Sense-able Shelf Life

Recently, I found in the pantry a glass jar of sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil that had an expiration date of March 2015. Were they still fit to eat? Curious, I mustered up some courage and opened the jar. They looked and smelled fine, so I tasted them. Surprise! They were savory and delicious, to the point where I wondered if they got better with age, like fine cabernet wine. I used them in a salad made of fusilli pasta, capers, green olives, roasted red peppers, Italian parsley, hemp seeds, and a red-wine vinaigrette. The salad was unbelievably delicious.

That same day, I read a startling statistic: that every day, America throws away enough food to fill the Rose Bowl stadium. Yes, that Rose Bowl — the 90,000 seat football stadium in Pasadena, California. That’s every day, not every week. Uggh! I wondered how much of that food waste was caused by expired food that was still good enough to eat.

I began to research the expiration dates that manufacturers use: use by, best before, best if used by, expires on, sell by, display until. What a muddled matter! I wondered about the criteria that experts use to determine the shelf life of food. Is it when the food loses its flavor intensity or appealing texture and appearance? Loses nutrients? What? Home cooks may assume that suddenly when the clock strikes twelve, the food goes over the edge, and then into the garbage it goes.

During my research, I came across a phrase I had not heard before — organoleptic testing: the sensory assessment of flavor, odor, appearance, and mouthfeel of a food product. Or, simplified: trust your senses to tell you if a food is safe to eat. I call this “tuning into sense-able shelf life”. Our senses are very acute and reliable. After all, they don’t want us to die from food poisoning! By learning to trust our senses, we can discern subtle changes in the appearance, smell, flavor, and texture of food. They will tell us if a food is stale or rancid and might be unsafe or even poisonous. The other day, I opened a bag of sliced almonds that had not expired yet. They looked and smelled slightly off as if they were on the verge of “going bad”. But my senses said NO— do not eat! When in doubt, throw it out. So into the garbage they went and I substituted pecans in my recipe.

The pantry still has some expired food in it, but I won’t throw the food out until I’ve tested it using the organoleptic way. Then, a little less unnecessary food waste will exist in the world; one person can make a difference and that person is me! And that person can be you, too.