Gifts of food are some of the most popular holiday items to share with business associates, friends and family members. But, once the holidays are past, how long can the food be safely kept on hand to eat and enjoy?
That was my question to Karen Blakeslee, coordinator of the Extension Rapid Response Center at Kansas State University. We discussed the tins of popcorn, candies, jellies, sausages and other foods which may still be lingering in homes and offices. The good news is that some holiday food gifts can be safely enjoyed for weeks or even months to come.
Here is a list of some of the popular holiday food gifts and recommendations for safe storage and use:
Popped popcorn- store in airtight containers away from moisture to prevent toughness or stickiness if sugar-coated. Caramel-type popcorn has a shelf life of up to 6 months, cheese coated popcorn has a shelf life of 2-3 months. Watch for rancidity.
Summer Sausage and other fully-cured meat sticks- once these meat products are cut open and the outer coating is unsealed, they should be consumed within 3 weeks. Unopened, uncut products may be kept for 3 months in the refrigerator. The high salt content makes freezing a less-desirable option, so store only one to two months in the freezer for best quality.
Firm cheeses- Blocks of cheese which have been opened will keep at good quality in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 weeks. Be sure to wrap well to prevent drying or molding. Unopened blocks of cheese will keep in the refrigerator for up to 6 months if well sealed. Firm cheeses may also be frozen for 6 months, well sealed, however the texture may be more crumbly when thawed.
Nuts- Mixed nuts, roasted peanuts, chopped pecans or other shelled nuts should be refrigerated after opening and frozen for longer storage. Unsalted varieties last longest before becoming stale or rancid. Opened containers of nuts at room temperature will be at best quality for two weeks. Unopened nuts may be kept on the shelf for 3 months; freeze for longer storage. Nuts in the shell should be used within 4 months for freshest quality.
Candy- Well-wrapped chocolate will keep at room temperature for 7-8 months, but varieties containing nuts or other ingredients should be eaten sooner. Formed candies such as truffles, pralines, and commercial boxed candies can be frozen for storage and defrosted in the refrigerator before being brought to room temperature for eating. Some chocolates may appear discolored with a white surface residue due to fat separation in storage. This condition affects only the appearance, the chocolate is still safe to eat.
Jams and Jellies- Unopened jars may be kept on the shelf for 12 months, but longer storage may cause the color to fade or darken. Both homemade and commercial varieties of sweet spreads should be kept tightly covered and stored in the refrigerator after opening. It is possible for jams and jellies to mold at refrigerator temperatures, so discard products that become moldy.
Homemade Baking Mixes in a jar or other container may be kept at room temperature for 6 to 9 months, unless they contain nuts which cause them to become stale more quickly. Bake the cookies or brownies within that time, or plan to use the mix as a kitchen decoration only. Soup mixes consisting of dried beans and pasta may be kept at room temperature for up to a year, unless there are other ingredients in a seasoning packet which might require the mix to be used sooner.
The “famous” holiday fruitcake- Some may say it lives forever! However, as with any food item, there is a limit to the lifespan of fruitcake as well. The fruitcake may be frozen for long-term storage up to one year. Store a cut fruitcake in air-tight wrapping in the refrigerator for 6 months. Fruitcake varieties which contain higher levels of alcohol will have better storing quality.
Take inventory of any holiday food gifts which might be lingering in your cupboards or refrigerator. Make a plan to consume or freeze any holiday hold-overs as recommended by these guidelines.
For more information on safe food storage, contact the Hays (785-628-9430) or Great Bend (620-793-1910) offices of the Cottonwood Extension District and ask for a copy of the K-State Research and Extension publications “Safe Food Storage: Refrigerator-Freezer” and “Safe Food Storage: Cupboard”. You can also search the K-State Research and Extension Bookstore at www.bookstore.ksre.ksu.edu by title or publication number (MF3130 and MF3131, respectively) to find the fact sheets online. These helpful publications should be on hand in every kitchen to answer those difficult food safety and storage questions.
Linda K. Beech is Cottonwood District Extension Agent for Family and Consumer Sciences.