Dairy & Eggs – pricing and care

Just a note:  I’ve seen more and more people referring to the “sell by” or “buy date” as an expiration date on products, particularly dairy products. The date on the dairy products is put on there as a way for stores to rotate their stock, therefore insuring the first in is the first out. It is NOT an expiration date. Stores, as policy, generally pull the item off the shelf when it reaches the “buy by” date, but the product is good for some time afterwards.

How long a product will last at home after you buy it depends on a number of factors, mostly hedging on how it was stored, how long it has been exposed to warm temperatures, and what kind of chance it has had to be contaminated.  Milk left in the car for a couple hours, opened during meals and left on the table, then closed and returned to the fridge 45 minutes later will not last as long as milk that has been bought, quickly refrigerated and carefully lidded and returned to the fridge after each use.

This same type of care will extend all your dairy.  Be careful, also, not to leave open cartons of things like sour cream or cottage cheese on the counter, exposing them to contaminants that are always in the air, or cross contaminating them with things like spoons that have been dipped in other items.

Butter:  Stock up prior to and during Holidays. I freeze it, and have never noticed any difference in taste or texture. I’ve seen people say they freeze for up to a month, but I’ve had butter frozen for eight or nine months with no deterioration in quality.

  • Again, like many dairy products, you’ll see specials now and then on butter when you buy so many items, you’ll get butter for free (or at a reduced rate.)  In October of 2011, I noted “I’ve just recently used up the last of my 99 cent butter from last year and started buying at $2.49 sale price.”  In November, I bought the store brand for $1.99 lb, and Easter 2012 I picked up as much as I could for $1.49 a pound. In 2014, the sale price is remaining pretty steady around $2.49 to $2.99 a pound, but the new packaging of two sticks to the pound has generated coupons and sales prices. Now, Easter 2014 has a surprise: butter for $1.99 a pound with a store coupon. I will go to the store multiple times when I pass by to take advantage of a sale like this, and when the kids were home I’d send them in, too. By August, regular price was $5.09 and sale price $3.99.
  • Not worth it to stop? Consider the sale price of $1.99, against the normal price of $3.99, limit 2. While it could be difficult to buy a year’s worth in a week, stopping by the store as you drive by once a day in a sales week would save about $28.00. So it all depends on how much butter you use, and how worth the savings is to you as opposed to any inconvenience.
  • I avoid margarines and oleos like the plague. Ridden with trans-fat, the labeling laws have left many confused: Just because a product says no trans-fat, does not mean it contains no trans-fat. The serving sizes are manipulated to be small enough so that each serving has a small enough amount to be labeled that way. Plus, they don’t taste good.

Buttermilk:  Doesn’t seem to be on a very good sale most of the time in my area, or perhaps they are not always advertised. I do tend to go on a little baking spree after I buy some, just to use it up (we don’t drink it here) although it lasts a long time opened and even longer unopened. If your carton doesn’t have a spout, pour into a clean jar. Buttermilk can be frozen.

  • Look for the quart or larger containers vs. the smaller ones – there is a huge price difference. Don’t forget you can use buttermilk for baking, marinades and for salad dressings.
  • Buttermilk can also be frozen. Do make sure to measure about how much you put into your ice cube tray so you’ll know about how many to thaw. After they’re frozen, write on the Ziploc something to give you an idea – 8 cubes = 1 cup.
  • Buttermilk is a cultured milk product and should last, unopened, about 4 to 6 weeks past it’s “buy by” date. Buttermilk often separates and needs to be shaken back together – it will form clumps. After opening, I generally try to use, if stored well, within 10 to 14 days. If there is discoloration or an off odor (other than the normal sour smell) discard.

Cheese:  It seems everyone loves cheese, but it also seems like an item I’m always trying to cut back on!  Calories, fat, sodium & cholesterol, right? Sometimes the higher quality cheeses pack a lot more flavor, and I can use less. See what I call “Near Deli Cheese” for those.

