The shelf life of 25 common foods
How can you best store perishable foods, and how long can you expect them to last?
The expiration dates on food products aren't always of much help. Often, they simply serve as guidelines to quality and not safety. If they're not properly understood, you may end up pouring grocery money down the drain. On average, we waste about 14% of the food we buy each year, totaling about $600 worth of groceries per person.
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We've compiled a list of refrigerated and frozen foods along with their shelf lives and storage methods. All dairy shelf lives refer to products that have already been opened and refrigerated.
Please note that frozen cheese and butter products become crumbly and lose flavor, making them best suited for soups, casseroles and sauces. When freezing cheeses and spreads, use heavy-duty aluminum foil and plastic freezer wrap or freezer bags.
American cheese, individually wrapped:
- Refrigerated: one to two months. Keep American cheese tightly covered in the refrigerator. Give cheese the sniff test toward the end of its two-month cycle and toss if it develops an off odor, flavor or appearance.
- Frozen: three months. Freeze by storing in tightly wrapped aluminum foil or plastic freezer wrap or in heavy-duty freezer bags.
Bleu cheese, crumbles:
- Refrigerated: five to seven days. Keep it refrigerated and tightly sealed. If new mold spots appear, discard the entire package.
- Frozen: three months. To freeze, tightly seal the original package and place in freezer. This may remove some of the texture and flavor.
- Refrigerated: one week. Brie is best when runny, but it can go bad very quickly. For best results after opening, wrap first in wax or parchment paper and cover with plastic wrap. Discard the entire wedge if mold appears.
- Frozen: three months. Cut the cheese into portions no larger than 1/2 pound each and tightly wrap in foil or plastic freezer wrap before placing inside a heavy-duty freezer bag.
- Refrigerated: one month after "sell by" date. Grandma was just flat wrong: Butter should never be stored in a glass-covered dish on the table. Keep it continuously refrigerated and discard butter if it develops an off odor, flavor or appearance. Also avoid storing open butter in the molded door compartment as this is one of the warmer spots in the fridge.
- Frozen: six to nine months. Freeze butter as you would cheese. Frozen salted butter will generally last longer (up to nine months) than unsalted (five to six months).
Cheddar and Colby, block:
- Refrigerated: three to four weeks. Although not as convenient, block cheddar and Colby last longer because they haven't been exposed to as much air as the shredded or sliced variety. To refrigerate after opening, wrap in wax or parchment paper and cover with plastic wrap. If mold develops on the surface, cut away an inch around and below the moldy area and re-cover the cheese in fresh wrap.
- Frozen: six months. To freeze, cut cheddar into portions of no larger than 1/2 pound each and wrap tightly in foil or plastic freezer wrap before placing inside a heavy-duty freezer bag.
- Pantry: 18 to 24 months. Cooking oil can be stored in a cool, dark place for up to 24 months, but refrigeration will extend its shelf life, particularly in hot and humid environments.
- Refrigerated: 18 to 24 months. Refrigerated oil may become cloudy and solidify, but this won't affect its flavor. Storage time can be extended past 18 to 24 months, but you sacrifice some taste and texture. To determine if oil is still safe, taste and smell a small portion. If you detect an off odor, flavor or appearance, discard the entire container.
- Refrigerated: seven to 10 days. Store cottage cheese in the original container and discard if it develops mold or an off odor, flavor or appearance.
- Frozen: three months. Only freeze un-creamed (or dry) cottage cheese, as the creamed variety will become mushy. To freeze, tightly seal the original package and place it in the freezer as is. If storing for longer than two months, place inside a heavy-duty freezer bag to avoid freezer burn. As with other cheeses, cottage cheese will lose some of its flavor and texture after freezing so it's best suited to cooked dishes after defrosting.
- Refrigerated: one to two weeks. Once opened, place foil-wrapped cream cheese in a plastic bag to reduce the potential for spoilage. Discard the entire block if it develops mold or an off odor, flavor or appearance.
- Frozen: two months. Place foil-wrapped or cream-cheese tub in heavy-duty freezer bag and freeze.
Cream (including half-and-half, light, heavy and whipped):
- Refrigerated: three to four days after "sell by" date. When cream is kept properly refrigerated, it usually remains drinkable after the "sell by" date on the package, but your nose will easily indicate when it has gone bad.
- Frozen: four months. To freeze, pour cream into an airtight container. Make sure you thaw it in the refrigerator after removing from the freezer. Frozen cream won't whip well when thawed and is best suited for cooked dishes.
- Refrigerated: three to five weeks. Fresh eggs still in the shell should be refrigerated at all times. Don't store, however, in the molded racks on the door as this is the warmest portion of the refrigerator. Eggs will keep much better when stored in the main body of the fridge in their original container.
