How long can that club pack of chicken thighs really last in the freezer—and how can you store it properly so that your quick coq au vin doesn’t taste like freezer burn? Many of us are filling our pantries, fridges and freezers with food to last us a week or longer to avoid too many trips to the supermarket, or deliveries in-between. Here’s how to store your produce, proteins and grains properly so it lasts as long as possible.
The Government of Canada has safety guidelines for foods stored in the fridge and freezer. The recommended refrigeration times are for safety, while the freezing times are for quality. When stored properly, you can maintain the quality of your frozen foods for longer period of time.
Dairy (and alternatives)
According to Health Canada, you can freeze unopened milk in its original packaging for up to six weeks. For optimal—and safe—results, ensure your freezer is set below -18 C and always freeze your milk prior to the best-before date. Thaw it in the fridge, and use it quickly. For milk that lasts a while in the fridge without freezing, look for fine or micro-filtered milk in the dairy section.
Master cheesemonger Afrim Pristine, of Toronto’s Cheese Boutique recommends buying cheese in small quantities. Since cheese is an isolation essential, wrap leftovers in a layer of parchment paper, followed by a tight layer of tinfoil. This, according to Pristine’s book For the Love of Cheese, lets cheese breathe and keeps it from absorbing ambient fridge smells.
Butter is a great ingredient to buy in bulk: whether salted or unsalted, it lasts for up to eight weeks in the fridge if left unopened. Butter will stay fresh-tasting in the freezer for even longer—three months for unopened unsalted, and one year for unopened salted. To maintain flavour, the B.C. Dairy Association recommends wrapping it in an additional layer of foil or tossing it in a freezer bag.
Grains and Pantry Staples
Yes, flour can go rancid over time if you don’t store it properly. If you’ve picked up a bread-baking hobby and have lots of flour on hand, store it in the freezer in a re-sealable bag or airtight container to make it last. Note that, at one to three months, whole wheat flour’s shelf life isn’t as long as all-purpose, which can last up to eight months if stored properly. Unless you’ve got big plans for whole wheat baking, it’s best not to buy in bulk.
When unopened or stored properly in an airtight container, white rice can last almost indefinitely in the pantry, so go ahead and get that 18-pound bag. Brown rice isn’t quite as resilient, so it’s best to buy it in smaller quantities; when stored in a cool, dark, space and an airtight container, it can stay fresh for three to six months.
For optimal flavour and texture, eat your freshly baked loaves quickly. If you’re keeping it on the counter, store breads with soft crusts in plastic bags, and loaves with hard, crackly crusts in paper. If you don’t have immediate sandwich plans, freeze bread soon after baking or buying to maintain its delicious integrity. Slice before chilling, and ensure sure it’s thoroughly wrapped to avoid freezer burn.
According to the Whole Grain Council, “heat, air and moisture are the enemies of whole grains.” If grain bowls are in your meal plans, store items such as quinoa, farro, barley and more in airtight containers. Use this handy chart to determine how long your whole grain of choice should last in the pantry and freezer.
Nuts add crunch and flavour to baked goods and are an easy, protein-packed snack. But they tend to go rancid if left in the cupboard for too long. Extend the shelf life of pecans, peanuts, and more by storing them in airtight bags or containers in the freezer. Food52 recommends bringing them to room temperature before eating—and, to maximize flavour, suggests toasting them before chilling, too.
You might have heard that spices don’t expire, and while they might technically be okay to eat, their flavour diminishes over time. According to The Kitchn, whole spices last longer than ground. To keep your spices safely in Flavourtown, store them in airtight containers, in a dark place, and keep them away from heat.
Like many pantry staples, dried beans do best in a cool, dark environment. Stored in an airtight container, they should keep for up to two years. Older beans are difficult to rehydrate—no matter how long you soak them.
Those locally roasted beans you ordered from your favourite café are best brewed relatively soon after roasting. If you loaded up on more dark roast than you can brew, you can freeze whole beans in a sealed, airtight bag. Just like with other foods, defrost your beans and bring them to room temperature before making your morning cup.
If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on active dry yeast, try to use it before its expiration date. According to the experts at Fleischmann’s, yeast loses its potency as it ages. Store it in a cool, dark place or in the fridge. Once opened, you want to keep it cool and avoid drafts, so place it in an airtight container at the back of the fridge.
Fresh, raw meat lasts for just a few days in the fridge—so if it’s on sale, prepare to freeze it. For the best-tasting results, remove meat from its original packaging and rewrap it before placing it into a freezer bag. If you’re buying meat in bulk packages, consider portioning it out. That way, when it comes time for dinner, you can defrost just a few pieces at a time.
Fresh fish should be eaten shortly after you buy it, but you can freeze it, too. Just like with meat, remove it from its original packaging. Freeze fish (or seafood, like shrimp or squid) in a single layer on a sheet pan before storing in a freezer bag, with as much air removed as possible.
Don’t put your raw, whole eggs in your refrigerator door. You want them at a consistent temperature, so keep them in their carton on a fridge shelf. While the Chatelaine Kitchen doesn’t recommend freezing yolks (they can become gelatinous and behave differently in cooked and baked dishes if frozen), you can store egg whites (if you’ve made a yolky custard) in the freezer for up to 12 months.
Keep fresh bananas on the counter. If they’re ripening too quickly, peel, chop and store them in an airtight container or Ziploc bag. That way, you won’t have to wrestle with slimy bananas when you’re ready to make your eighth batch of banana bread.
To extend their shelf life, Food52 recommends rinsing berries in a water-vinegar solution, and then thoroughly drying them in a paper-towel-lined salad spinner before refrigerating them in a paper-towel-lined container, with the lid slightly ajar. If you have a bounty of berries, freeze them for smoothies and more. Chill in a single layer on a baking sheet before pouring into a freezer bag for the long haul.
Potatoes and onions
Potatoes and onions are hearty veggies, best stored in a cool (not cold), dark place with good ventilation. Keep them in a bag or bin that allows for airflow. And remember: even though potatoes and onions love similar environments, when stored together, they can ripen faster. It’s best to keep them apart.
Photo, Erik Putz.
Asparagus season is nearly here, so take advantage and make your bunches last. Don’t wash or trim asparagus until you’re ready to cook it. Store in the fridge, standing upright in a glass with a tiny bit of water.
As The Kitchn suggests, always wash your herbs before refrigerating and treat soft herbs (dill, cilantro, parsley, basil and mint) like a bouquet of flowers—trim the stems and stand them upright in a glass of water. Keep basil on the counter, and the others in the fridge, lightly covered by a plastic bag. For hard herbs (think: rosemary and time), wrap in a moist paper towel and store your herbaceous burrito in a container or zip-top bag.
If your herbs are at risk of going bad, chop them up and freeze in an ice cube tray with a neutral oil. Your herb pucks will be ready and waiting whenever you need a hit of fresh flavour.
This article was originally published in 2020; updated in 2022.