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How do I know if a given food or ingredient I have is still good, or if I should discard it?

How can I best preserve a food or ingredient?

This broad question is intended as a "general reference" question to quickly answer many how long will food keep for? questions. Please feel free to edit this question to expand and clarify as needed.

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General comments on the shelf-, fridge-, and freezer-life of foods

The shelf-life is the amount of time a food can be stored before it is considered unsuitable for use. It may be unsuitable due to quality degradation (no longer tasty) or food safety (risk of food poisoning). [1]

As far as food safety goes, food stored frozen at 0°F (-18°C) or below is remains safe forever; only quality degrades over time. [2]. Thus the freezer-storage times below are entirely about quality.

If your freezer is set at a temperature higher than -18°C (three-star setting), these times may not apply. Especially the safe storage time in one-star freezers (-6°C) is much reduced.

The times all assume proper storage. Freezers 0°F or below, refrigerators 40°F (4°C) or below. [3] Cans should be stored in a cool, dry place, below 85°F (30°C) [4].

The tables given here assume proper storage. Food which requires refrigeration is considered unsafe if left for over two hours at temperatures between 41–135°F (5–57°C) [5].

The Tables

Regardless of the table below, if a food shows signs of spoilage (including mold, with some exceptions described below), its past its shelf-life. Note that the lack of spoilage does not imply safety.

Uncooked Proteins

Item              Fridge                 Freezer                    Sources
----              ------                 -------                    -------
Ground (meat,     1–2 days               3–4  months                [KC]
poultry)
Non-ground        3–5 days               steaks: 6–12 months        [KC]
meat                                     chops:  4–6  months   
                                         roasts: 4–12 months   
Poultry           1–2 days               whole: 12 months           [KC]
                                         pieces: 9 months
Eggs              in shell: 3–5 weeks    in shell: not recommended  [KC]
                  separated: 2–4 days    whites: 12 months
                                         yolks: not recommended
Bacon             1 week                 1 month                    [CFG]
tofu              1 week                 5 months                   [CFG]
fish              1–2 days               lean:  4–8 months          [CFG]
                                         fatty: 2–3 months

Cooked proteins

Item              Fridge             Freezer               Sources
----              ------             -------               -------
luncheon meat     opened:   1 week   1–2 months            [KC]
                  unopened: 2 weeks
cooked meat and   3–4 days           2–6 months            [KC]
poultry
cooked fish       3–4 days           1–2 months            [CFG]
hard boiled eggs  1 week             not recommended       [KC]
hard sausage      2–3 weeks          1–2 months            [CFG]

Dairy

Item              Fridge                Freezer               Sources
----              ------                -------               -------
butter            1–3 months            6–9 months            [CFG]
hard cheeses      opened: 3–4 weeks     6 months              [CFG]
                  unopened: 6 months
soft cheeses      1 week                6 months              [CFG]
cream cheese      2 weeks               not recommended       [CFG]

Sauces

Item              Fridge                 Freezer               Sources
----              ------                 -------               -------
mayo              commercial: 2 months   not recommended       [CFG]
                  home-made: see below
gravy, broth      3–4 days               2–3 months            [CFG]

For home-made mayo, there don't seem to be official shelf-life estimates. Seasoned Advice has a question on this, Making "long(er)-life" homemade mayonnaise.

Vegetables

Freezer times are given for cooked or blanched, then frozen. Generally, this is required, otherwise enzymatic degradation will occur. See "Where can I go for details on a specific food?" for where to find specific steps for each vegetable.

Refrigerator and shelf times are for storage raw.

If a column is -, it means that storage type is not recommended. "Ripe" means "until ripe".

Item                Shelf         Fridge       Freezer                 Sources
----                -----         ------       -------                 -------
Asparagus           -             3–4 days     8 months                FK
Green beans         -             3–4 days     8 months                FK
Beets               1 day         7–10 days    6–8 months              FK
Cabbage             -             1–2 weeks    10–12 months            FK
Carrots             -             3 weeks      10–12 months            FK
Celery              -             1–2 weeks    10–12 months            FK
Garlic              1 month       1–2 weeks    1 month                 FK
Herbs (fresh)       -             7–10 days    1–2 months              FK
Lettuce (iceberg)   -             1–2 weeks    -                       FK
Lettuce (leaf)      -             3–7 days     -                       FK
Mushrooms           -             2–3 days     10–12 months            FK
Onions, non-sweet   2–3 months    2–3 months   10–12 months            ST
Onions, sweet       1–2 months    1–2 months   10–12 months            ST
Peppers             -             4–5 days     6–8 months              FK
Potatoes            1–2 months    1–2 weeks    mashed: 10–12 months    FK
Squash, summer      -             4–5 days     10–12 months            FK
Squash, winter      1 week        2 weeks      10–12 months            FK
Tomatoes            ripe          2–3 days     2 months                FK

Fruits

Many fruits must be at least partially cooked (blanched) before freezing in order to deactivate enzymes that would otherwise degrade quality while in storage. Some are best frozen packed in acid (lemon juice or citric acid) and/or syrup. See "Where can I go for details on a specific food?" for where to find specific steps for each fruit.

If a column is -, it means that storage type is not recommended. "Ripe" means "until ripe".

Item              Shelf      Fridge                 Freezer               Sources
----              -----      ------                 -------               -------
apples            1–2 days   1–3 weeks              cooked: 8 months      FSG, FK
apricots          ripe       2–3 days               -                     FK
bananas           ripe       1–2 days*              peeled: 1 month       FK
berries           -          1–2 days               4 months              FSG, FK
citrus fruit      10 days    3 weeks                -                     FSG
grapes            1 day      1 week                 1 month               FK
juice             -          6 days                 8 months              FSG
melons            1–2 days   1 week                 balls: 1 month        FSG, FK

generally:                   3-5 days

*: bananas stored in the fridge will blacken.

