The Working Waterfront

We spoil our food with best-by dates

Common sense and a good eye and nose serve best

Sandy Oliver
Posted 2022-05-17
Last Modified 2022-05-17

Hung in bunches in the cellarway, our onions sprout. Apples stored in spackle buckets soften. So do beets. Our carrots sprouted feathery tops but we ate them all before they had a chance to grow hairy rootlets. Keeping an eye on the potatoes means spotting white shoots before they get leggy.

Newspaper-wrapped cabbage stashed on a hanging shelf made of an old window screen benefitted from the cellar’s cold this year, and shows only a little spoilage on outer leaves. Peel those away and a lovely light green to white cabbage resides within.

In past times, calculating how much to store and when to use it made the difference between comfort and hardship. Visits to the cellar and an eagle eye on the pantry storage constituted good housekeeping.

A truly spoiled onion sends a clear stinky, slimy message of “please compost me.”

These days we look at the “best used by” or “sell-by” dates on packages. My onions don’t have a best-used-by date on their golden cheeks but they show signs that it’s time to use them or convert them to another useful form. Unlike earlier times, the present offers alternatives, like artificial freezing—electrically generated cold vs. natural outdoor cold—to preserve some foods past their nature-imposed best-used-by date.

So I’ll knock off the onion’s green sprouts and pretend they are scallions, then I’ll slice up the rest of onion and package it in the freezer for future and convenient use.

I could even caramelize it and stash a canning jar-full in the fridge to add to whatever dish might benefit from it. Or I could make onion jam for savory meat or cheese sandwiches, or to spread with cream cheese on crackers for an appetizer.

The onions aren’t spoiled—yet. A truly spoiled onion sends a clear stinky, slimy message of “please compost me.”

We’re so reliant on dates stamped on groceries that sometimes I think we are thrown off by food that doesn’t need or come with a date.

Food trapped in tin, cardboard, plastic, or glass, all invisible to the eye or undetectable by smell, does need a date. (You’d think I’d be better at dating my canned tomatoes or jelly jars.)

A friend of mine had a roommate, however, who used to throw out any eggs remaining after a week in the fridge because she was convinced that they had gone by. The poor soul never had a chance to see a hen lay a clutch of a dozen or more eggs that she intended to hatch but which took her a week or more to assemble, eggs that not only didn’t go bad but which, employing egg-wisdom, knew how to wait until the whole clutch was ready to become chicks. At any event, had she opened a truly bad egg, she’d know right away. Bad eggs look very funny and/or smell awful.

The problem with stamped-on dates is that they are mostly invented by the manufacturers guided by some assumptions, and, I fervently hope, testing, and are meant to suggest to customers that the food is at peak quality before the expiration date, not that it is poisonous to eat it afterwards. There are no legal, standardized guidelines to these recommendations.

The food we really need to pay attention to, according to consumer experts, are deli meats, unpasteurized dairy products, ready-to-eat refrigerated foods, and hot dogs and sausages that aren’t fully cooked. Even so, some of the best cheeses in the world are made from unpasteurized milk and travelers to a foreign country reveling in the flavor of country cheese, freak out at the idea of eating unpasteurized milk cheeses. Bear in mind that generally the longer a cheese is aged, the less it poses danger. That wouldn’t be true of sliced baloney.

You can safely consume most packaged food for weeks or months after the date. Everything else tends to get moldy, or slimy and smelly. If I see blue spots on cheddar, I slice it off. I scrape off a film of mold on jam stored in the cupboard and forge ahead.

Humans had strategies around spoilage for millennia. I read in early cookbooks about testing an egg by putting it in water: a rotten egg floats and a good one sinks. Historically, cookbooks recommended a bath in vinegar to clean up a piece of meat that was sliding into slime-dom. Gotta say, I wouldn’t try that with modern meat that comes from goodness-knows-where but I would venture it with home-grown.

We waste so much food because we can’t distinguish between good or bad, and sell-by dates foster mistrust. Here is a website you can visit to advise you on home storage:, a public service campaign sponsored by the National Resources Defense Council and the Ad Council.

Buying fresh, cooking from scratch, and keeping house saves us money and worry, don’t you think?

Sandy Oliver is a food historian who gardens, cooks, and writes on Islesboro.