"We've drunk milk for thousands of years and cooked with it for centuries. It is an everyday staple, a food so throughly embedded in our way of life - and indeed so cheap - that it flies under our radar. Sloshing milk on to our cornflakes, or adding a dash to our tea or coffee, for most of us are barely conscious actions. Yet milk comes with its share of issues"
Hugh Fearnley- Whittingstall
One of those issues is that it is one of the big four wasted foods in Australia according to OzHarvest - as featured in the latest Woolworths Fresh Magazine. Now I am assuming they mean at the end of the food chain - either in the supermarket or the home, but wastage occurs before then as well.
Wastage occurs on the farm, and in the processing plants, although modern monitoring systems and production methods have reduced this down to 1% in Australia. Well this figure might be a bit fuzzy - I did see 5% mentioned as well. However, clearly the bulk of the wastage is at the end of the line.
According to one article part of the problem may well be the Use By Date scheme. My children are absolutely beholden to the Use By date. If anything is past its Use By date they will throw it out without a second's thought. This is just not necessary with milk. In England one of the supermarket chains has changed this to a Best Before date.
"consumers who throw away food because it’s gone bad, or because they think it may have gone bad, are also responsible for a large proportion of food waste." The Conversation
As you can see, the carton of milk I currently have in my fridge is well past its Use By date - 25th January. Purely coincidentally today is 25th February so it's theoretically well on its way to death. Indeed it should be dead. And yet it smells perfectly OK. Which I have to admit is slightly worrying. Surely it can't last that long after it's supposed to be no good? Nevertheless it does smell OK. Once milk has passed its Use By date, I will check it by sniffing it, but I don't throw it out before it smells off. And even then, apparently, we are unlikely to be really ill if we drink it although why you would want to is a good question. And if it's just a bit sour, then you can still use it to make things like cheese, or buttermilk. I admit I have very, very occasionally had to throw milk out but mostly I do keep an eye on it after it's passed the due date, and try and use it. Because we don't actually use much milk in this house. Neither of us have cereal with milk - and neither of us have milk in our tea or coffee. Maybe David has a splash, but not a lot anyway.
If the Use By date is changed to a Best Before date, then the theory is that not so much will be thrown out automatically - as my children do in spite of all of my exhortations not to. Best Before merely implies that peak perfection has passed - not that it has now gone off.
Because we do not use a lot of milk in the general run of things then I always buy the smallest carton I can. And apparently this is the other reason why so much gets wasted. People buy more than they are likely to need. In fact I also currently have in my fridge almost a litre of low fat milk that my sister left me. It hasn't reached its Use By date as yet, but it's more than I usually need, so what to do with it?
Why would you buy low fat anyway? At least if you are interested in cooking, or taste. Not that this would apply to me, because, actually, I do not like to drink straight milk. Indeed as a child it would make me gag. Nowadays I can just about come at it if it's flavoured in some way as in a milk shake, or smoothie, or if it's cooked in something. And I do like cream. So there is no logic here. Which is also interesting.
Hugh Fearnley- Whittingstall is also not a fan of low-fat:
"I don't see much point in skimmed or semi-skimmed milk, where, for the sake of losing a few calories, you also lose flavour, body and a small dose of fat-soluble vitamins."
And I think general opinion is going his way as well. Or - to the other extreme - deserting cow's milk altogether in favour of all those other plant-based milks. But that's a whole other thing.
Mind you he also almost implies that we shouldn't be drinking milk at all:
"While it is nutritious and a good source of calcium - and while dairy marketing boards have done their best to convince us otherwise - we don't need it. It's not meant for human systems (obviously) and the larger part of the world's population do not produce the enzyme, lactase, needed to digest it properly." Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Milk is our first food so maybe, once withdrawn from mother's milk, we can't quite do without milk altogether so turn to cows - mostly - but goats and other animals too. Besides how could we non vegans live without butter, cheese, and yoghurt and all those other dairy products? Even the vegans have 'pretend' alternatives.
I'm sure a lot could be said about the evils of dairy farming, and perhaps I will another day, but today I'm really just looking at the waste aspects and having looked at ways we could prevent the opportunities for waste, now let's look at what we can do with a surplus.
Thousands of different things of course, and most of them you will know about. Here is a short list of the obvious:
Milky sauces, including Béchamel, and custard - and all the myriad things you can do with those. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall - again - well he's my go-to Leftover Man says he makes big batches of Béchamel sauce when he has leftover milk and bits of cheese in the fridge, and then freezes it in batches for use in all manner of things. Very good idea.
