Your Common Food Ingredient’s Shelf Life – A Comprehensive Guide By Groups

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One of our everyday sweet treats was designed to be a long-term food supply in case of war. You’ll never guess which one!

Marzipan.

This calorie-dense packet of almonds and sugar can stay edible for decades if stored properly. But what about everyday stuff? 

How do you know precisely that the rice or sausage is still good to go in your fridge?

Or why do some staples seem to rot away the minute they touch your fridge?

This is your lucky day. Our exhaustive food shelf life guide is here to save the day. Read along, and you will never have to risk good ol’ salmonella again! (*)

To get a better grasp on what is food shelf life, let’s clear up some familiar concepts.

Table Of Contents
  1. The Most Common Shelf Life Terms
  2. What Are The General Expiry Dates for Each Food Type?

The Most Common Shelf Life Terms

Do you know the difference between shelf lifeexpiry date, and best by?

Don’t worry; most people don’t have the slightest clue if these are interchangeable or something entirely different.

Let’s see what each means, one by one.

What Does Food Shelf Life Mean?

Shelf life is a recommended keeping time until any product still provides the originally intended consumer experience. (*)

There are more aspects to it, such as:

  • Optimal taste
  • Desired texture
  • Approximately unchanged nutritional content
  • Healthy color
  • Pleasant or unspoiled odor

Food storage life is not set in stone by a government agency or law but by manufacturing standards. (*)

However, there are suggested keeping dates, and they are most commonly used by food manufacturers globally.

After the recommended shelf life has expired, it’s no longer safe to eat a product.

But What Does Food Shelf Life Depend On?

The optimal keeping time has many aspects to it. Each of them can impact the shelf life of packaged or unprepared foods.

  • Storage temperature
  • Humidity
  • Light
  • Packaging design
  • Manufacturing process
  • Shipping time
  • Bacteria or mold

It’s clear as day that we don’t have an influence on most of these. And if that’s not enough, there are other dates we have to keep an eye on. 

Let’s see what else we see on the label!

What Does ‘Best By’ Mean on Food Packaging?

After we cleared up the general expiry date, also known as general food shelf-life, ‘Best By’ is our next target. 

What Does It Mean, and How Is It Different From The General Expiry Date?

  • In a nutshell, after the Best By date, the product may deteriorate in quality but is still perfectly safe to eat.

The thought of a nasty food poisoning can ruin a tempting tiramisu with raw eggs or some steak tartare. 

So how much change is expected and tolerable before it starts being unsafe to eat?

What Changes Can Be Accepted After The ‘Best By’ Date?

  • A slight change in color
  • Inconsistency in texture

What Changes Make It Unsafe to Eat Any Product After The ‘Best By’ Date?

  • Any detectable shift in taste
  • Visible mold
  • Even a slight change of performance or usability as intended

Despite knowing all the bits and pieces about the ‘Best By’ date, these might not help you the slightest. How so?

This tricky labeling code is called many names, and you might get utterly confused about them. 

What Are Alternative Names for The ‘Best By’ Date?

“Best By” is also known as:

  • Best when used by
  • Enjoy by
  • Best before
  • Fresh until
  • Better if used before
Let’s recap: 

You have to throw away any product after the general expiry date. Best by dates, on the other hand, are purely suggestions. 

They give you an estimate until each product stays the best quality possible. If there are no detrimental changes in taste or smell, you can still eat them safely.

You can find one more on food labels beside the common “Expiry date and the Best By date”. 

We won’t leave you hanging; let’s see which one!

What Is The ‘Use By’ or ‘Use or Freeze By’ Date?

image of ‘Use By’ or ‘Use or Freeze By’ Date

Typically, you can find these on non-canned, perishable foods and ingredients. 

‘Use By’ Date

After the Use By date, you must throw the food away

‘Use or Freeze By’ date.

Meanwhile, the ‘Use or Freeze By’ date means that you can still freeze the staples for later use, and avoid throwing them away

Labels can help you a lot; however, not everything comes in packaging. 

We love fresh produce from the market or specialty stores. In these cases, how do we know the best by-s, use by-s, or general food expiry dates?

