REDUCING FOOD WASTE: Understanding how long preserved foods are “good”

I started Can-Do Real Food after working part of one growing season at a farm and becoming aware for the first time just how much food never even reaches people who want to eat. Farmers regularly pull aside veggies and fruit that are imperfectly shaped or start aging while new produce is being harvested. Consumers want the best looking stuff, of course, so farmers are used to feeding their imperfect items into the compost pile or as additives to chicken or pig food.

While I take responsibility for reducing food waste once it gets to me, I very much understand that the volume that ends up in my compost pile instead of my stomach is a teeny tiny amount of waste compared to other places along the food supply line. However, I still want to reduce that as much as possible. After all, I am also wasting my money to purchase food if I have to throw it away! One way is to be aware of those dates that are stamped or written on all commercially prepared foods and to understand them. Then you can apply the same concept to your own home-preserved items, whether they are frozen, canned, dehydrated, smoked or fermented.

One of the conundrums as a commercial food processor was that I had was to determine WHICH standard to use: “use by” or “best by”. There are NO guidelines from the government other than the mandate I use something!

“Use by” implies that the food is unsafe after that date. I know I stopped my youngest from pouring out a half-empty gallon of milk because the “use by date” had passed. You can imagine the “mean mommy” experience that required him to actually sniff (okay, it smells okay) and TASTE (do I have to? YES!) to teach that there is no magic event that instantly occurs that makes something bad at a specific date.

The mayo I purchased a month or so ago has a Best By date with plenty of time to use in other households but we don’t use mayo much……..

A word here that expiration dates on medication also has some wiggle room but I am not an expert on this. If you wonder if you can take something that “expired” 5 years ago……ask! A pharmacist is a good resource.

Back to food. I preferred to use “best by”. In the first season when I learned to can I put up some carrots. I dated my jar and never reached for it until a couple of years later when I was making soup and thought carrots would be a good addition but had none in the frig. I checked the seal….good. I looked at the contents inside the jar. The color was appropriate and there were no little bubbles of gas in the liquid, so far so good. I opened it….no bad aroma. So far all signs show it is SAFE to eat.

But when I put a fork in to pull a carrot out, it dissolved immediately into an orange cloud. It was certainly past the BEST time to enjoy it.

So, since then I put the date on the lid with what it is. (I am long past trying to convince myself I will remember what that jar of bluish-purple color jam is or which spice mix is in that tomato mix in that jar.) I put new jars behind any older ones of the same recipe when I store on my shelves. That way, the older stuff SHOULD be used first.

And remember, share. Seriously, if you have not eaten that jar of peaches that you put up in 1999, please toss it. If it’s from 2016, open one and if it is okay, plan how to use them. And do not make more until you do!

Our State Fair award-winning instant soup…and here is the one in MY cupboard, showing a best by date of last July. I know that means I prepared the mix in June from the pumpkins’ harvest in the fall of 2018. It is dry and good for at least 5 years or longer. That is one of the joys of dehydrated foods.

So, bottom line: besides the fact that this shows one more advantage that dehydrated foods hold longer safely than canned products, most are SAFE to eat beyond the date on the container, but the texture may be diminished the longer you move from initial processing.

REDUCING FOOD WASTE: Sharing the Wealth

I started another Facebook group called More With Less a few days ago and invited about 25 of my friends. We now have over 100 people, many I don’t know personally, who have joined us in the effort to offer tips of all kinds and funny things to help us all get through these unusual times. Join us.

My husband posted an easy recipe to make glazed donuts and opined he wished I would make some. So, anyone who knows me appreciates that I like to bake. I have a sweet tooth. This is an ongoing issue and my weight exhibits my hobby. Over the past few years, I made a decision to stop baking so often and started only baking when we were planning to go somewhere for dinner or having guests here. (I dropped 50 pounds but that was not the only change I made.)

Homemade Glazed Doughnuts (Krispy Kreme glazed donuts) Best Donuts ...

So the ONLY way I will attempt to make those donuts is if I will share output…because heaven knows I have no off button and would eat more than a reasonable person without this addiction would.

So that got me thinking about all food preservation end results. The recipe ALWAYS gives you more than you need to eat at one time. I’ve collected a lot of recipes to consider for Can-Do Real Food and they might produce 2-12 jars. Super! Two jars are perfect for immediate use and shelf storage, but once you get above that, you just don’t need that much jam. Pasta sauce is another story.

