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Do Fermented Foods Expire?

How long do fermented foods keep before they expire?

When foods are fermented properly and stored in a dark, cool place, they can be kept between 4 and 18 months before expiring. Some foods can be kept longer under ideal conditions. Fermented food continues to ferment, even when you store it in the fridge.

How long will fermented vegetables last before they expire? Here we explain all you need to know about the expiry dates of fermented foods.

Some Rough Guidelines on How Long Fermented Foods Can Last

Vegetables

  • Fermented vegetables will soften and become more acidic as they age.  The shelf life of fermented vegetables will be dependent on how you want them served.  Fermented vegetables can last a long time.  They are still safe to eat even after a year. There won’t be much beneficial microflora as a freshly made batch, but they will still provide good nutrition.  This makes fermented vegetables excellent survival foods.  Cultured vegetables need correct conditions for fermenting.  It should be kept between 70- and 75-degrees Fahrenheit while they ferment.

    For ideal flavor, ferment vegetables for 7 – 14 days.  Some people prefer more a sourer taste and some less.  Occasionally you can open the jar to taste while they are fermenting.  Put it in the refrigerator once the flavor you like has developed.  Cultured vegetables can ferment faster in hot summer months than in the wintertime; make sure to check them regularly.
  • Sauerkraut and Cucumber pickles are typically long-fermented vegetables.  These can last for up to a year in a dark, cool place.  When refrigerating your sauerkraut, it can stay fresh for about four to six months after opening.  It’s important to note when you are using it.  Make sure to seal it after every use because if new bacteria encounter it, it can become spoiled.

    Refrigerated sauerkraut has a longer shelf life once opened than room temperature sauerkraut.  With an airtight seal, the sauerkraut can last for up to four to six months.  You will know when your sauerkraut has gone bad by the smell.  It will have a strange yeasty off smell or a moldy aroma.  If the sauerkraut has a strong smell, do not eat it and throw it out immediately.

    In addition to the smell, throw it out if your sauerkraut has become a different color or texture. If you see blue or green fluff, it has mold, and it is not safe to eat.
  • Pickled vegetables stored in a cool dark place and can last for six months to a year.  However, they will become soft as they ferment.  Fermented carrots, turnips, and green beans should still have some texture. Store them in your fridge for up to a month after fermentation.
  • Fermented pickles can be stored in their original containers for 4 to 9 months, refrigerated. Keep submerged under the brine.  Ferment Pickles are made with just salt or brine made from salt and water. Bacteria ferment the vegetables that produce lactic acid.  These pickles are fermented at room temperature for a week or two before being stored in the fridge.   All pickles have an extended shelf life because both vinegar and brine belong to natural preservatives.
  • Salsa, Chutney, and Relish will all soften and sour as they age.  Store the chutney and relish in the fridge for up to 3 months or in the freezer for six months.  Chutney and Relishes are most like a vinegar pickle but with sugar. These could be processed in a boiling water bath.  These pickles have a shelf or fridge life from a couple of months to a year or more.
  • Hot sauce can last for six months in a cool dark place.  Different kinds of hot sauce spoil at different rates.  Generally, hot sauce has a decent shelf life.  That is because most hot sauces contain vinegar and chili peppers as the main ingredients.  An opened bottle of vinegar-based hot sauce can last three to five years when refrigerated.  An unopened bottle of hot sauce could last even longer.

    Vinegar has an extra-long shelf life, even while sitting in a cabinet.  So, it is safe to say the inclusion of vinegar in a hot sauce would prolong its life.  Capsaicin in chili peppers keeps bacteria at bay, which means hot sauce will have a stellar shelf life.
  • Kimchi is eaten fresh after 3-5 days of fermentation.  However, it is a sauerkraut-like fermented food. Wich can last a year in a cool dark place.

Kombucha, Water Kefir, Ginger Bug, Kvass and Jun

Fermented soda will continue to ferment, even when it is stored in your fridge.  It becomes sourer as it ages.  It can be stored in the fridge for up to 6 months.

Homemade Alcoholic Drinks

Cider and Beer are in low alcohol, and unless preservatives are added, they will continue to ferment until all the sugars are consumed.

Homebrewed Beer generally is best around four months.

Store Cider in the fridge after bottling to slow down the carbonation after bottling.  Cider tastes best the first four weeks after bottling.

Wine has a higher alcohol content and tastes better as it ages.  Homemade Wine should be stored in a cool dark location.  Wine should not be opened until after it has aged for at least a year.  Homemade Wine can last around five years in storage.

Miso

Good Miso is aged for a minimum of a year. When the Miso is opened, it should then be stored in your fridge.  Miso can last for years but tastes best in the first year.

How to Tell When Fermented Food Has Expired

It is generally obvious when fermented food has expired, but usually, nobody wants to admit that something they have been waiting for months to eat has expired. Trust your senses.

  • Visual inspection:  Look at the fermented food.  When fermented food is older, it may have a slightly duller color. When you see mold, it has expired and needs to be thrown it out immediately.
  • Smell:  Fermented food should always smell good.  Even when it has been fermenting for months, kombucha should smell like strong kombucha.  Sauerkraut should smell like strong sauerkraut.  When the food smells rotten, moldy, or bad, then it should immediately be thrown out.
  • Taste: Taste it; when the fermented food doesn’t taste as it should, then it probably expires.  It could have been fermented for too long or contaminated by bacteria.  Do not eat it and throw it out directly.

