St Patrick’s Day and dumpster-diverted, perfectly edible milk past its best-before date inspired this soda bread post.
Soured milk versus spoiled milk
Last week, my daughter MK rescued 3 half-gallons of unopened milk from a café. Each unopened half-gallon had passed its best-before date by a few weeks. The milk smells a little bit sour—but it doesn’t smell bad—and has no signs of spoilage. While the slightly sour smell might not go well in a latte, this milk is perfect for baking. Unopened dairy, kept in the refrigerator, can remain fresh for a week or more after its best before date. Unopened cultured dairy products, such as yogurt or kefir, can last even longer—several weeks or more. Once opened, these products deteriorate more rapidly.
If you’re unsure if you should eat food past its prime—whether it came from a package or you cooked it yourself from scratch—use your senses to figure it out. Give it a look, a sniff, and if it passes those tests, a taste. If it looks, smells and tastes fine, it probably is fine.
Please note that this rescued milk has turned slightly sour only. It hasn’t spoiled. Signs of spoiled milk include:
- Clumpy texture
- Foul smell
- Yellow color
All of these not-very-subtle clues scream “DO NOT CONSUME ME!” Unfortunately, you can’t rescue clumpy, slimy, foul-smelling milk. If you regularly find yourself with spoiled milk on your hands, perhaps you buy too much milk. I suspect this happened at the café. Food service businesses have been open one week, shut down the next during Covid. Inventory management must be very challenging.
Confusing best-before dates contribute to food waste
In the US, “best before,” “best by,” “sell by” dates and so on serve merely as guidelines—the FDA does not regulate these dates. Food manufacturers stamp the dates on packages to indicate when the food will be the best quality, not when the food expires. These dates encourage consumers to throw out edible food—and buy more food (and thus bring home more plastic packaging as well). Decomposing food in landfill releases methane gas, a greenhouse gas about 80 times more potent that carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. Confusing best before dates increase these methane emissions.
A new UN report that came out last week shows that worldwide, an astonishing 931 billion tonnes of food purchases go to waste yearly, with households accounting for 61 percent of that waste. Food service businesses make up 26 percent, and retailers, 13 percent. When food goes uneaten, it squanders the opportunity to feed those who are hungry and it wastes all the resources that went into producing the food—this rescued milk required many more resources than foods lower on the food chain. According to the report, food waste and food loss account for 10 percent of emissions heating the planet. (Food loss is food that never reached the market, due to various problems in the supply chain.)
The soda bread
I imagine that when yeast disappeared from store shelves at the beginning of Covid last year, people baked more soda bread than usual. Authentic soda bread calls for just four common ingredients: flour, baking soda, salt and buttermilk. I call mine Irish-ish soda bread because I also add caraway seeds, dried fruit and, if I have it, orange zest, making this more of an Irish-ish American soda bread. For this loaf, I added a half cup dried sweetened cranberries and a half cup dried currants. Delicious with a cup of tea.
We didn’t have buttermilk on hand to make this soda bread, so I add lemon juice from free lemons to this free milk to make a buttermilk substitute (see recipe notes for details). I let the mixture sit for a few minutes to thicken and voilà, I had a replacement for cultured buttermilk. (Go here for instructions to make cultured buttermilk.)
Irish-ish Soda Bread
- 3½ cups all-purpose flour
- ¾ teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1½ teaspoons caraway seeds optional
- 1 cup dried fruit such as currants, raisins, sweetened cranberries and so on optional
- 1½ cups cultured buttermilk (see Note)
- 1 teaspoon fresh orange zest optional
- Grease a baking sheet, an 8- to 9-inch glass pie dish or a cast-iron skillet. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
- In a large bowl, use a fork to mix together the flour, baking soda, salt and, if using, caraway seeds and dried fruit.
- If using orange zest, stir it into the buttermilk. Stir the buttermilk into the dry ingredients until combined. The dough will be very sticky. Use your hand to mix in the last bits of flour that you can't stir into the dough.
- Turn the dough out onto a floured surface. Knead only a few times, for less than 1 minute. Pat the dough into a round disk, about 6 inches in diameter and 1½ inches thick.
- Place the dough disk on the baking sheet, pie dish or cast-iron skillet. With a sharp knife, score an X across the top, cutting into the dough about ½ inch deep.
- Bake for 45 minutes, until the bread is golden brown and sounds hollow when you tap it on the bottom. Turn the loaf out onto a cooling rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.
- Soda bread is at its peak of freshness the day you bake it. When it dries out, enjoy slices dunked in a cup of tea.