Thursday, February 12, 2015

How long can you drink milk past the sell-by date?

On Feb 10th, I got a great text from my friend Trisha -

"Here's my milk question.  How long can you drink milk beyond the sell by date?  I'm drinking milk dated Feb 4 and my family is throwing a fit.  I secretly gave it to the kids last night for dinner and of course they thought they would be puking all night long once I told them!  (They didn't.)  I told them I'd ask the milk expert ... you!"

I replied, "Ha!  Here's a ref for them - stilltasty.com - the answer is: about a week after sell by date.  I personally do the smell test.  But honestly, this is not an issue in our house.  We finish every gallon in a couple of days!"

She said, "We usually do too, but we bought a new milk which got out in the fridge in front of the old gallon, so two days ago we found milk dated the 4th.  I certainly couldn't throw it out.  I've been sniffing it too - still good for breakfast this morning!"

All milk starts out a little bit different - slightly different components from different cows.  Then, there's the handling.  You expect it to be well cooled before you take it out of the fridge at the store, but did the kids leave it on the counter for an hour after breakfast?

The Dairy Council of California has a nice reference on this:

- Sell by is not an expiration date.
- Keep your milk refrigerated and sealed.
- Milk is pasteurized to kill bacteria, but it's still a fresh product that will go sour eventually.

But what it all comes down to, for all of us, is the smell test.  Like they write, "If milk has been handled well since your purchase and it passes a quick sniff test, you can confidently drink it past its sell-by date."

Growing up, we drank raw milk.  It was good for about one day - not really for two.  (Because it was not pasteurized.)  I always smelled the milk before I poured it on my cereal, and my nose was never wrong.  And if it was sour?  (Or slightly sour?  Sometimes I'd use it anyway ...) it won't make you sick.  It'll just taste a little sour.

Humans have a sensitized nose that allows us to judge food in this way.  Ever in doubt?  Give it a sniff.

Once we were in an airport and Cole had a carton of milk.  He immediately spit it out, and said, "That tastes like cat milk."  (Meaning the milk we put out for the cats to drink at the barn.)  Sure enough, I smelled it, and it had spoiled.

How did Cole know what cat milk tasted like?  Had he lapped out of their bowl with them?  I had to ask.  He said, "No, you can just smell it and know what cat milk tastes like."  

So!  If your milk smells like cat milk, toss it.  But you don't need me to tell you that.  But if you're eating at Trisha's house ... check the date, too!  Her kids sure will. : )

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