Cooked dishes

Generally 3–4 days in the fridge. This includes pizza, soups, stews, casseroles, pies, and quiche [KC]. Some salads get a fifth day [CFG]. Freezer time is generally under three months.

Shelf-stable until opened

Item                                    Unopened      Opened, in fridge    Source
----                                    --------      -----------------    ------
Commercially canned, low-acid           2–5 years     3–4 days             [CFG]
(meat, poultry, fish, soups, stews
 vegetables)
Commercially canned, high-acid          12–18 months  5–7 days             [CFG]
Olives                                  12–18 months  2 weeks              [FK]
jam, jelly,                             1 year        6 months             [FK]
preserves
shortening (Crisco)                     8 months      3 months             [FK]

Pantry (not refrigerated even after opening)

Item                Shelf life              opened (if different)    source
----                ----------              ---------------------    ------
Baking powder       18 months                                        [FSG]
Baking soda         2 years                                          [FSG]
beans (dry)         1 year                                           [FK]
Bouillon            1 year                                           [FSG]
cornstarch          18 months                                        [FK]
extracts            3 years                                          [FK]
flour               white: 6–12 months                               [FK]
                    wheat: 1 month
herbs (dry)         1–2 years               1 year                   [FK]
honey               1 year                                           [FK]
pasty (dry)         2 years                                          [FSG]
egg noodles (dry)   6 months                                         [FSG]
rice (dry)          white:    2 years                                [FSG]
                    brown:    6–12 months
                    flavored: 6 months
vegetable oil       6 months                1–3 months               [FSG]
vinegar             2 years                 12 months                [FSG]

General tips for storing foods

How do I freeze fruits and vegetables?

Fruit. Ripe (but not overripe) fruit should be used. Wash them, and sort according to size. Working in small batches, remove pits, seeds, and blemishes. For fruits that turn brown, apply ascorbic acid or sugar and citric acid. Most fruits benefit from packing in dry sugar or a sugar syrup. Small, whole fruits (e.g., berries) can be spread on a tray and individually frozen, then packed in a freezer bag or other airtight container.

Vegetables. Most vegetables need blanching. To blanch, immerse in boiling water over high heat or steam over rapidly boiling water (steam). After blanching, transfer to ice bath for the same amount of time as blanched. Drain and dry. Freeze either by packing in a freezer bag with as much air as possible removed, or by allowing to freeze on a tray, then putting in a bag or other container.

General guideline is 8–12 months for best quality.

The above is a very quick summary of Iowa State University's Preserve the Taste of Summer: Freezing: Fruits and Vegetables. The five-page document includes full details on over forty fruits and vegetables. Feel free to ask here on Seasoned Advice if that guide doesn't answer your question.

What about mold?

Some foods are expected to have mold in them (e.g., P. roqueforti in Roquefort cheese). Unexpected mold, however, is something to be concerned about. Mold can grow even on refrigerated foods, and even those high enough in salt or sugar to deter bacteria. Some molds produce mycotoxins. Mold growth can be minimized by cleaning the refrigerator every few months (use a mixture of 1 tablespoon of baking soda per quart of water, then rinse with plain water, then dry), by keeping dishcloths, sponges, mops, etc. clean and fresh-smelling; and keeping indoor humidity levels under 40%.

In general, the visible surface mold on a food is only a small part of the actual mold growth. For most foods, any visible unexpected mold growth means you should discard the entire item. There are several exceptions:

Hard salami, dry-cured     Scrub mold off surface.
country hams

Hard cheese                Cut at least 1 inch around and below mold spot,
                           do not cut through mold.

Cabbage, bell peppers,     Cut at least 1 inch around and below mold spot,
carrots                    do not cut through mold.

Everything else, including soft or shredded cheese, soft fruits and vegetables, bread, peanut butter, jams and jellies, sour cream, yogurt, luncheon meats, casseroles, and cooked pasta should be discarded.

All this information comes from the USDA FS&IS's Molds on Food: Are They Dangerous? fact sheet.

Where can I go for details on a specific food?

The web site StillTasty maintains a comprehensive list of food storage times, notes, and procedures for a wide variety of food items. They draw information from a variety of reputable sources and should probably be the first place you check.

Another good source of information is the Food Marketing Institute's Food Keeper. This is also a searchable database of foods.

Finally, if neither of those two references answer your question, you're at the right web site. Please ask here on Seasoned Advice.

Bibliography

Note

This is a work-in-progress. I still need to finish adding information to it. Also, this answer is a community wiki, please feel free to improve it.

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For printing, I've copypasted this text and edited the tables. How and where can I upload the file so it's available to the community? –  BaffledCook Feb 12 '12 at 8:37
    
@BaffledCook: Not sure where to upload it. If your versions of the tables are just better, then I guess just edit the question. Otherwise, there are always things like pastebin (though I have no idea how to keep the two versions in sync, then). Maybe ask on meta? –  derobert Feb 12 '12 at 10:25
    
I'll ask on Meta. I made a LibreOffice doc. Syncing (?) will be hell. –  BaffledCook Feb 12 '12 at 10:52
    
You might add that mold on real maple syrup (not maple flavord corn syrup) can be removed, and the syrup still used. –  Flimzy May 10 '13 at 22:56
    
@Flimzy I don't have an good source that says that's OK (the closest I can find is for corn syrup, but it includes a heating step). If you can provide a source (government food safety agency, university extension, etc.), I'd be happy to add it. –  derobert May 13 '13 at 15:06
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