The way we shop and cook has changed over the last few weeks. Many more of us are now at home for all three meals. With fewer trips to the supermarket, and grocery delivery slots like gold dust, we want to make the most of what we have in our homes and our fridges, lengthening its life as far as possible. Waste is surprisingly easy in pressurised situations like this: even though we may have a heightened awareness of what we’re buying, our shopping has to cover a longer period of time, and it can be hard to know how to prolong those perishables, and waste as little as we can. So here are some ideas and tips for how to get the best out of the stuff that can go bad.
Ice Queen: how to make the most of your freezer
The freezer is your friend. OK, that might sound obvious, but there are many ways you can get the best out of your fresh produce by using your freezer. Even items that you wouldn’t expect to freeze well, can: milk, butter, eggs, and cheese can all be frozen. For eggs, crack the eggs and either separate into whites and yolks, or leave whole. Stir the eggs with a little salt or sugar, and freeze in ice cube trays or silicone muffin pans. Once frozen, pop the eggs out and freeze inside a freezer bag or tupperware, and use within a year. For milk (the higher fat percentage, the better), decant a little of the milk to allow space in the carton for expanding during freezing. Hard cheese will crumble once defrosted: you can mitigate this by defrosting it at room temperature before storing in the fridge.
Whatever you’re freezing, freeze it as soon after purchase as you can: the fresher the product, the longer the item will stay in good condition frozen. Wrap items thoroughly to avoid freezer burn; I like a layer of clingfilm and a layer of tin foil, or inside a sealed plastic container – and write the name of the item and the date of freezing. You will not, I promise you, recognise the unlabelled lump of meat that you popped in there blithely five months ago, thinking ‘There’s no way I’ll ever forget about this!’ This is how I ended up serving my husband a sloe berry cobbler, studded with tiny little teeth-breaking stones, thinking that I’d defrosted blueberries.
Vegetables can be frozen raw, blanched or roasted. Chop them first, cook them as you wish, then spread them out in a single layer on a baking tray; freeze until hard, then transfer to a freezer bag or tupperware – freezing them on first on a tray will prevent them clumping together into an unmanageable lump when frozen.
Thumbs of ginger will mould in the fridge, but freeze well. Don’t both defrosting when you need to use them, just grate straight from frozen. Avocado halves will freeze well for guacamole or smashed avocado, if you’re missing your hipster café breakfast. And keep hold of scrappy bits: parmesan rinds, vegetable peelings and roasting juices or fats can all be frozen (the latter in ice cube trays) to add flavour to stews, stocks and soups. Future you will thank you!
Fruits of your labours: what to do with fruit
There are all sorts of ways to keep fruit going beyond its natural lifetime, but first of all, don’t give up on them too early: soggy old bananas are the only kind you want to use for banana cake – they are sweeter and banana-ier than their firmer brethren – and break down better in the batter. Smoothies are a good way to use up softening fruit; just cut off any bad bits first.
Using the juice and zest of fruit can turn what looks like a fruity gonner into something fantastic: curds are great for this. While the classic is lemon curd, all oranges (from Seville to blood), grapefruit, passionfruit, rhubarb work brilliantly. Curds will last up to two weeks in the fridge, but they also freeze well. Stewing fruits – berries, plums, peaches, apples, rhubarb – down with a splash of water and perhaps a tablespoon of sugar turns them into compotes, which brighten up porridges and yoghurts, or can be spooned onto bread; they will last in your fridge for two weeks and can also be frozen.
Normally, in jam making, equal quantities of fruit and sugar are used. But if you’re looking for brighter flavours and don’t mind a slightly shorter shelf-life, low-sugar jams are an excellent way of using up fruit. In her brilliant book Salt Sugar Smoke, about preserving meat, fish fruit and vegetables, Diana Henry writes about ‘refrigerator jam’ or ‘nearly jam’, which she discovered in Sweden. These jams, rather than using recipes or seeking particular setting points, are simply fruit boiled with lemon juice and sugar to taste. As long as you let these jams reach 90°C before you pot them, they can be kept in a cupboard rather than the fridge. Once opened, refrigerate and eat within four weeks.
Freezing fruit is a great way of preserving it, but bear in mind that the fruit will break down when it defrosts. This isn’t a problem for crumbles or smoothies (in fact, it’s ideal) but means that the texture of the fruit will be very different once defrosted. Peel and core apples and pears before freezing, and pit plums, damsons and cherries. Try still-frozen berries dribbled with warn, melted white chocolate for a real treat. Cut lemons, limes and oranges into wedges and freeze for interesting ice cube-substitutes (particularly good in a gin and tonic).
In a pickle: pickling and fermenting
Perhaps you’ve optimistically signed up for a veg box, and now you’ve got a bunch of veg that you can’t quite get through? Pickling and fermenting is a fantastic way to lengthen the life of veg, as well as introducing new flavours, textures and interest . But it can all feel a little overwhelming: sterilisation, burping, lactic ferments – where to start? Chef and food writer Thom Eagle will take you through the most useful bits of pickling and fermenting for this lockdown period through his writing in Vittles, a food newsletter. So far he’s shown how to transform your cabbage into sauerkraut and your turnips into kebab pickles. Quick pickles are a less precise art than ‘proper’ pickling, but will enliven tired or sad veg and bring colour and excitement as a side: slice onions, or use a speed peeler to turn a cucumber or carrot into ribbons. Heat equal parts white wine vinegar and sugar (just enough to cover your veg) plus a pinch of salt, and then pour over the vegetables and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Quick-pickled carrots and onions will last up to 3 days in the fridge; cucumbers should be eaten on the same day.
Is it too late? What to do if something’s about to go off
So what if this is all too late for you: you have two pints of milk on their last legs, some ropey looking veg in the bottom drawer, a pot of cream on the turn and some bread that has seen happier days? In my book, rice pudding is always the answer, whatever the question, but particularly so when the question is milk: rice pudding is a great way of cheaply using up a lot of milk with minimum energy (it is most successful cooked very slowly in a very low oven). Victoria Glass, whose excellent book Too Good To Waste is a source of inspiration and reassurance in these times, explains that soured milk is great in scones: ‘Sugar converts to acid in milk when it sours and when this reacts with the raising agents it creates carbon dioxide. This ensures your scones will be feather-light and well risen’. She also recommends using soured milk in place of buttermilk for meat marinades – you could try it with Samin Nosrat’s buttermilk-marinated roast chicken.
Roasting fast and hot will revive even the ropiest-looking vegetables: root veg is great for this, carrots, potatoes, parsnips, celeriac, turnips, beetroots, onions but also tired-looking courgettes, aubergines, tomatoes, spring onions, leeks, squash and celery.
Old cream can be turned into butter (with bonus byproduct of buttermilk) just by whipping until the solids separate out: rinse the butter in very cold water until the water runs clear, then beat with a little salt to lengthen the life of the butter further.
Staling bread can be saved by blitzing into crumbs with a little olive oil and salt, maybe some lemon zest, parmesan or dried chilli or herbs to create a crunchy topping for pasta (this also freezes well) that just needs to be toasted in a pan before serving. Stale bread is also great crisped up into croutons, by drizzling with oil and frying or baking – or tear it all up, soak in custard and make a bread and butter pudding.