Food Storage: Refrigerator & Freezer

This information has been reviewed and adapted for use in South Carolina by P.H. Schmutz, HGIC Information Specialist; E.H. Hoyle, Extension Food Safety Specialist; and David C. Smith, Seafood Industry Specialist, Clemson University. (New 05/99.)

HGIC 3522

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Maintain Quality & Safety

Storage does not improve the quality of any food. The quality of a food will also not decrease significantly during storage as long as the food is stored properly and used within the recommended time frame.

Quality is not the same as safety. A poor-quality food may be safe, such as overripe fruit or soured pasteurized milk. An unsafe food may have good quality in terms of appearance and taste, but have a high (unsafe) bacterial count. For example, cooked chicken may be placed on a plate that held the raw chicken and become contaminated. (The raw chicken juices may contain salmonella bacteria.) The goal of home food storage is to provide both safe and high-quality foods.

Maintaining a food’s quality depends on several factors: the quality of the raw product; the procedures used during processing; the way the food is stored; and the length of storage. The recommended storage time takes these factors into consideration.

Since bacteria frequently get into food through careless food handling, keep everything — hands, refrigerator, freezer and storage containers — clean.

Selection Guidelines

To help assure quality, some products have "open dates" on the package. Product dating is optional on most products. Dates may also be "coded" by the manufacturer and only understood by them. The most commonly used open dates are:

Sell-by Date: This is the last recommended day of sale, but allows for home storage and use. The date is given after the statement, "Sell by (a date)." Breads and baked goods may have "sell-by dates."

Use-by Date: Tells how long the product will retain top quality after you buy it. You will find this date after the statement, "Use by." Some packaged goods have "use-by dates."

Expiration Date: This is the last day the product should be used or eaten. You may find this date after the statement, "Do not use after (date)." Eggs may have "expiration dates."

Pack Date: Canned or packaged foods may have dates that tell you when the product was processed. This does not tell how long the food will be good.

These are guidelines; if a food is not properly handled, its storage life will be shortened. Follow these tips for purchasing top-quality foods that have been handled safely.

  • Look for packages of food that are not torn or broken.
  • Refrigerated food should feel cold (less than 45 °F) and frozen food should be frozen solid. Purchase these foods last.
  • When shopping, place packaged raw meat, poultry and fish in plastic bags and keep from contact with other foods.
  • Take perishable foods home quickly to refrigerate. If travel time will exceed one hour, pack fresh meats in a cooler with ice and keep in the passenger area of the car in warm weather.
  • At home, refrigerate perishable food immediately. The "DANGER ZONE" for most food is between 40 to 140 °F. Bacteria grow most rapidly in this range of temperatures, doubling in number in as little as 20 minutes.
Recommended Times for Refrigerator & Freezer Food Storage
Food Refrigerator Freezer
* Storage here not recommended due to safety or quality issues.
Dairy
Fresh milk 5- 7 days *
Buttermilk 1-2 weeks *
Canned milk (opened) 3-5 days *
Cream (unwhipped) 10 days *
Cream (whipped) 1 day 2 months
Sour cream 4 weeks *
Yogurt, cottage cheese 7 days (after "sell-by date") *
Hard cheese, grated cheese 6-12 weeks 6-12 months
Cheese spreads 3-4 weeks *
Butter/margarine 2 weeks 9 months
Ice cream * 2 months
Eggs
Fresh in shell 3 weeks *
Hard cooked 1 week *
Meats, Fresh
Beef roasts, steaks 3-5 days 6-12 months
Chicken or turkey, pieces 1-2 days 9-12 months
Chicken or turkey, whole 1-2 days 1 year
Duck or goose 1-2 days 6 months
Game birds 1-2 days 6 months
Giblets 1-2 days 3-4 months
Ground meat or stew 1-2 days 3-4 months
Lamb, roasts or chops 3-5 days 6-9 months
Pork, roasts or chops 3-5 days 4-6 months
Pre-stuffed pork & lamb chops or chicken breasts 1 day *
Sausage 1-2 days 1-2 months
Variety meats: heart, liver, tongue, etc. 1-2 days 3-4 months
Venison, roasts, steaks, chops 3-5 days 6-12 months
Meats, Cooked
Smoked breakfast sausage 7 days 1-2 months
Whole ham (fully cooked) 7days 1-2 months
Half ham (fully cooked) 3-5 days 1-2 months
Ham slices (fully cooked) 3-4 days 1-2 months
Canned ham ("keep refrigerated" label) 6-9 months *
Hotdogs, luncheon meats (unopened) 2 weeks 1-2 months
Hotdogs, luncheon meats (opened) 3-7 days 1-2 months
Cooked, leftover meat 3-4 days 2-3 months
Leftover gravy & meat broth 1-2 days 2-3 months
Cooked, leftover poultry 3-4 days 4-6 months
Cooked, leftover chicken nuggets or patties 1-2 days 1-3 months
Seafood, Fresh
Fresh lean fish: cod, flounder, trout, haddock, halibut, pollack, perch 1-2 days 4-6 months
Fresh fatty fish: mullet, smelt, salmon,mackerel, bluefish, tuna & swordfish 1-2 days 2-3 months
Live crabs & lobster same day purchased 2-3 months
Live mussels & clams 2-3 days *
Live oysters 7-10 days *
Shucked mussels & clams 1-2 days 3- 4 months
Shucked oysters 5-7 days 3-4 months
Shrimp, crabmeat 2-3 days 4 months
Scallops 2-3 days 3 months
Cooked Fish
Fish sticks * 18 months
Bread shrimp, commercial * 1 year
Cooked pieces 3-4 days 3 months
Fruits, (Fresh)
Apples 1 months 8-12 months
Apricots, grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, plums 3-5 days 8-12 months
Avocados 3-5 days 8-12 months
Bananas, plantains * 8-12 months
Berries, cherries 2-3 days 8-12 months
Grapefruit, lemons, limes, oranges 2 weeks 4-6 months
Guavas, papayas 1-2 days 8-12 months
Kiwis 3-5 days 4-6 months
Mangoes * 8-12 months
Melons 1 week 8-12 months
Pineapple 2-3 days 4-6 months
Vegetable, (Fresh)
Artichokes 1 week *
Asparagus 2-3 days 8-12 months
Beets, carrots 2 weeks 8-12 months
Beans, broccoli, lima beans, peas, summer squash 3-5 days 8-12 months
Cauliflower 1 week 8-12 months
Cilantro, parsley 2-3 days *
Corn use immediately for best flavor 8-12 months
Green onions 3-5 days *
Celery, cabbage, chilies, green beans, peppers, tomatoes 1 week 8-12 months
Greens: collards, kale, mustard, spinach, Swiss chard 3-5 days 8-12 months
Lettuce & salad greens 1 week *
Mushrooms, okra 1-2 days 8-12 months
Radishes 2 weeks *
Squash, hard * 8-12 months
Baked Products
Breads: Store at room temperature. Storing in the refrigerator promotes staling. Use the date as a guide or use within 3 to 7 days.
Bread, yeast * 6-12 months
Muffins, rolls, quick breads * 2-4 months
Pancakes & waffles * 1-2 months
Cookies
Baked * 4-6 months
Unbaked dough 2-3 days 6 months
Cakes: Store at room temperature, except for cheesecake.  Best used within 3 to 7 days
Angel and sponge * 4-6 months
Cheese 3-7 days 4-6 months
Fruit * 1 year
Layer cake (butter cream icing or plain) * 6 months
Pastries: Store at room temperature. Best used within 1 to 3 days
Danish * 3 months
Doughnuts * 3 months
Pies
Chiffon pie, pumpkin pie 1-2 days 1 month
Fruit pie 1-2 days 1 year
Unbaked fruit pies * 8 months
 

