Have you been taking a good look at your pantry lately? Chances are you have some time capsules in your stash of canned goods. You may have saved that canned corn for Cowboy Caviar or that can of condensed milk for Magic Bars, but there are some tips to keep in mind to make sure those cans are not only still fresh, but also safe to eat.
While the USDA states that most shelf-stable foods are safe to eat indefinitely, there’s a chance you have more than a few that you’re better off throwing away. Here’s how to tell a can-do from a can-don’t.
How long does canned food keep?
Commercial canned food has an indefinite shelf life, according to the USDA, although there are some exceptions to this rule. If cans are stored near stoves or under sinks or are severely dented and corroded, this not only affects the taste of the food inside, but also the safety of the food itself.
“Even with [the USDA’s guidelines]I say a good rule of thumb is to use canned food within two years,” says Rachel Narins, a chef and certified UCCE master food preserver. “Ideally more than a year, but we all know that some things are bought in bulk or end up in the back of the closet and forgotten. It happens.”
And if you have a collection of canned condensed milk ready for the holidays, Narins suggests it can be stored “up to 18 months at about 20°C and the cans should be turned every two months.” So if it’s been a minute since you bought those cans, make sure you turn them over.
Another thing to keep in mind is certain canned meats, such as ham, as some may be marked on their labels as “keep refrigerated.” Canned ham that needs refrigeration can be safely stored in the refrigerator for six to nine months.
So what’s the deal with expiration dates?
If reading expiration dates feels more like a game of riddles, you’re not alone. Expiration dates are not regulated (except for baby food), which is why you’ll see different expressions, including expiration date, expiration date, and expiration date.
“The dates on canned food are shelf life or sales suggestions. The food doesn’t magically spoil when it reaches that date,” says Narins. “I know it freaks some people out to hear, but even at 10 years old the food should be OK. The quality of the content may have diminished, but it’s most likely still edible.
When in doubt, your nose is always the best choice. If something stinks, throw it away.
How long do opened cans of food keep?
If you’ve already opened a can (but still have leftovers), low-acid canned foods will keep for three to four days after opening, while high-acid foods will keep for five to seven days. It is safe to keep leftovers in the opened can, but for optimal taste, it is best to place the food in a sealed glass or plastic container.
“Once you open canned food, the leftovers should be transferred to another container, with a lid, and refrigerated,” says Narins.
And the same goes for that stash of pumpkin and canned condensed milk you bought for the holidays: “Like most perishable foods, pumpkin, condensed milk, etc. should last up to two weeks if stored properly in the refrigerator. If you don’t think you’ll be using up the rest of that pumpkin puree in a week or two, go ahead and freeze it in a labeled bag or container,” suggests Narins.
What about canned food for the home?
Have you gone completely crazy about canning this year, but want to make sure your stash is still safe? Fortunately, homemade canned goods, if stored properly (at room temperature, in a cool, dry place), will last up to a year. The USDA also recommends putting canned goods from home in a pan and boiling them for 10 minutes (or longer, depending on your height) to avoid the risk of botulism.
What about donating canned goods?
When it comes to donating overdue canned goods, similar guidelines (and ethical questions) should be kept in mind.
“People who receive donated food tend to have less choice about what they receive than people who buy groceries from a store,” says Leah Butz of NYC Food Policy Center at Hunter College. “By giving someone food with an expiration date, you limit their ability to decide whether or not they want to eat that food.”
The Utah Food Bank suggests donating only canned or canned food within a year of the sell-by date. In general, if you wouldn’t serve the canned food to your family, don’t donate it. Be sure to check with your local food bank to see their individual requirements. (Not sure where your local food bank is located? Feeding America has a handy tool that will help you find the food bank closest to you.)
Where can you find more information about food safety and storage?
To help consumers reduce their food waste, the Food Safety and Inspection Service partnered with the Food Marketing Institute and Cornell University to develop the online Food keeper storage guide, which contains storage information on a wide variety of foods, including canned foods. If in doubt, check the Foodkeeper app. Maybe you can save your seasonal supply of canned pumpkin after all!