  • Cheese can be difficult to price:  Per ounce or per pound, different sized packages, shredded or not! The best deals can vary by area, but I look for a price of $1.00 on a good sale for 8 ounces, which brings it to $2.00 a pound or about 13 cents an ounce. I have, using my coupon matching sites (who make me aware of special, non-advertised deals) picked up an amazing amount of cheese over the years at absolutely no cost. This is because grocery stores will often offer great sales at the same time “catalinas” (money back if you buy so much) are offered by the manufacturer. Best Buy:  December 2010, 20 packages of Kraft cheeses from Cub for free – on sale, with coupons, and a Catalina offer from Kraft.
  • It’s worthwhile using a calculator for a time or two till you figure which what’s less expensive in your area, block or shredded. In my area, most block and shredded cheese are the same price, but shredded is often sold in six to eight ounce packages, and block in 8 ounces, so it can vary by the flavor of the cheese. Sliced is almost always much more expensive.
  • An eight ounce block of cheese is about two cups, shredded, so a pound is 4 cups.
  • Pick up cheese on sale using store and manufacturer coupons for the best pricing. I often shop more than once during the week if quantities are “limited” and stock up. Cheese will keep, unopened for weeks in the refrigerator, and can be frozen. After freezing, it becomes crumbly and not as good for eating out of hand or slicing, but still fine grated and used in casseroles, etc.
  • Never place your cheese on your counters (one of the dirtiest surfaces in your home – bathroom floors are generally cleaner) instead place on a cutting board or clean plate and it will be less likely to pick up molds. Watch how long, too, it is exposed to air, which has naturally occurring yeasts and molds. If your cheese does mold, cut off the contaminated portion, cleaning knife between each cut. Rewrap in fresh packaging.
  • One of the biggest culprits of the early death of cheese? Throwing bags of grated cheese on the counter when things like tacos, etc., are served and kids reaching into them with dirty hands to grab cheese.
  • Don’t be afraid to label cheese with sharpies: I label cheese I’m reserving for another use “Do not Eat!” and also label cheese “use this first!” and put it right in front, which helps keep the other packages nice and fresh.

Cheese: “Near Deli”: So called because it is generally stored near the Deli, different shopping rules apply. The best sales for near Deli are the buy one get one free sales, which happen with regularity in my area. Coupons are generally found two ways: at the producer’s site or on hang tags. Hang tags do not seem to coincide with the sales, and sales generally follow a week to several weeks after. Grab the hang tags, which usually have long expiration dates and hang on to them until the sale comes. Now and then on products, coupons will be on places like coupons.com. Aldi’s has been expanding their cheeses and often has good prices.

  • Most of the cheeses follow the principles, above. I’ve bought fresh mozzarella and Ricotta (which freezes quite well) in quantities at no cost. Look, especially, for new cheeses that are on the market, or brands of cheese which have been out for awhile and may not be selling well – in order to gain brand recognition in this competitive market, sales and coupons will abound for short periods of time. Take advantage if that happens, but don’t expect it to last. Make hay when the sun shines.
  • Sales, like many of the dairy products, happen prior to Holidays. Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, the Superbowl and Valentine’s day are when some of the best pricing occurs.
  • Parmesan/Romano:  There was a time when I only used a good Parmesan, now budget dictates that I live more frugally and I sometimes, judiciously, used the canned. Real Parmesan and Romano both pack a huge flavor and I’ll use them in recipes where a little goes a long way or they’re key for the dish. Romano has a bit of a stronger, sharper taste and is often less expensive than Parmesan. A substitution may allow you to use a bit less
  • Save the rinds and throw in soups like Minestrone  or my Classic Vegetable Soup, Perfected. Rinds can sometimes be used more than once. Some stores sell bags of rinds, with enough cheese to grate, for a discount.
  • Cans of Kraft Parmesan or Romano can often be bought with coupons for about $1.00 (1/2 cup is about 5 cents.)  If I buy ‘cheap’ parm from the store it’s about $5.99 to $7.99 a pound.

Cream Cheese:  My buy price is $1.00 = now and then I’ll find some cheaper with a sale and coupons, usually around holidays. This lasts for weeks and weeks, so stock up when cheap. I never buy the whipped kind with mix ins unless by some chance I can get it for free. (You can make your own very cheaply, and it WILL taste much better – much, much better – if you want a veggie one, use little scraps of veggies for this – like when you slice bell peppers and have a bit left around the top or bottom.)

Cottage Cheese:  I look for the 24 oz packages on sale 2 for $4.00.  I have a true preference for Old Home, but I’ll buy what’s on sale. Last bought October 2011 for $2.00 for 32 oz, a price that generally comes up about once a quarter.  If I can’t get a decent price on Ricotta, I do what my mom did way back when it wasn’t available in our town – whir an appropriate amount of cottage cheese in your blender.

Eggs:  Eggs are often on sale during almost any Holiday that normally includes baking. I sometimes find coupons or specials giving discounts or free eggs when you buy other items. (Sausage is a good example.) Stock up when they’re inexpensive because they last for weeks in the fridge. The date on the container is a ‘buy’ date, and you can expect them to last a good six weeks to two months at home past that date.

Never store your eggs in the door; they keep best in a colder part of the refrigerator, in their own box. (Then put your partially used vegetables in the door where you’ll see them and remember they need to be used ASAP – the half a bell pepper or onion, etc.)  I avoid all eggs in styrofoam just on principle!  I use the eggs equally from each end of the box – sometimes the humidity in the fridge softens the boxes and it’s easy to grab one end – the heavy end sags and the eggs spill out…

I’ll generally buy Extra Large eggs, just because that is what most of my baking recipes are geared toward.

