them out just because the skins are going black. The softer the fruit, the better it tastes in banana cake.
Supermarkets love to plaster egg boxes with use-by’ warnings. But unless eggs smell pungently rotten when you crack them, you can use them in any savoury or sweet recipe that heats them above a steady simmering temperature. They’re great for souffles, frittatas, custard and cakes.
Homogenised milk will stay drinkable in the fridge for days after it has been opened. If it’s so old you don’t trust it, use it in a recipe that requires simmering — such as a cup of cocoa. Sour milk is fine for baking and any recipe that calls for buttermilk.
Anything vinegary keeps long after the ‘Best Before’ date. We all have a jar of pickles at the back of the fridge: don’t worry about them. The acid makes it impossible for bacteria to grow. The same applies to salty liquids, such as olives in brine, and fermented products, including yoghurt, as well as sauerkraut and kimchi.
FISH AND MEAT
Raw fish and meat need to be ultra fresh — and if they’re not, they will smell it. If there’s any ‘off-smell’, however slight, you’d be safer to bin them. Even if it’s not going to poison you, the bad smell will spoil the flavour of the dish.
If you aren’t going to thoroughly slow-cook raw meat, make sure any brief, last-minute quick cooking gets the meat seriously hot: as chef Ken Hom once remarked to me, while he prepared a stir-fry in a red-hot wok: ‘Any bacteria that can survive this heat deserves to live!’
The salt content in bacon helps preserve it as do the preservatives added to it. If it looks and smells OK, and you’re going to cook it very thoroughly, it should be safe.
Other home-cooked cold meats, such as leftover ham or turkey, will keep safely in the fridge for a couple of days, too.
It is claimed that when the tombs of some ancient Egyptian Pharaohs were opened, honey intended for consumption in the after-life was found that looked perfectly edible. While the sugar may crystalise into lumps over time, it’s not harmful and, yes, it will taste just as delicious.
The same applies to jam.
CRISPS & CHOCS
Soggy crisps aren’t ideal, but they’re safe — the high salt content sees to that. Chocolate exposed to air has a white ‘bloom’, caused by the fat rising to the surface as it melts. It’s quite safe to eat.