- Frozen: one year. Don't freeze eggs in their shells or you'll end up with a yolky mess. To freeze, remove eggs from their shells, pierce the yolks and gently mix in 1/2 teaspoon salt for every cup of eggs (if using with main dishes) or 1 tablespoon sugar (if using for sweets). Place in an airtight container or heavy-duty freezer bags.
- Pantry: one month. While it's best to refrigerate ketchup after opening, you can keep it in the pantry for up to one month.
- Refrigerated: six months. Six months is optimal for purposes of taste and texture but, in most cases, it's safe to consume for longer periods. As with all foods, discard ketchup if it develops mold or an off taste, odor or appearance.
- Refrigerated: three to four months after date on package. Most of us allow mayo to sit around in the fridge far too long, losing flavor and texture. In most cases, it's still safe to consume, but discard if the mayonnaise develops mold or an off flavor, odor or appearance.
- Pantry: one year. Evaporated milk's long shelf life makes it very handy and, when mixed with a proportionate amount of water, it can be used the same as fresh milk. Undiluted, it can be used in cooking. Once reconstituted, however, the mixture should be refrigerated and used within three to four days.
Milk, powdered and reconstituted:
- Refrigerated: five to seven days. Powdered milk has an extended life when stored in the pantry but must be kept refrigerated once reconstituted.
- Frozen: three months. Freeze reconstituted milk in an airtight container and leave at least 1-inch headspace as the milk will expand when frozen. When ready to use, make sure you thaw the milk in the refrigerator.
Milk, pasteurized (all varieties):
- Refrigerated: one week after "sell by" date. Continuously refrigerated milk will usually remain drinkable for about one week after its "sell by" date, but your nose will tell you the news when it's time to send it down the drain. The longer milk sits, however, the more taste and nutritional value it loses.
- Frozen: three months. Freeze milk in an airtight container and leave at least an inch of headspace as the milk will expand when frozen. Thaw in the refrigerator.
- Pantry: one year. Condensed milk contains added sugar and has an extended shelf life, but should be discarded if the cans leak, rust, bulge or become severely dented. You can still use condensed milk after one year, although the texture, color or flavor may deteriorate.
Mustard, all types:
- Refrigerated: one year. Mustard should be refrigerated after opening, although you can keep it in the pantry for up to one month afterward. While one year is optimal for best quality, discard mustard if it develops an off taste, flavor or appearance (not including turning yellow.) Mustard does not freeze well.
- Refrigerated: three months after "use by" date. Refrigerate Parmesan in its original container but keep tightly sealed. Discard immediately if mold appears or you notice an off odor, flavor or appearance.
- Frozen: 10 to 12 months. Freeze grated Parmesan in an airtight container or heavy-duty freezer bag.
- Refrigerated: one year. Wrap block Parmesan in wax or parchment paper and cover with plastic wrap. If mold develops on the surface, remove 1 inch around and below the moldy area and re-cover the cheese in fresh wrap.
- Frozen: 10 to 12 months. To freeze, cut Parmesan into portions of no larger than 1/2 pound each and wrap tightly in foil or plastic freezer wrap before placing inside a heavy-duty freezer bag.
Relish, all types:
- Refrigerated: one year. While relish can be refrigerated for longer than one year, taste and texture tends to degrade after this period. If relish grows mold or develops an odd taste, smell or appearance, toss it.
- Refrigerated: two weeks. Keep refrigerated and tightly sealed. If sour cream develops mold or an off odor, flavor or appearance, discard the entire package. Sour cream doesn't freeze well.
Soy milk, sold refrigerated:
- Refrigerated: seven to 10 days after date on package. Soy milk that's been continuously refrigerated is usually drinkable for roughly seven to 10 days after the package date. Discard, however, if it develops an odd flavor, odor or appearance.
- Frozen: three months. Freeze soy milk in an airtight container, leaving at least 1/2-inch headspace for the milk to expand. Thaw in the refrigerator.
Whipped cream, canned:
- Refrigerated: three to four weeks. It may seem like this stuff lasts forever, but it's only really good for up to four weeks in the refrigerator. Don't try freezing it.
- Frozen: one to two weeks. After opening, place plastic wrap over the top of the open container and replace the lid. This will help minimize freezer burn and retain the original texture. If the yogurt thaws completely, toss it out. Don't refreeze as harmful bacteria may have formed.
- Refrigerated: seven to 10 days after "sell by" date. While it's true yogurt is created from bacterial fermentation, you should still discard the entire container if mold appears.
- Frozen: one to two months. Freeze yogurt in an airtight container and thaw in the refrigerator.
Editor's note: A longer version of this post can be found here.
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