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Shelf Storage at Room Temperature

Posted: November 2, 2012

Knowing how to store food properly and how long it will keep, helps to reduce wasted food dollars while keeping the food looking and tasting good.

Proper storage also helps retain nutrients and keeps the food safe to eat.

General Food Storage Guidelines

Start with clean and dry storage conditions. Regularly vacuum and wipe cupboards and shelves to get rid of crumbs or spilled flour or sugar that might attract pests. Foods such as flour, dry cereals and crackers need to be in air tight containers to prevent absorption of moisture from the air as well as to discourage insects.

Store foods away from appliances which produce heat. Food should not be stored in cabinets over the range, near the dishwasher or by the refrigerator exhaust. A cool pantry, closet or cabinets on an outside wall will be more temperature appropriate for food storage. Foods in glass jars should be stored in a dark place to preserve vitamins that are sensitive to light.

Breads

Bread keeps fresh when stored at room temperature in a cool, dry place. It is generally not recommended to refrigerate bread because it will become stale more quickly. However, in hot humid weather, bread to be kept for more than two or three days should be refrigerated to retard mold growth. The shelf life of bread depends upon the ingredients. Homemade breads may mold more quickly than commercially produced breads that contain approved preservatives to slow the growth of spoilage organisms. Store brown-and-serve breads, English muffins, and other high-moisture breads in the refrigerator. Hard crust breads such as French bread should be kept at room temperature and used within one or two days of purchase. Hard-crust breads are made with water rather than milk and dry quickly. Most bread is packaged in moisture and vapor-proof wraps which are good for storage. When plastic or metal containers are used to store bread, they should be rinsed with a baking soda solution after cleaning to remove odors that might be absorbed by the containers.

Fruits and Vegetables

A few fruits and vegetables are suitable for storage in a cupboard or shelf. Dry onions, potatoes, rutabagas and winter squash keep best in cool dark places around 50°F to 60°F. Some foods don’t store well together. Don’t store potatoes and onions together because the moisture from potatoes will cause the onions to spoil. It is generally not recommended that potatoes or sweet potatoes be refrigerated because temperatures below 40°F cause starches in the potatoes to turn to sugars which alters their flavor and texture. Avoid prolonged exposure of potatoes to light to prevent the skin from turning green.

Tomatoes will keep for 3 to 5 days at room temperature. Ripen tomatoes at room temperature away from the sun. For best flavor, use at room temperature. Refrigerate when fully ripened.

Some fruits that start out at room temperature may need to be transferred to the refrigerator after reaching ideal maturity. Bananas need room temperature to ripen, but when ripe will keep for a longer period of time in the refrigerator. The skin may turn dark in the refrigerator, but the quality of the banana will stay firm for several days. Once ripe, apples will keep crisp in the refrigerator ten times longer than at room temperature according to the Pennsylvania Apple Marketing Program. The shelf life of apples also depends upon the variety. Pears should ripen at room temperature just until the skin yields to slight pressure at the stem end when pressed with your thumb. Immediately refrigerate to prevent rapid over-ripening. A pretty bowl of fresh fruit is attractive on the kitchen counter; however, only display the amount that will be eaten in a day or two to prevent spoilage.

Canned Goods

Although canned goods have a long shelf life, they don’t maintain their quality forever. Place newer purchases of canned goods to the rear of the shelf and use the older canned goods first. Whenever possible, refer to the sell-by or use-by dates on cans. Old canned goods may be safe to eat, but their color, flavor, texture, and/or nutritive value may have deteriorated. Store canned foods in a dry place at moderately cool, but not freezing temperatures.

Canned goods that become frozen may experience a slight breakdown of texture, but a single freezing and thawing is not serious unless the seal is broken.

Danger signs for canned foods involve bulging, denting, or rusting cans. Bulging indicates spoilage inside the can--throw it away without opening the can or tasting the food. Do not buy cans with dents on the side seam or on the top or bottom rim. Check carefully for leakage—especially around the seam. Throw leaky cans away. Also check rusty cans for leakage as the rust may have penetrated the can.

When it comes to food safety, “when in doubt, throw it out.” It is not worth the risk of food-borne illness to save a few dollars. If the quality has deteriorated, it is likely the food will taste bad and end up being thrown out

For more information on food storage, go to Kansas State Extension's “Cupboard Approximate Storage Times”.