My point is, plan that once you get into preservation, you will have a partner to trade with. Neither of you needs to prepare 100% of your own food need. In fact, I would love to pair up with someone who has skills I have not perfected, like fermenting. I could make pickles but I just don’t. So, it would be fun to trade. And perhaps your food partner could be the grower of the garden and you preserve for that family and YOURS.

Each winter a group of people has gathered in the Carnegie Room at the McMinnville Public Library for a swap session. Over the years I have enjoyed other people’s apple cider, jam with fruit I never have been able to access and a few other vegetable concoctions. I even scored a small container of homemade deodorant! My point is that while a swap session is out of bounds right now, an arrangement with one of two other friends can lighten the load and allow for sharing the surplus above the amount you prepare that you can reasonably expect to eat.

Long Beach Food Swap: A Place to Trade the Handmade, Homegrown ...

I’ve read with a bit of discomfort that some people eat home-canned items that might be 5 or 6 years old. There are ways to be mostly certain that the food is safe to eat, but if you preserve the amount you do eat and only preserve those items in high quantity that you know you will consume, you can keep your home pantry to a reasonable amount. Over producing leads to storage space issues AND increases your risk of food decaying in QUALITY over a long time before you might eat it.

I’ll talk more tomorrow about those “expiration” dates on commercially packaged foods and how to think about them safely.

REDUCING FOOD WASTE: What’s in the Crisper Drawer?

Just because I have been a commercial food processor whose mission is to reduce food waste does not mean I am innocent. Oh Lord, no. I wrote about my own fuzzy scientific experiments in the containers in the back of my frig before. But this is shameful because now, going to the supermarket to get more food is WORK. I need to gain more respect for the food I bring into this house for us to eat. Perhaps you do too.

So here is a photo of my crisper drawers before we used some of it for supper prep. Let’s talk about what to SAFELY do with tired veggies.

First, see that blue plastic “apple” shaped item? That is a tool used in a lot of commercial kitchens to absorb the gas that decaying produce emit, thereby theoretically slowing down rot. And, even tho it looks like it has not worked, it can….if I just replace the pellets inside…….. I picked this gem up at the Fancy Food show a few years ago. Only food professionals can attend and it is an amazing event held each January in San Francisco and in June (not this year probably) in Manhattan. So, when I keep the pellets inside refreshed, my produce in my crisper drawers last about twice as long as without. And you can buy it too, but we should not need to.

Those carrots embarrass me., but I’m owning up to their current state because I know I am not alone with this issue. I picked up 4 carrots (these will keep well, I thought) 3 weeks ago, and I already had 4 carrots. They do not keep forever, and the older ones are just at the point of no return. Tomorrow I will make another soup and the good ones will go in cut up and yes, we will get more carrots the next shopping. But not 8 and I will plan to use them.

And that is the key. Check your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer. Plan your menu for the week and then make a list of those items AND THE QUANTITIES you need for that week. That way you won’t buy fresh stuff you will not use.

Make Shopping Lists

Then check the pantry again to look to add a couple more items from that master pantry list to expand your spices, or your pasta selection or some other shelf safe item that can help you make the best of what fresh you can keep……in good eating order.

REDUCING FOOD WASTE: Choosing how to start preserving food

We got our first puppy when I was three-years-old and quickly discovered I was allergic, but that’s another story. (I ALWAYS had a dog until worsening asthma made me….not have any pets again. ) A few months after losing my boxer who had been my wonderful companion during my single years, even tho her status reduced as I married and then had 2 kids…..she moved from riding shotgun to the back back of the station wagon with love in her heart and an eagerness to always be the best she could be……we decided it was time for another dog. My husband admitted to me that he really did not like boxers. What???? Okay…..so I found a book at the library how to pick a dog to fit your family. What a concept!!! It rated 50 breeds by 15 characteristics, so we looked to see how boxers were rated and we looked for that or better…and ended up with a delightful Australian Slehpard, the easiest dog I ever trained!!

My point? Dogs are not one size fits all and neither is food preservation methods. They require different techniques and skillsets and if you have never done any, you might as well start with the one that will be EASIER to learn, right?

Food preservation.

This article discusses the pros and cons of each preservation technique. After you read through it, ask questions and we can guide you further.

REDUCING FOOD WASTE: The easy way to preserve: dehydration

I learned to can shortly after I moved to Oregon. Yup. I’ve only known how to can for about 6 years. There are people who live among us who have FORGOTTEN more about canning than I will ever learn. As wonderful as canning is as a method to preserve foods we enjoy eating, I quickly learned how much easier it is to dry food for safe storage and later use.