Batters, pancakes' etc., again the options are endless. Clafoutis and Toad-in-the-hole are variations on this theme. The picture is of a classic English Toad-in-the-hole from Jamie Oliver, but there are endless variations out there. Ottolenghi has a roast vegetable variation in his latest book, and Jamie has several different versions. Besides it's really just Yorkshire Pudding with sausages isn't it?
Pancakes are made all over the world - thin ones, thick ones, flavoured, sweet, and savoury, and all manner of things are fried in milky batters. Yes batters are made from other things too, but probably the first one you encounter is made with milk. Clafoutis is a bit more cake-like I suppose, but barely. Really it's just a fruity toad-in-the-hole.
Cheese and yoghurt and buttermilk - Even if your milk is beginning to smell a bit sour you can still make cheese. All those soft cheeses, like ricotta, feta, cottage cheese, paneer, halloumi (shown here) even Mozzarella if you are feeling more ambitious. Yoghurt is easy too and ditto for buttermilk and crème fraïche. Turn the milk a bit more with lemon juice or vinegar - and hey presto - cheese. With which, of course you can do all manner of things.
Puddings and cakes - classics like rice pudding and bread and butter pudding, blancmange, pannacotta .. and variations thereof, like Ottolenghi's Kale pesto strata with mustard and Gruyère. Once you have the basic idea for any of these things the possibilities are endless really. And cakes - so many cakes and scones.
Mac'n cheese and Cauliflower cheese - these two are basic nursery foods are they not? Some of the foods we first encounter. Maybe even as babies. And they both rely heavily on milk. But these days chefs and cooks are coming up with innovative variations on the theme, of which the one on the right - Ottolenghi's Curried cauliflower cheese filo pie is one I am going to make sometime soon.
Chowder and soup - the classic here is clam chowder of course, but you can really add milk as part of your soup liquid to any soup you are making - or pasta sauce, or pan sauté - whatever. Treat it as just another cooking liquid and be delighted. However, it may well curdle - which doesn't always matter, but if it does, add a bit of flour. Apparently it helps.
"I’m sure there will be a scientific explanation as to why milk is such a wonderful medium in which to cook things, with its ability to assimilate and transform both itself and the other ingredients." Rachel Roddy
Ice cream - Apart from a vegetable Mac'n cheese, Travis Harvey, OzHarvest's Executive Chef, writing in the Woolworths Fresh Magazine, only has one tip for what to do with milk - blend any fruit of your choice with milk add a splash of vanilla, pour into popsicle moulds and freeze. Quick and easy. And there are lots of recipes for other ways of using milk to make ice cream.
And did you know that if you have milk nearing the end of its life that you can just freeze it. It freezes well. You can freeze it as small ice blocks to drop into things, or in small batches, or big ones too. It will keep for quite a long time - and then you will always have some if you suddenly find yourself out of milk but with visitors who want milk in their coffee or tea. It happens.
There is one dish though that I really wanted to include Maiale al latte - Pork braised in milk. An Italian dish popularised by Elizabeth David. Indeed I am beginning to wonder whether it's an Elizabeth David invention as almost every recipe I found referenced her. Delia had a more everyday version with Pork chops braised in milk. I'm pretty sure I have tried the Elizabeth David version and that it tasted good. It's one of those long slow-cooked surprises of a dish. But it isn't really pretty, although photographers have a really good go at it.
"the fact is that this, one of my favourite dishes, is beige. What a chef might call “textures” of beige or even 50 shades of beige. Beige with a hint of toffee, a dash of cream and even a bit of café au lait — but beige. Maiale al latte, once completed, is dull beige, with a lot of bits of dull curd floating in a vapid sea of whey. Only “carp in grey sauce”, a dish I found in a splendid Polish cookery manual, could rival this pork dish for its lack of visual appeal." Rowley Leigh - The Financial Times
And one more - Potatoes cooked in milk also from Elizabeth David. It's not quite a gratin, although it is sort of finished like one. You cook the potatoes in milk, then put them in a dish with some herbs and finish in the oven. Yum and not quite so much work as a gratin. I must try it.
Having discovered the myriad of things you can do with milk - well I suppose I knew about most of them - the basic versions anyway - I am now amazed at why anyone should ever be throwing milk out. Why do we do it? Do we just forget that it's there? I mean if you really can't think what to do with it, then all you have to do it is freeze it. And let's hope they change Use By to Best Before before too long.