Friday, December 24, 2010

Shelf life of home canned, commerically canned, frozen, and raw foods

Shelf Life of Pantry and Freezer Goods
First... and a no-brainer... if the product, either home canned or store bought, has a bulge or dent, any signs of leakage, a bad seal, or any signs of rust on the outside near the seams... get rid of it.

For home canned goods, including jams and jellies and presuming they are properly canned, use the high acid item (tomatoes, green beans, pickles, etc) within a year and dispose of everything past a year. For low acid foods, 2 - 5 years is acceptable. When I talked to a lady at NorPak canning, here in Oregon, she said the reasoning for that is likely because that little band of stuff that seals the jars is so thin that aging, cracking, and leaking are of greater concern, making the product less stable earlier. I personally have used my home canned goods up to three years old and had no problems with it. Also, once again, one has to use their senses to determine if that food is going to be edible... does it look fresh? does it smell fresh? Is the seal good? If it fails any of those tests... throw it out.

Commercial canning for nearly all vegetables, including the high acid ones, is three years from the date it was canned for optimal quality.

As a general rule, I think I will just not can more than I can eat up in a couple years max. I like to be safe and not have to run to the store in the middle of a recipe because my product was not good when I opened it. I also like my dishes to be tasteful as they are intended to be and don’t want to have to guess at how much extra spices or herbs I need to put in it because the herbs are deteriorated. I will buy my spices and herbs in smaller amounts too.

In an article in Women’s World, dated 12/14/09, they give us the following information about how long some foods can be used after the “use by” or “best by” dates. They indicate that their information is from the US Dept of Agriculture. The magazine cites the following:

Eggs... still good up to 3 weeks past the "use by" date. There is a note that you should keep eggs in their original container because every time you handle the egg, you risk bacteria seeping into the egg's more than 17,000 pores.

Hard Cheese.... still good up to 3 months past the "use by" date. If there's mold on it, trim it off and eat the rest. Mold needs moisture to multiply, so soft cheeses like cottage cheese you can't eat at all if there is spoilage or past the date. After the cheese has been opened, wrap it tightly in saran wrap trying to keep the air out of it. Air is cheese’s worst enemy. (We did that at the deli I worked at... which meant we went through A LOT of saran! LOL)

Milk... if properly refrigerated, even if it's open, it's still good up to 5 days past the expiration date. Don't store it in the door, that's the warmest place in your fridge.

Yogurt... safe to use up to 5 days past the "use by" date. Store in the fridge upside down, it creates a seal that keeps bacteria from seeping in.

Fruit juice... good up to 6 days past the "use by" date. Frozen juices or the kind that don't require refrigeration can last up to a year past the date.

Bottled water and soda... both have expiration dates but they never actually spoil and are safe to use. The soda may lose it's fizz though.

It has been, until most recent years, a pain in the neck to figure out whether a product is too old to be safe to eat. The codes the manufacturer used made sense only to them. Of course, you could always call the company to find out if that particular product was still edible and safe, but who has the time to do that?

Most manufacturers now use the “best if used by” date on their products, which, of course means that the product should maintain its optimum value until the date printed, after that the taste, coloring and nutrition start to deteriorate. The “best if used by” date is not a food safety date. It is not an expiration date.

If the date stamped on the product is a “use by” date, that is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. Again, this is not a food safety date.

Spices and herbs don’t expire per se, they just loose flavor, smell and color. Even if it’s old, if it still smells good, tastes good and looks good. Why not use it?
Well.... I was going to make some candied bacon yesterday. So, got the brown sugar on the bacon and took out a can of Cayenne powder... opened it, sniffed it (smelled good), tasted it (tasted okay), looked at it (didn't really like the color so much) and decided it could still be used since it smelled and tasted okay. Sprinkled the powder on the bacon and noticed these rather large (considering it's powder, they were large) dark things on my bacon. Got the magnifying glass out and plucked out one of those dark things and from the side it looked like a hard body flea!
So..... had to toss out the pound of bacon I just powdered, I was afraid to use it.
Got out another pound of bacon and re-did everything, except no Cayenne, popped it in the oven, got side tracked, didn't hear the timer go off and it burned.
There will be no candied bacon this year. Sigh. Threw out the Cayenne too!
So, the point of that story is that you need to shake some of that spice out and really inspect it for things that shouldn't be there!

