20 Non-Perishable Foods with a Long Shelf Life
Stocking your pantry with non-perishable food gives you options and saves you money. Here are the items that will last a long time—possibly forever.
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Non-perishable food you’ll want in your pantry
When supermarkets were suddenly bare during the pandemic, having a stash of non-perishable food was especially important. But keeping plenty of canned goods and baking essentials on hand has always been a great idea. After all, they make day-to-day life easier, and they’re budget friendly. They’re essential for emergency situations like snowstorms and power outages. And hey, there’s no downside to having everything you need to whip up a pot of soup or a batch of cookies, right? Right.
Defined simply, non-perishable food—also known as shelf-stable food—is food that can be safely stored for long periods of time at room temperature. But sometimes, those items are in your pantry for a very long time, and that might get you to wondering: How long does canned food really last? Does flour go bad? Does salt expire? And is there any wiggle room around sell-by dates?
As food safety expert Natalie Seymour notes, “Code dates on foods can be very confusing.” But generally speaking, she says, the dates on shelf-stable foods are a benchmark for when quality may start to decline, as opposed to when a food is no longer safe to eat. That said, some foods never expire, while others should be eaten within a few years. And to keep them in tip-top shape, you’ll want to store them correctly, which usually means unopened and in a cool, dry and dark place.
Read on for the non-perishable foods you’ll want to stock up on—and exactly how long each will last. Once you’re up to speed, find out if you should be paying attention to the expiration date on your bottled water too.
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Conventional wisdom holds that raw honey never expires because it’s naturally antibacterial. According to the USDA, it can be stored for up to 12 months, ideally at room temperature in a dark cupboard. After that, it’s still safe to eat, but the quality may not be as good. What about honey that’s cloudy, crystallized or even solidified? It’s also OK to eat. Those things happen to honey when this non-perishable food is stored improperly, usually in a spot that’s too cold or in direct sunlight, though they can also simply happen over time. To melt solid or crystallized honey, microwave it briefly, or gently lower the closed container into a bowl of hot water. On the other hand, you should toss these foods after their expiration date.
Apple cider vinegar
Apple cider vinegar is such a superhero, it should wear a cape. Made from apple juice that’s been fermented twice, it contains natural probiotics and antioxidants, which can help boost gut health, prevent cell damage and possibly even help regulate blood sugar. According to the Vinegar Institute, apple cider vinegar’s shelf life is “almost indefinite,” so, like other vinegars, it can stay in your pantry pretty much forever. Plus, because it’s so acidic, vinegar is self-preserving and doesn’t require refrigeration.
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Provided that cornstarch is stored correctly—in a cool, dry place in a sealed container—and it doesn’t get wet and moldy, you won’t need to pick up another container until you run out. This powdery thickening agent, which is made from the starch in corn kernels, never expires or loses its potency. So feel free to keep it in your cabinet indefinitely for all your sauces, soups, stir-fries and pie fillings. If baking’s on your mind, find out if it’s safe to eat expired eggs.
Pure sodium chloride, a stable mineral, can last forever, provided it doesn’t get wet. In fact, salt is often used to draw liquid out of food through a process called osmosis, which creates an environment so dry that mold and bacteria can’t take hold. According to the USDA, salt is used to preserve or “cure” meats such as country hams and corned beef, and you’ll even find it in baked goods. So, in other words, salt not only lasts forever on its own, but it’s also a key component in helping other foods last longer (not to mention taste better). Here are some other clever uses for salt that don’t involve cooking.
Not to be confused with canned or fresh beans, dried beans last indefinitely—as long as they’re stored in sealed or airtight packaging. Common dried legumes include garbanzo beans, black beans, kidney beans, lima beans, navy beans and black-eyed peas. However, older beans may take longer to rehydrate, so you’ll have to wait a little longer for them to be edible. Keep these classic non-perishable foods on hand for all your winter soups and stews. If you also want to throw some beef or chicken into them, check out these meat storage guidelines first.