To help you in any future cooking and late-night snacking endeavors, we compiled a detailed guide as follows.

What Are The General Expiry Dates for Each Food Type?

It’s pretty baffling that before 1978, we had no official recommendations or label coding for food safety. 

We might think people were thinner because of the frequent food poisoning and salmonella.

That’s not true, of course, but let’s cherish our modern manufacturing rules for the lack of moldy stuff we have to eat!

Still, we don’t like to solely depend on precise manufacturers and pre-packaged goods. 

You should be able to tell how long you can eat the fresh produce you just bought or made. 

We will determine the expiry dates for all food types.

The Shelf Life of Meats

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Starting with the most delicate one; spoiled meat can be deadly. It’s not something worth risking. 

The general rule is to freeze any uncured meat products if you don’t intend to cook them within a day. 

But let’s dig a little deeper before you start throwing away everything in your freezer!

How Long Do Sausage and Salami Stay Fresh?

Both sausages and salami should be stored in the fridge or freezer.

  • Salami and sausage will keep in the fridge for 2 months if unopened and 1 month if opened.
  • In a freezer, you can keep them for up to 2 months.

Learn more:

What Is The Shelf Life of Ham?

Pre-packaged ham is not something to be stored in the cupboard. You might think cured meat is fine being in a cool pantry, but it’s not the case. 

  • Keep cured ham in the fridge for up to 4 weeks sealed and 2 weeks after opening.
  • However, in the freezer, the expiry date of cured ham is 2 months.

How Long Can You Store Minced Meat?

Ground meat, be it lamb, beef, pork, chicken, or any else, have a similar shelf life.

  • In the fridge, you can store minced meat for a maximum of 3 days.
  • In the freezer, it’s safe to keep for 2 months.

What Is The Expiry Date for Raw Beef, Lamb, Chicken, and Pork?

Each type of meat can have slight differences, but you can use our guide as a general reference on keeping raw meat safely.

  • You can keep all types of raw meat slices for 3 days in the fridge safely.
  • In a freezer, you can stock them for up to 6 months.

You might wonder, why is the safe storage life of whole meats much longer than for ground meats?

Why Is Whole Meat More Durable Than Minced?

The significant difference comes from the grinding procedure. Despite strict sanitizing and hygiene protocols, grounding meat comes with more bacteria spreading on it.

They can either come from the machines or other parts of the meat itself. As soon as the meat thaws, the bacteria starts spreading like crazy. 

This means a dramatic difference in expiry dates. You should eat ground meat much faster than whole slices.

But what about cooked meat? That’s a whole different story!

What Is The Expiry Date of Cooked and Roasted Meats?

The given storage lives both works with roasted, cooked, and stewed meats. Yet, they are not applicable with any added ingredients or sides, only for the meat itself.

  • You can safely store steaks or cooked meats for 3-4 days in the fridge.
  • In the freezer, you can keep them for up to 3 months.

Technically, fish is meat too. However, some religions would fiercely argue with us about this statement. (*)

How Long Can You Keep Fish in the Fridge or Freezer?

You probably know that seafood is easier to poise with bacteria than regular meat. But to what extent?

  • Raw seafood, including fish, crabs, prawns, and oysters, can safely stay in the fridge for 2 days maximum.
  • Alternatively, you can keep them in the freezer for up to 3 months.

Cooked fishes and crabs are even less forgiving when it comes to expiry dates.

  • Cooked seafood has a 1-day shelf life in the fridge.
  • While in the freezer, you can keep them for 2 months.

After the tough cookie and meat, our next food group has similarly strict rules for storage time.

What’s The Shelf life of Dairy Products?

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Although dairy doesn’t seem as dangerous as meat, when not stored correctly, it can give you some bad moments for sure.

Let’s start with a general rule: never freeze dairy products. Simply put them in the fridge. This also goes for super-fresh milk.

Let’s cover each of them for the expiry dates.

Milk

An opened can of milk stays fresh for up to 2 weeks in the fridge.

Learn more:

Cream, Yogurt, Cottage Cheese, Cream Cheeses

Keep these dairy goods in your fridge for 1 week, and no more.