Salt and Pepper don’t expire either. Salt, however, if it is Iodized, has a shelf life of about 5 years. It has to do with the Iodine that is added to it. Pepper, like the other spices, loses it’s color and flavor over time. Whole spices last longer than than ground ones, but then you have to grind your own and sometimes, that's just an added annoyance that takes up your precious time.

A couple years ago, I contacted my local County Extension office because I had found many bags of dried beans, rice, and noodles when cleaning out my Dad’s cupboards. They told me that those products don’t expire or go rancid, however, the older the product the longer the cooking time and beans in particular should be soaked over night or they may not “soften”. (I found that to be very true.) They also said that the rice, beans and noodles that had been stored in glass airtight containers, instead of their plastic bags, would retain freshness much longer.

In the case of things like past-date boxed Mac and Cheese, toss the cheese packet out and keep the noodles. The cheese will become rancid, but the noodles are still good. Why risk ruining the whole meal because you didn’t check the cheese, seasonings, or gravy packets first? If they look bad, smell bad, or tastes bad when you stick a finger in it to test it, get rid of it and make your own!

A bit about frozen foods. First, freezer burn does not make food unsafe, according to the Johnson County, Kansas Environmental Dept, it is just dried out at that spot and looks icky because air reached that spot. If it is heavily burned, you might want to discard the item due to quality reasons. Properly packaging your foods will diminish the probability of freezer burn. They also tell us that freezing keeps food safe almost indefinitely, the recommended storage times in their chart are for quality only. But then they say that some foods will develop a rancid or “off” odor when frozen too long and should be discarded.

The US Dept of Agriculture site says the same as the JCED site. Actually, much of what I am reading in the USDA site is exactly what the JCED site says so one has borrowed from the other.
The next information is from the USDA site:

Whole eggs should never be frozen, if one freezes and cracks, throw it out. If it happens to freeze and not crack, you can safely thaw it in the fridge and hard cook it, but most uses are limited after they’ve frozen since the yolk becomes thick and syrupy. It won’t blend well with the egg white any longer.

You can freeze almost everything but some things like Mayo, cream sauce and lettuce just don’t do well in freezers.

During a power outage, a stand alone freezer full of food will usually keep about 2 days if the door is kept shut; a half-full freezer will last about a day. The “fridge” freezer may be less efficient. If the freezer is not full, quickly group packages together so they will retain the cold more effectively. Separate meat and poultry items from other foods so if they begin to thaw, their juices won't drip onto other foods.

The chart says:
Bacon, Sausage, Ham, Hot dogs, and lunch meats will retain quality for up to 2 months; Casseroles, Gravy, cooked meats, soups and stews will retain quality for up to 3 months;
Frozen dinners, uncooked ground meat, and uncooked giblets will retain quality for up to 4 months;
uncooked Poultry parts will retain quality up to 9 months;
Egg whites, uncooked roasts, steaks, chops, and poultry will retain quality up to 12 months.

Also of interest, it says “There are three safe ways to thaw food: in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave. It's best to plan ahead for slow, safe thawing in the refrigerator. Small items may defrost overnight; most foods require a day or two. And large items like turkeys may take longer, approximately one day for each 5 pounds of weight”.

I personally have used and do use a vacuum system for preparing my meats and some other things for freezing. I know some folks who said it didn’t work for them, but I do my best to make sure there are no air bubbles in my bag as it’s sealing and that it has a good seal. I have eaten steaks that were in my freezer for two years. Of course, first I thawed it out, made sure it didn’t feel slimy, the color was good, and it didn’t smell rancid or funny. I cooked it and it tasted great. As the websites above will point out to you when you read them, packaging things properly makes a huge difference as to the quality your product will retain. The sites will tell you proper wrapping methods for freezing.

I did look, briefly, at the American Frozen Food Institute’s website for more information, but at the onset it seemed to just have a bunch of political crap on it, so I quit looking fairly quickly.
I looked at the Frozen Foods Foundation website and found nothing particularly interesting in it either.