If it looks like I won’t use up my eggs, I’ll hard boil them for snacks, deviled eggs or egg salad.  (You’ll generally want an older egg for easy peeling – as the egg ages, it shrinks slightly and the peel will come off much easier – dropping them in ice cold water after cooking helps, too.)

  • To see if an egg is useable:  drop in several inches of water.  If it floats to the top I discard – it may still be ok, but a floating egg is a pretty old egg, and though there is little risk of spoilage, the inside will be thicker.
  • To see if an egg is hardboiled:  Give it a spin. The hardboiled egg will spin fairly smoothly; the fresh will wobble a lot.

Last bought:  October ’11 for $1.79 a dozen (not a sale price) and November ’11 for $.88 cents, March ’12 for $1.48 (not a sale price) May 2012 88 cents. As you can see, the sale price makes a huge difference. Current sales pricing is often best in my area for 18 packs at about $1.79 to $1.99. 10 cents an egg.

Half & Half – I always look for the price of whipping cream before buying half & half. In my area, generally, it’s cheaper to buy the cream and add an equal amount of milk, but this might vary depending on where you live. Knowing the price of milk, below, can aid you greatly in determining which will be less expensive – the half and half or a cream/milk mixture. See Whipping Cream, below.

We don’t drink much coffee at our house, so it seems we have very few uses for leftover half and half, but a bit of leftover cream can always be used up for a topping for something or another, and many recipes call for only 1/2 cup.  You will find coupons and sales around almost any holiday.

Milks:  The store brand of milk runs $2.79 in my area, often goes on sale for $2.48 cents a gallon – 50 cents more than last year. I’ll look for deals on cereal where if you buy so many boxes, you’ll get a free gallon, and I’ll use coupons on those boxes of cereal to lower the price. We’ve cut drastically back on the amount of milk we use in recent years as more information has come out about health. When it is on sale, though, I’ll buy a gallon at the beginning of the week, and then at the end so that we’ll have sale priced milk for both weeks.

  • One gallon = 4 quarts = 8 pints = 16 cups = $2.48
  • ½ gallon = 2 quarts = 4 pints = 8 cups = $1.24
  • 1 quart = 2 pints = 4 cups = $.62
  • 1 pint = 2 cups = $.31
  • 1 cup = $.16
  • ½ cup = 8 tablespoons = $.08
  • ¼ cup = 4 tablespoons = $.04
  • 1 tablespoon = 3 teaspoons = 1 cent
  • Common measurement for puddings, white sauces and gravies is 2 ¼ cup – this cost is $.35

Some freeze milk; I imagine it to be awkward to store and messy and have never tried it (except once by accident – don’t ask! Yeah, I’ve also put the milk in the cupboard and the cereal in the fridge before, too…) but it you have a lot you may want to try this. When we have extra, or it’s on sale, I tend to look for items to make that require more milk like yogurt, mozzarella cheese, puddings, bread pudding, scalloped potatoes, chowders, etc.

Milk will generally last about a week after the “buy by” date, perhaps longer if not opened and properly handled. After opening, again, it highly depends on how it is handled. Four to five days, generally.

Sour Cream:  Very cheap during the Holidays and often on sale every few weeks. Since it lasts so long, I’ll pick it up then. I do think some Sour Creams are much better than others, but if I’m using it a recipe, I’ll use whatever is on hand. I like to keep it very clean so it lasts a long time and store upside down. Just stir together if it separates. Last bought September 2011 for $1.60 for 16 ounces, around Easter 2012 for $1.00 for 16 ounces, in 2014, the pricing is still holding pretty steady. Be on the lookout for sour cream with gelatin in it – it does not act the same in many recipes as plain sour cream.

Whipping Cream:  See half & half, above, too. One cup makes about two cups, whipped.

I do indulge in this for desserts or the occasional special occasion dinner.  (Sometimes I’ll just use milk for recipes, and if it really needs to be thickened, start with a roux, or add a little flour.)  I prefer the pasteurized over the ultra pasteurized, but it’s becoming harder and harder to find in my area of the country. Recently, I’ve been noticing gelatin in cream – it whips well, but doesn’t store at all after being whipped and has a very strange texture.

I ALWAYS look for specials; it will last several weeks in the fridge if not opened. It is generally a sale on whipping cream that prompts me to pull out the few favorite recipes I like to use it in, not the other way around. There are HUGE price variances between on sale and regular pricing. I look for 8 ounces to be on sale around 99 cents, and up to $1.49. I’ll rarely buy otherwise.

Just a note on Cool Whip or it’s ilk:  I rarely ever use it – probably the one occasion is for “Better than Sex” cake – or what my Mom used to say “Better than Robert Redford cake” because she didn’t think it appropriate to even SAY the word sex out loud in mixed company or in front of children!  I’ve gotten Cool Whip on sale for free with a coupon, but it takes so little time to whip up cream and the taste is SO much better (plus no additives) that to me, it makes no sense to use Cool Whip.

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