Hard Cheeses and Butter

Any hard cheese or butter expires after 3 months in the fridge, as a general rule. 

You have more time on your hands with some margarine. You can safely store them in the fridge for even 6 months- up to a year!

Learn more: Does Parmesan Cheese Go Bad?

There is one exception to the no-freeze rule, which is, of course, ice cream.

Ice Cream

Obviously, you can’t keep ice cream in a fridge, but you can store it in the freezer for up to 2 months. For a homemade one, this is reduced for 2 weeks only.

Learn more: Does Ice Cream Go Bad?

Going in a reversed-danger order, let’s see the deal with eggs and other oily stuff.

How Fast Do Eggs Go Bad?

To be frank, we are wary of raw eggs, and you should be too. 

Commercially handled eggs are sanitized and processed to destroy any harmful bacteria.

However, this method is not 100% successful each time. There is a certain margin of error permitted by food safety laws.

Fresh eggs are entirely different, on the other hand. 

Fresh Eggs

  • Straight from the chicken, eggs are good for 2 weeks at room temperature.
  • Keeping them in the fridge, you can use them for 3 long months.
  • Freezing them is not a viable option.

Commercial Eggs

  • These eggs are not intended to be kept at room temperature.
  • However, you can refrigerate commercial eggs for 6 months.
  • For boiled eggs, the maximum is 5 days, stored in the fridge.

Going with the oily ingredients, let’s see how we can best stockpile them.

Optimal Shelf Life of Oils

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We tend to believe this is evident, but to be sure: you shouldn’t keep oils in the fridge, not to mention freezing. Shelf life, in this case, means literally that.

  • Keep any vegetable or cooking oil at room temperature for up to 8 months sealed and 5 months opened.
  • Peanut butter stays fresh for 6 months opened and 9 unopened.

But have you ever had an unexpected guest in your flour bag? 

Because small flour worms enjoy bathing in this white powder, we may not notice them until it’s too late.

The only solution is to keep track of the shelf life of each flour that has been opened. This way, you can devour it all before bacteria and worms sprout.

Learn more:

Let’s see how long you have before someone else eats up all your flour.

The Ideal Shelf Life of Flour, Grains, and Wheat

Flour

Although flour has a surprisingly long shelf life, stick to keeping it under 6 months. Anything after that is a risk of getting extra protein in your meals.

And furthermore, never keep flour in the fridge.

Learn more:

White Rice

Raw white rice should be kept in your pantry for up to a year. Alternatively, a cooked one is good for a week in the fridge.

Brown Rice

Plain raw brown rice has more natural oils, so they only keep it for 6 months in the pantry. 

Surprisingly, when cooked, they are suitable for a week in the fridge, just like white rice.

Pasta

Similarly to rice, pasta is kept at room temperature and uncooked. Unopened, you have a whole year to prepare them, while opened, just 2 months.

Cooked pasta can be safely stored in the fridge for up to 3 days. Keep in mind that this seemingly unharmful staple gives people salmonella more often than any other ingredient.

Learn more:

Cakes and cookies

We tend to eat these once-in-a-while treats for longer than intended. 

Be honest. Have you eaten a birthday cake straight from the fridge, even a week later?

Well, that was a close call. Any cake and cookie or muffin stay edible for up to a week in the fridge. 

After that, you can freeze them. Although, it impairs the taste drastically. By freezing, you can elongate their shelf life to 6 months.

Similar to cakes, canned goods are comfort foods, but on more levels. They give the advantage of time-saving and the comfort of a long shelf-life.

Learn more:

Shelf life of Canned Foods

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Can you guess who knows the most about shelf life? Preppers!

And what do they stockpile like no tomorrow(see the joke here)? Canned stuff.

Some pre-made, canned goods can stay the exact same for 10 years or longer.

Dried Fruits, Canned Gravy, Tomato and Their Sauces, Canned Juice

  • These long-lasting staples can all hold fresh unopened for up to 5 years.
  • When opened, this is reduced to 4 weeks in the fridge.