I did find this website on food safety to be pretty informative and interesting, including food recalls and alerts. It is a “Gateway to Federal Food Safety Information". If you click on a link, it will take you to the agency that has the information you are looking at.

The websites I looked at were in basic agreement regarding basic shelf life times. Unfortunately, those basic shelf life times they list are what the manufacturers now put as a date on the item itself. I found relatively little authority as to how long a product is good or safe to eat AFTER that date, but it seems it's all a "quality" issue not necessarily a "safety" issue.

The website Still Tasty, has a section called “Keep it or Toss it”. It has a section on just about any type of food that you are interested in, whether it is a canned food or fresh food. They say a primary source of their research is from the food safety research conducted by Government agencies, including the US Dept of Agriculture, US Food and Drug Administration, and The US Center for Disease Control. As well as, state Government agencies, non-profit studies on food storage and safety, and actual manufacturers. But, again, I didn’t see anything that indicated how much longer AFTER the “best by” date a food might reasonably be used and not have a food safety issue. It’s a good and interesting site however. I thought this site was very helpful for raw food storage with tips on how and where to store.

Here's some other good sites I came across:

Canned Goods Shelf Life and Stamped Code Decoder (a list of some products dated 1997 and 1998) Sally Strackbein’s Emergency Kitchen.

Fact sheet regarding Food Labeling and Dating USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service

Kikkoman Products shelf life and date code information. Different sauces have different times from their production code date to be used by, they range from 18 months to 3 years.

Frank’s Red Hot products use by and product coding information. Their product will maintain good flavor quality for a few months after the “best by” date, particularly if refrigerated, however refrigeration is not required.

Tabasco Sauces open and unopened seem to not make a difference. Original Tabasco pepper sauce is fine for use up to 5 yrs, but best if used by the third year. Their other sauces have a shelf life of 18 - 24 mos. Even though the color may change, the product won’t spoil. Refrigeration almost always helps slow the color change, but is not required.

Kraft Foods. If you go to the Customer Service link, it will take you to the frequently asked questions. You can put a search in the box and it will show you the topics available that may answer your questions. I was interested in Chocolate shelf life for Baker’s Chocolate, which I had 4 bricks of. It told me how to read the code and further stated that the product should be consumed by that date. After that date, freshness, texture and taste may have deteriorated, so they only assure freshness to the date on the package. Another neat feature on this website is on the opening page, it has a place where you can enter the main ingredients you have and it will try to find a recipe for you to make! I like that!

McCormick’s site was pretty neat too. Instead of having to figure out what code they used, you just enter the code in the search box provided and it will tell you when and where it was manufactured. Incidentally, if the product is from Baltimore or if it is a “tin” container, it is at least 15 years old (except black pepper). If you click on the “Keeping it Fresh” link, there is a shelf life chart for their products, which appears to be the industry standard. Ground Spices are good for 2 - 3 yrs, Whole Spices are good for 3 - 4 years, Seasoning blends are good for 1 - 2 years, Herbs are good for 1 - 3 years, and Extracts are good for 4 years except pure Vanilla which lasts indefinitely. Incidentally, all Schilling products are at least 7 years old. There is also a bunch of recipes in this website.

Spice Islands products. It has a bit about testing for freshness and how to prolong freshness and some other tips. There is also a spice education section with video’s to watch. Has the same “shelf life” list as McCormick does.

Durkee spices and some of their other products. In their FAQ section there is information on their product code dates and shelf life of some of their other products. It is not clear if the shelf life time listed is the time after the “Best by” date or if the “Best by” date is the shelf life time. There is also recipes at this site, like the Durkee Gooey Chocolate Peanut Butter Bar.... sounds yummy! LOL

Morton Salt’s website has information on all types of salt products as well as a nifty conversion chart. This chart is to convert recipe amounts from Table Salt to Coarse Kosher Salt, Fine Sea Salt, Coarse Sea Salt and Canning/Pickling Salt. There is also a handy “Uses for Salt” chart showing what you can use different types of salt for. It also has a recipe section.

The Virginia Cooperative Extension program. It has an extensive list of basic products and the optimal life span of each before it peaks and starts to deteriorate.

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