Out with the Old, In with the New: How to Store Dairy Products
When was the last time you cleaned out your fridge?
Food safety experts recommend cleaning refrigerators—wiping the entire interior with hot, soapy water and rinsing—at least once a month. Once a week is better, and spills should be cleaned up immediately.
Perishable foods past their prime should be thrown out weekly, according to USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.
But how do you know when milk, cheese and yogurt have overstayed their welcome?
“There seems to be confusion about dates on [food] packages,” says Bethany Thayer, MS, RD, director of wellness programs and strategies with Henry Ford Health System and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association). “People wonder which date they need to pay attention to.”
“The use by and best if used by dates are really about quality—they’re not safety-related,” explains Thayer. “The sell by or expiration (exp) dates are a matter of food safety.”
Use by: The date an item will pass its peak in quality, according to the manufacturer. If stored properly, dairy foods can be consumed a few days after this date.
Date only (for example: JAN 1): Usually the same as the use by date.
Sell by: The date the manufacturer recommends that the store sell the product. Don’t buy the product if the date has passed. If you already have the product in the fridge at home, eat it within a few days. In general, dairy products keep beyond their sell by dates, but only if properly stored.
That’s why proper storage and handling of food is so important: It’s a matter of food safety and food quality.
Here’s how to ensure the longest shelf life for milk, cheese and yogurt:
• Dairy products should be among the last items you add to your cart at the grocery store.
• After purchase, travel directly home and put dairy products in the refrigerator. If you know you won’t be going home immediately after grocery shopping, put an ice-filled cooler in your vehicle’s trunk so you can keep perishable foods cold until you get home.
• Milk will stay fresh 2-3 days after the sell by date, possibly up to a week after the sell by date if it was stored and handled properly.
• The interior of the refrigerator should be below 40°F. Place a refrigerator/freezer thermometer in the refrigerator where it’s easy to see so you can monitor the temperature.
• It’s best to store milk in the refrigerator on an interior shelf, not in the door compartments.
• After you pour milk, return it immediately to the refrigerator. Don’t let it sit on the countertop or table.
• Don’t drink from the container, which introduces bacteria into the milk.
• To prevent bacterial growth, don’t return unused milk to the original container.
• Freezing milk is not recommended due to changes to its texture and taste.
• Cheese should be wrapped tightly in original packaging or other wrapping. Cheese connoisseurs recommend using wax paper.
• If mold appears on hard, natural cheese (other than mold-ripened cheese such as Bleu and Roquefort), remove and discard the mold and about a half-inch of the cheese that surrounded the mold. The rest of the cheese is safe to eat.
• If mold appears on processed cheese, semi-soft cheese or cottage cheese, discard the cheese.
• Hard cheese can be frozen, but the taste and texture may suffer. However, it may be fine to use in cooking.
• Cheese, except cottage cheese, tastes best when served at room temperature. Take cheese out of the refrigerator about 30 minutes before serving.
• In general, cheese with higher moisture content and lower the acidity will spoil faster. Refer to “safe food storage” charts for detailed information: Food Storage Guidelines for Consumers, page 10.
• Cheese made from unpasteurized milk (raw milk cheese) must be aged for at least 60 days before it is sold, according to current government regulations.
• Pregnant women, young children, the elderly and anyone with weakened immune systems should not eat unpasteurized cheese or soft cheese like Camembert and Brie.
• Yogurt should stay fresh in the refrigerator for 1-2 weeks.
• Freezing yogurt is not recommended due to changes in texture and taste.
• Use pasteurized eggs, not raw eggs, when making homemade ice cream. Ice cream has been referred to as one of the most common foods that may cause foodborne illness; however, this only applies to homemade ice cream when it’s made with raw eggs, this is not true of commercial ice cream.
• Store commercial ice cream in the freezer at 0°F or below. The expected shelf life is about two months before quality diminishes.
Food that’s been properly stored and handled is not only safer, it tastes better! Here’s to a healthful and tasteful New Year.
Now, I wonder what Bethany Thayer would say about the worms my husband insists on stashing in the refrigerator during the summer. I bet she would say, “Fight Bac!”
Home Food Safety Resources:
Food Storage Guidelines for Consumers, Virginia Cooperative Extension (see pages 4 and 10 for dairy information)