Mayonnaise, Salad Dressing, Mustard, Canned Cream-Based Sauces

  • Slightly less durable, these condiments have a 3-month shelf life in the fridge unopened and 1.5 months opened.

Learn more:

Vegetable Paste, Baby Food

  • These canned staples deteriorate rapidly once opened. Before that, you can keep them in the pantry for 6-8 months, but after opening, you have 2 days to eat it all.

Patées, Canned Seafood

  • The most delicate among canned goods are jelly paté and seafood. 
  • Keep them for a maximum of 4 weeks sealed in the pantry, out of direct sunlight.
  • After opening them, eat them immediately. Do not refrigerate or freeze! 

We’re not all preppers, and life is plain boring without fresh fruits and veggies. Keep canned food for emergencies, and enjoy life where you can.

The Best Shelf life of Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

Sad and browning veggies can still come to life as an oven-baked dip. Similarly, a rotting-away banana is an opportunity for banana bread.

But these tricks only work for a while. There’s a point of no return with fresh fruits and veggies.

Let’s see how to avoid throwing them away.

Avocados, Ripe Bananas, Grapes, Kiwi, Watermelon

  • To keep your tummy safe, eat all of these fruits within 3 days of buying
  • By putting them in the fridge, you can get an extra 2 days before they go bad.
  • Freezing works with grapes and kiwi, and they will keep good for 2 weeks this way.

Apples, Green Bananas, Citrus

  • This triad is the most long-lasting group of fruits
  • You can keep them for 2 weeks in the cupboard.
  • Apples and citrus fruits can be refrigerated for up to a month.
  • However, don’t put bananas in the fridge, as they will turn mushy and brown in a few hours.
  • Luckily, you can freeze them all for up to 2 months

Berries, Peach, Pear, Pineapple, Strawberries

  • You should be ready to devour these heavenly fruits within 2 days of buying them.
  • The maximum shelf life for them in the fridge is 3 days.
  • By freezing, you can enjoy all of them for 3 months!

After the most common fruits, let’s see how long we can store our favorite veggies.

Asparagus, Broccoli, Peas, Beans, Tomatoes

  • All of these fresh veggies should be eaten within 5-6 days refrigerated.
  • One exception is tomatoes; they are best kept at room temperature.

Fun fact:

Tomatoes lose their aroma and essence in the fridge.

Cauliflower, Cucumber, Eggplants, Mushrooms, Lettuce

  • The above veggie sortiment is more forgiving; store them in the fridge for 1-2 weeks before they go bad.
  • Neither freezing nor storing at room temperatures is recommended for any of them.

Onions, Potatoes, Celery, Carrots, Cabbage

  • These cooking staples can withstand the test of time.
  • You can easily keep them for 3-4 months in a dry and cool place in your pantry without refrigerating.
  • More so, avoid putting them in the fridge, as it impairs their taste.

Frozen Veggies

  • Any pre-packaged frozen veggie will be of good quality for a year.

Aside from general guidelines, there are a few things you can do to make the most of your fresh fruits and vegetables.

  • Store fruits and vegetables separately
  • The best way to store them in the fridge is in closed containers, individually. 
  • The second best is in plastic bags. 
  • The ‘whatever, I will eat them today’ method is plain uncovered on the kitchen countertop.
  • Only wash them right before eating.
  • Onions and potatoes stored together produce gasses.

In Summary

Storing the most commonly used staples and cooking ingredients properly can save you lots of headaches and money. 

The vengeance you might feel right before cooking when the ingredient has gone south…is immeasurable.

You have to run a quick round to the store again, not to mention your Mama’s words ringing true in your ear about kids starving somewhere while you throw out food.

And the god-ridden truth is, she was right. Wasting food is an actual first-world problem. (*)

Besides your conscience, once you get fine salmonella, food safety will become a priority for good. I guarantee you will never forget that experience!

Up Next: All Food Ingredients Substitutions in Cooking and Baking: The Complete Guide!

References:

  • https://www.lafoodbank.org/wp-content/uploads/Shelf-Life-Guide-English.pdf
  • https://www.brcgs.com/our-standards/food-safety/
  • https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/is-fish-meat
  • https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/03/global-food-waste-solutions/

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