This goes back some years, but it comes from an era when I was getting into the whole idea of being ranty. It was originally called ‘Cinderella’s Fridge.’
I have a very relaxed attitude to sell by and best by dates on packaging. Anyone with any common sense knows that they are pointless. Even the government’s backing off the idea. But to some people they’re gospels set in stone. I’ve tried to get them to see the error of their ways, to no avail.
I used to be friends with a guy who was utterly obsessed with sell by and best by dates. The inside of his fridge was pathologically neat and tidy, containers carefully arranged on the shelves. Raw meat and fish on the lower shelves, but separated, cooked meats at the top, dairy and dips and stuff below. He and his girlfriend even keep their kitchen foil in there.
One evening, the girlfriend went to the fridge and took out an unopened tub of hummus. She turned to her divvy of a boyfriend.
‘The best before date is tomorrow. Think it will be all right?’
‘Best not risk it.’
So a completely unused tub of hummus went in the bin because it was about four hours before the best before date.
Watching those two prepare a snack was a revelation, if an infuriating one. He’d take a chopping board and slice some salami. Then wash his knife in a sink full of hot soapy water, rinse it, and dry it with paper towel, which he threw away. Spray the chopping board with one of those non-tainting antibacterial sprays, wipe it down, throw away the paper towel. Slice some chorizo, repeat the whole washing/wiping/spraying/wiping ritual. Repeat it again after slicing some ham. Separate serving plates for all the different meats.
Meanwhile drippy girlfriend would take some cheeses out of the bags they’d been in, carefully cutting the bags to preserve the labels with the best by dates. Interestingly, once she was satisfied everything was within date, all the cheeses went on a single serving plate.
They had separate chopping boards for everything. Raw meat, raw fish, raw chicken, all separate. Even had a separate one for clingfilm, which they kept in the fridge too. They worried about using the work surfaces to cut it on.
They even had butter knives. Who has those these days? People who are paranoid about cross contamination. Get paté in the butter and they’d both go white. Ditto butter in the hummus. All the dips would go in separate bowls, with separate spoons, and the original containers would go straight back in the fridge in date order. I used to humour them, use the serving spoons, the cheese knife– they don’t seem to fuss too much about cheeses as long as they were all in date. It took me a while to work out the reasoning here.
When they/we had finished, they threw away everything that hadn’t been returned to the fridge in its original container. The hummus, the tsatsiki, the salsa, the sausagey stuff . Everything except the cheeses. Even pitta bread went, and pitta bread doesn’t go off, it goes hard like ship’s biscuits. It goes rock solid and brittle. Sprinkle it with a bit of water, wrap it in foil, and put it in a low oven for a few minutes, it’s fine.
I asked them once about cheeses, and the discussion got a bit heated. Or my side did, anyway.
‘How come you you eat cheese? Cheese is just milk that’s gone off. It’s already off.’
‘But it’s meant to be off.’
‘So, imagine you find a bit of cheese in the fridge, and it’s gone all cracked and crusty and a bit green. You chop off the mouldy bits, and the rest makes a really good cheese sauce.’
‘Mouldy cheese would go straight in the bin.’
‘But that’s insane! For goodness sake, you eat Stilton. One of the world’s greatest cheeses.’
‘The blue bits are mould. It’s mouldy cheese. People make a fortune out of selling mouldy cheese.’
‘But Stilton is meant to be mouldy.’
‘OK, something else. The tsatsiki at lunch. Home made?’
‘With the live yogurt I saw in the fridge?’
‘But live yogurt is just milk that’s gone off and is full of bacteria. Like that Yakult you also have. Bacteria wall to wall.’
‘I know it makes no sense, but that’s the way we are. Yogurt, Yakult, the bugs are meant to be there.’
‘Marmite? You like that?’
‘Oh yes. We both love it.’
‘But it’s a by-product of the brewing industry. They take the dead yeast from the brewing vats, chuck it in a bin so it goes off, wait till it stops smelling too bad, and stick it in a jar. OK, back to basics. Jam in your fridge. What’s that about?’
They shrugged, and I’m afraid I went into one. A bit more of one.
‘Jams are also known as preserves. They preserve themselves. That’s the whole point of them. Even if they don’t, you get a thin layer of mould on top. Scrape that off, it’s fine underneath. Take that hummus you threw out earlier. If it hisses when you open it, it’s not eatable. You buy some meat or fish, leave it a couple of days, and if it smells off it is off. It’s common sense. Use by dates? Food isn’t Cinderella’s sodding coach! It does not turn back into a couple of white mice and a pumpkin at twelve o’clock!! It does not bloody well go off at the stroke of bloody midnight!’
They were as implacable as they were inconsistent. ‘Can’t be too careful,’ was their watchword. I felt like saying you could be more careful by buying less at a time, then not throwing perfectly good food away.
One thing that drove me to distraction was that they insisted on keeping eggs in the fridge. Now they don’t refrigerate eggs in shops in the UK. They’re stored and sold at ambient temperature. There’s a good reason for this. It takes a lot to make an egg go off. The shell is designed to allow gas exchange, but the pores are too small to allow the ingress of spoilage bacteria. Inside there’s a membrane that covers the shell. Inside that, there’s another membrane that covers the white. It’s not the proteinaceous white that’s likely to spoil, it’s the nutrient-packed yolk. So there’s another membrane surrounding that. You don’t need to keep eggs in the fridge; they preserve themselves. I’ve eaten eggs from a pack officially over a month past the use before date. They were fine. As long as the shell is intact, you’re pretty safe. Worried about salmonella? If they are infected, it happened as they were being laid and no amount of refrigeration is going to alter that.
If you are really paranoid about this, drop the unbroken egg into a jug of cold water. If it floats, it’s off. If it sinks, it’s fine.
Remember too that eggs straight from the fridge are a nightmare to fry, and even worse to scramble. Your omelettes won’t fluff up either, and your soufflés are likely to be lopsided. Don’t keep eggs in the fridge.