How Fermentation Preserves Food

The goal of food preservation is to prevent unwanted bacteria, molds, and yeasts from spoiling food.  Preservation also maintains the texture and flavor of food.

Fermentation preserves food through several mechanisms, depending on the type of fermentation used.

Culturing food with bacteria, mold, or yeast strains will inhibit the growth of undesirable bacteria, mold, or yeasts.  A good culture outcompetes the bad culture and prevents food spoiling. 

Yogurt is an example of this.  Milk lasts about seven days after it has been opened.  When that milk is cultured into yogurt, it lasts at least 14 days.

Vegetables become more acidic during fermentation, which limits the growth of unwanted bacteria.  Lactic bacteria naturally pickle fermented vegetables.

Beverages fermented with a yeast-based culture like Wine, Beer, kombucha, and kefir all become alcoholic over time, which prevents the growth of yeasts and bacteria.

Factors that Can Extend the Expiry Date of Your Fermented Food

There are a few factors that can extend the life of your fermented foods, here are a few:

  • Temperature is one of the biggest factors.  When fermented food is to your liking, it gets moved to the refrigerator.  The colder temperature slows down the decomposition process and almost stops the fermentation.
  • Acid when most homemade fermented foods reach their best level, acid is formed that preserves them.
  • Anaerobic Environment keep out the oxygen.  Mold loves oxygen. Keep your foods submerged and away from oxygen using glass fermentation weights and fermentation lids with airlocks.

Shelf Life of Canned Foods vs. Fermented Foods

Canned foods have a remarkably long shelf life, and there have even been tests done on canned foods that have determined that many canned foods are safe to eat many years after the expiration date.

The only negative against canned foods is that the high-level heat treatment used to sterilize the cans or jars destroys the taste, nutrients, and life that would normally be found in that food.  Today foods are saturated with artificial colors and chemicals, artificial flavors, and even gassed to extend their shelf-life.

The food canning process has been a remarkable discovery and is an important long-term food supply, but fresh and fermented foods and drinks are the way to go if you want healthier food.

Shelf-stable long-term storable canned foods do less for you in terms of nutrition and flavor.  Fermented foods are for everyday, short-term use and are more flavorful and nutritious.

Three benefits of fermenting foods

  • Fermented foods are way more healthy than canned foods.
  • Fermentation is a more sustainable and traditional method of food preservation that existed before water bath canning and oil were abundant.
  • Fermentation is much faster and easier than canning.  A few gallons of dill pickles can easily be made in an hour.

Six Warning Signs Fermented Foods Expired

There are six warning signs to look out for that tell you that your fermented foods are spoiled.

1. Inflated Lid

Once fermented food goes bad, the acid in the liquid can create extra pressure, and the jar top swells and turns dome-shaped. Discard the container immediately; it is no longer edible.

2. Smell

Fermented pickles have a recognizable scent.  A strong, unpleasant stinky smell is a sure sign your fermented food has gone bad.  Even though it may look ok visually, any foul smell is a warning that something is wrong.

3. Texture

If your fermented pickles have the same crispy texture and tasty flavor as before, you can keep eating them. If they are spongy, slimy, and softened, they are inedible, and you throw them out.

4. Brine

The brine in the jar should be a specific, pale-yellow color, and it should be clear.  When you see any changes and the liquid looks cloudy and slimy, throw the fermented pickles away immediately.  Cloudy brine indicates a chemical change in the liquid and is no longer safe to consume.

5. Spots

A jar of fermented pickles should not contain anything black or brown other than peppercorns.  Dark spots on a pickle’s bark or brown floating particles indicate a fungal infection.  Those are to be discarded immediately.

6. Organic Growths

When leaving a jar in a warm place, mold can develop in a jar.  When there is whitish sediment at the bottom of the container, it is normal.  However, mold on the surface indicates the fermented pickles have spoiled.  The same applies if you notice thin threads in the brine.

Conclusion

Fermented foods can last a long time if it is preserved and stored correctly.  Some fermented foods can last more than two years and still smell, look, and taste great.  Someone reported a prized batch of kimchi that lasted eight years in their fridge.  Although it is doubtful anything will last that long without being eaten.

Today with the usual recommendation of throwing something out after being in your fridge for only three days, keeping it in the realm of years would probably scare most people.  Store all opened jars in the fridge.

Most of the time, one of the main factors of throwing a fermented food out is more to do with the texture, smell, and taste.

It’s up to you and your instincts when it comes to food safety, but you just might be surprised by the ancient power of fermentation in extending the shelf life of foods.  If something looks or smells bad, throw it away. 

Ultimately, it is down to your senses as to whether something should be eaten or not.  Most recommendations are conservative because it is better to be safe than sorry. You may have pickles that last years without any problems. 

Sources

Frank Pearmain

As a homesteader, survivalist, and previously a safari guide in Africa, I have extensive bush and wilderness experience. I am passionate about living a self-sufficient, off-grid lifestyle and continuously learn and strive toward that goal!

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