Storage Guidelines

For best results in maintaining product quality practice the rule: FIRST IN, FIRST OUT. This means you use the oldest products first and the newest products later. A good practice in the home is to place the newly purchased products in back of the same products already on the shelf. It may help to write purchase dates on products without "open dates" on the package. Follow recommended storage times for the refrigerator and freezer.

Freezer:

  • Keep freezer temperature at or below 0 °F. A good indication of proper temperature is that ice cream will be frozen solid.
  • Use moisture-proof, freezer-weight wrap. Examples are foil, freezer bags and freezer paper. Label and date all packages.
  • Food stored beyond the recommended time will be safe to eat, but eating quality (flavor and texture) and nutritive value will be less.
  • Keep an inventory of freezer contents.

Refrigerator:

  • Use a thermometer to check that temperature remains between 34 and 40 °F at all times. Avoid frequently opening the refrigerator door, especially in hot weather.
  • Wrapping perishable food prevents the loss of flavor and the mixing of flavor and odors.
  • Raw meat, fish, poultry, shucked shellfish and shrimp should be wrapped securely so they do not leak and contaminate other foods. Place the store packages in a leak-proof plastic bag or place the package on a plate to contain any juices. Clean up leaks with warm soapy water and sanitize with a solution of 1 teaspoon chlorine bleach to 1 quart water.
  • Cooked meats and leftovers should be tightly wrapped to prevent drying out.
  • Avoid cross contamination of other foods in the refrigerator by live shellfish.
  • Do not store live shellfish in water or in an air-tight container where they could suffocate and die. Store in a shallow dish covered with damp paper towels. Discard shellfish that has died in storage.

For more information on the safe handling of perishable foods, request:

HGIC 3510, Safe Handling of Milk & Dairy Products; HGIC 3512, Safe Handling of Poultry; HGIC 3482, Safe Handling of Seafood; HGIC 3483, Selecting & Storing Fruits and Vegetables; HGIC 3523, Storing Meats & Seafood or HGIC 3064, Freezing Meats & Seafood.

Source:

  1. Minch, Daryl L. Home Storage of Foods Part I: Refrigerator and Freezer. Rutgers Cooperative Extension, The State University of New Jersey.
  2. Delaware Sea Grant, University of Delaware. Fresh Seafood. [WWW. document]. URL http://www.ocean.udel.edu/mas/ seafood/fresh.html

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