The point is to remove moisture, thereby eliminating mold as a destroyer of food. This can be done using the sun (yeah for our Oregon sunny summers), the oven (at its lowest setting) or an electric dehydrator.

I picked up my first dehydrator at a yard sale for $10. By the time I opened Can-Do Real Food the next summer I had learned some basics and was ready to plop more money down for the higher volume I would need to produce for the business. My family went in together and bought my first one as a Christmas present. Over the years the Excalibur machines have come down in price considerably and by watching sales, you can get one for under $300. The type of machine makes a difference for larger volume drying….the fan and temperature selection options can make a significant difference in the time needed. I found a timer was nice and I actually found the analog dial easier to use than the electronic models.

I purchased several books about dehydration but stopped needing to look for any more after I read the introduction to Dried and True by Sarah Dickerman. Not only did the intro provide a tip that would make my life easier, but the book also provides something I have not seen elsewhere: a chart that explains how to prep each kind of fruit or veggie or meat and how long it can take to dry and what it should feel like at that point to be safe. For someone who is self-learning without a mentor, a chart like that is SO much more helpful than the typical “dry until finished” in most other books.

So, what can you dry for later enjoyment??

Image result for fresh and dehydrated apples compared

Fruit: Not only can you dry cut pieces of fruit for simple snacking, but you can also puree fruit and dry as leather for a fruit roll-up. You can season the fruit or leather with spices like cinnamon, or even add other fruits for a combined flavor, as I did when I made applesauce roll-ups with blueberries. Commercially prepared dried fruit usually has added sugar which is not needed. Like anything else you prepare at home, you can control the ingredients.

Image result for equivalent dried herbs to fresh
Basil

Herbs and Greens: These have to be the fastest things to dry!! In a couple of hours, you can take fresh herbs from your garden and dry them for later use in the year when fresh herbs are no longer available. I have dried greens like kale for use in soups, spinach to add to a veggie or chip dip.

Image result for dried zoodles

Zucchini: okay…..you grew it and it has now overrun the garden. You heard about how prolifically squash plants produce but come on already!! Well, you can make zoodles for year-round gluten-free pasta substitute enjoyment. Shredded zucchini can be stored on shelves in the equivalent of the 2-cup measures you have been saving in your freezer for year-round zucchini bread. Free up that freezer space! I also developed several soup recipes with zucchini (and a canned marmalade….and that was a pleasant surprise).

Pumpkin Powder (FRX1178)
Pumpkin powder

Winter Squash: Pumpkin or squash puree can NOT be safely canned but it can be dehydrated so you can add liquid when you want to use it. Can-Do Real Food has a fantastic instant soup recipe with butternut squash and pumpkin that won best in Dehydrated Division at the State Fair in 2016. That recipe was developed from one submitted for inclusion in a community cookbook The Wild Ramp (Huntington, West Virginia) produced. So, while ingredient quantities have to be figured out carefully, whole-food recipes CAN be converted into dehydrated mixes.

Reducing Food Waste: Plan Your Garden

Please remember I am not a farmer. I am not a gardener. But I still have a piece of advice for other people going to try to grow food this year.

Start with a list of what you and your household likes to eat. No, sorry, you can’t grow chocolate here.

Seriously, if you refuse to eat zucchini, don’t bother growing it. If you can tolerate it, though, we already know it produces abundantly. In fact, I will risk pushing your tolerance and suggest it was NOT bread and fish, but zucchini that fed the masses. But if you and yours will not eat zucchini, do not waste your soil nor your energy. Otherwise, think of what foods that you DO eat that grow easily and produce prolifically because this is what you will enjoy all winter.

If you like tomatoes, think about how often you eat them raw (salads and sandwiches) and how often you used a cooked style (pasta sauce, pizza, soups, etc). Your selection of variety to plant should be balanced with what you expect to eat. If you don’t really eat salads much, 1 or two plants will take care of you probably. But you will want more of the meaty varieties if you like sauce.

During harvest, I will offer ways to keep things safe to preserve while you are gathering the volume you need for cooking a recipe. So, plan to plant a bit more than you think you will eat, but be ready for kitchen time. I will help you preserve that garden produce so you can eat from it all winter!!

So plan your garden now around the food you want to eat. Talk to the garden experts now. Get your soil prepped. Planting time is coming and it all will be great!