Does sugar go bad? Similar to salt, sugar can last forever if you keep it away from moisture and heat. According to the Utah State University Extension, granulated sugars last indefinitely due to their resistance to microbial growth. Sugars generally have a best-by date of about two years, but that’s just because they might get clumpy. Although their textures might change, sugar never completely expires and is safe to use well after its expiration date. Sweet! Wondering how fast butter expires? We have the answer to that too.
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For hard liquor to last indefinitely, it must be stored in a cool place, unopened. So, no, you can’t crack open a bottle of Kahlúa, drink some and then expect what remains to be just as good years later. Once the seal is broken and the bottle’s contents are exposed to air, the liquid might begin to lose its flavors and structure due to oxidation. Opened bottles will generally only last between six months and a year, though extreme light or heat can shorten that time frame.
Why do those unopened bottles last so long? “Hard liquors are distilled to concentrate the alcohol at high levels,” explains Seymour. “The alcohol content prohibits the growth of bacteria or yeast that could cause further fermentation or spoilage.”
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Pure vanilla extract
With its high alcohol content, pure vanilla extract has an indefinite shelf life. However, there’s a big difference between pure vanilla extract and imitation vanilla extract. Because imitation vanilla extract doesn’t have as much alcohol as its pure counterpart, it will last only 6 to 12 months after its expiration date, according to the expert bakers at Wilton. After that, the quality may start to decline. Provided your vanilla extract is pure and properly sealed, you can pull it out whenever you’d like to whip up cookies, cakes, custards or other goodies.
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Uncooked white rice
Seymour lists white rice among her top three non-perishable foods, and it’s easy to see why. Unopened, this versatile, calorie-dense pantry staple can last indefinitely, and according to the experts at the Utah State University Extension, it can also last for one to two years after opening. To preserve the quality and prevent pest contamination, store it in a cool place in tightly sealed food-safe bags, plastic containers or glass jars. Food-safe oxygen absorbers can extend rice’s shelf life even longer—up to 10 years. To get great results at the stove, avoid these common rice cooking mistakes.
Pure maple syrup
If you typically buy imitation maple syrup at the supermarket, you might want to reconsider. Pure maple syrup contains vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, and best of all, it doesn’t have any artificial ingredients. Plus, unopened pure maple syrup will keep indefinitely, so feel free to stock up when you find a deal! Once opened, however, it needs to be refrigerated and will last about a year, according to the USDA.
That flavorful bottle of salty goodness so essential for Asian cooking and sushi dipping is not something you have to worry about expiring. Soy sauce generally doesn’t even need to be refrigerated after opening, but if you think it will take you more than a year to use the contents of the bottle, you might want to stash it in the fridge, since refrigeration helps preserve the distinctive flavor for a longer period. Otherwise, a cool, dark cabinet is fine, according to the Global Cold Chain Alliance.
Frozen ground meat or poultry
According to the USDA, “food poisoning bacteria does not grow in the freezer, so no matter how long a food is frozen, it is safe to eat.” That’s right: If you leave ground beef, chicken or turkey in the freezer for more than a few months, it won’t go bad. That said, when you pull it out, it might not taste quite as good as it once did (though it still won’t taste bad). The best plan for meat or poultry unearthed from the deep freeze is to make chili, tacos or sloppy joes—recipes that will restore meat’s lost moisture and add flavor with sauces and spices.
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According to the USDA, there are two kinds of canned hams: shelf-stable canned hams and “keep refrigerated” canned hams. Shelf-stable canned hams can be stored in the pantry at room temperature for two years. The others, however, need to be put in the fridge right away, where they can safely remain for six to nine months. If you remove either from its can, the ham can be frozen for one to two months.
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Commercially canned fish, such as tuna, can be safely stored in your pantry for up to five years, according to the USDA. On the other hand, fish canned at home is only good for a year, so if you’re looking for foods with a long shelf life, you’re much better off with supermarket canned tuna. While we’re on the subject, here’s what you need to know about buying sustainable fish.
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Dark, sweet, syrupy molasses is a must for many holiday baked goods, and you can also add it to baked beans and barbecue sauces for a solid punch of sweetness. Unopened molasses is fine for a full year at room temperature in a dark, cool place, according to the USDA. Once opened, it doesn’t need to be refrigerated, but you should use it within six months for best quality. FYI, if your molasses is exposed to heat or humidity, it may get moldy (it will look barely slick or visibly fuzzy on top) or the jar contents may separate. If this happens, toss it.
Canned fruits and vegetables
Cans in good condition—meaning no dents, swelling or rust—stored in a cool, clean, dry place are safe indefinitely. We’re talking corn, peas, carrots, green beans, asparagus, peaches, pears, pineapple and so much more. Canned foods do have best-by or use-by dates, but the timing is linked to peak freshness, not safety, according to the Can Manufacturer’s Institute. High-acid foods such as tomatoes and pineapple will retain peak quality up to 18 months. Low-acid foods, such as meat and veggies, go even longer without sacrificing taste or texture, ringing in at two to five years.
And, of course, you can do a lot with those ingredients, especially when you mix them with other non-perishable food. “Canned tomatoes are a great base for soups and sauces,” points out Seymour. “Rice and beans together provide sufficient amounts of essential amino acids for complete protein, and they can take you all over the world from a culinary perspective.”
Pasta is certainly one of the most versatile non-perishable foods, because it can be enjoyed in a wide variety of ways, from traditional Italian food to casseroles, frittatas and soups. Per the USDA, it can be stored in a cool, dry pantry for two years with no fear of it degrading, though after that, it might start to get stale and have a musty, “off” flavor when cooked. Tiny insects can also make their way into still-sealed packages, even if your pantry is super clean. So if your pasta is on the old side, check the water after you add the noodles.
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Unsweetened cocoa powder
Unsweetened cocoa powder is a must for making chocolate cookies, brownies, cakes and frostings, and you don’t have to go on a baking spree to use it up immediately … unless you want to, of course! In a taste test, the experts at Cook’s Illustrated compared cocoa powder that was a whopping six years past its expiration to fresh cocoa powder—and only about half of the pros’ palettes detected any diminished flavor. Those who did perceive a difference deemed it minor. Store in a cool, dry place in an airtight container to keep it as fresh as possible for as long as possible.
Perfect for slathering on sandwiches or apple slices for a hit of protein, or stirred into cookie dough for nutty goodness, peanut butter is safe to stock up on, though it has a somewhat shorter shelf life than some of the other non-perishable foods on this list. Unopened, it keeps for six to nine months in the pantry, and two to three months once opened.
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Canned coconut milk
In terms of milk, canned coconut milk is a superstar when it comes to shelf life. It can last up to five years at room temperature in a cool, dark pantry. Just be aware that the milk will likely separate into two layers: a thin, watery one, and a thick, dense, creamy one. Just stir or shake to recombine for a lactose-free, vegan milk substitute. After stirring, look at it and give a good sniff. If the appearance or odor seem “off,” throw it out. Now that you know which non-perishable food you should stock up on, find out how long cow’s milk lasts—and how to make it last longer.
Additional reporting by Brittany Gibson.
- USDA: “What does ‘shelf stable’ mean?”
- Natalie Seymour, a food safety expert who has worked in academics and the food industry for nearly a decade
- USDA: “Ask USDA”
- The Vinegar Institute: “Frequently Asked Questions”
- Utah State University Extension: “Food Storage”
- Wilton Blog: “Imitation Vanilla Extract 101 & FAQ”
- Global Cold Chain Alliance: “What are the impacts of storing soy sauce unrefrigerated?”
- USDA: “Before You Toss Food, Wait. Check It Out!”
- Cook’s Illustrated: “Don’t Toss Expired Cocoa Powder”
- FoodSafety.gov: “FoodKeeper App”