Many people believe ice cream can’t spoil– and how could it? It lives in the freezer! But you would be surprised by how quickly ice cream can go bad under the right conditions.
How long does ice cream last? Ice cream can last up to 6 weeks in the fridge once it is opened while unopened ice cream can last up to 2-3 months at 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Melted and then refrozen ice cream will only be good for about a few weeks before it loses its flavor and quality.
Read below to learn more about storing ice cream, how long it can last in some situations, and some signs to look out for before eating it!
The Journey of Ice Cream
Everyone understands the concept of storing ice cream in the freezer. After all, ice cream gets its name from the ice crystals that form when it is frozen.
But even ice cream, a food that is always stored in the freezer, needs to follow the right storage protocol to last longer.
The truth is, there are a lot of factors that can cause ice cream to go bad.
Something as little as a faulty freezer or a “clogged” refrigerator can degrade the quality of ice cream in a matter of days, let alone weeks!
Keep in mind that ice cream is a usually dairy-rich food that contains milk, sugar, flavorings, and lots of moisture. If you were to ask a food scientist about the top easily-spoiled ingredients, then chances are that they will list the same ingredients.
Ice cream can beat other foods in the same category due to its unique mixture of ingredients along with preservatives and additives.
It is also important to understand that bacteria become dormant at freezing temperatures.
Most health agencies will unanimously agree that 0F is the gold standard for freezing food as it is a lab-proven temperature zone that inhibits bacterial growth and is also able to kill some bacteria as well!
Before diving into how store-bought ice cream is made, check out the video below by Tasty for a fun homemade ice cream vs store-bought ice cream taste test.
Is Ice Cream Shelf Stable?
But how is ice cream inherently shelf-stable? Well, a huge factor that adds to the shelf life of this delicious food is its meticulous manufacturing process.
Before we begin on how to store ice cream, let’s first dive into how it is designed to last longer in the first place.
Here are some of the things that need to happen to increase the shelf life of ice cream:
- The manufacturing process must be immaculate.
- The ice cream must remain frozen across the cold chain.
- When purchased, the ice cream must be frozen within 30 minutes or an hour for max shelf life.
Let’s go over each aspect.
Manufacturing Ice Cream
Ice cream is either made in large, commercial factories or small-scale cottage industries. Since this food is extremely easy to make, anyone with the right equipment can whip up their very own batch of frozen desserts.
But the shelf life of these products will vary greatly. See, ice cream made in large factories needs to undergo a series of quality checks.
Ice cream factories usually maintain a high regard for hygiene which means that all the raw materials go through strict quality control protocols that ensure the shelf life of the product.
This process starts with milk that is sourced from local farms. The milk is transported in specialized temperature-controlled vessels that deliver it right to the production line.
Once at the factory, the milk undergoes batch testing to ensure that every batch meets the maximum quality standards. Once approved, the milk is then further mixed with other similarly tested ingredients.
The production line is regularly sanitized to minimize exposure and contamination. Once the ice cream is made, it is packed in sanitized plastic packs and shipped to retail stores across the country.
Maintaining the Cold Chain
Just as “supply chain” is used in regular FMCG goods (Fast Moving Consumer Goods), ice cream manufacturers employ the term “Cold Chain” instead of “supply chain” – but they both mean the same thing.
The cold chain is the supply process that guarantees the longevity of ice cream and its quality. Being a frozen dessert, each supply channel needs to support freezing temperatures for the product.
This process is closely monitored in a commercial setting but may falter when it comes to local production.
A variance in the cold chain may also lead to altering expiry dates!
Once the ice cream is packaged, it is shipped in temperature-controlled vehicles that deliver the goods to local stores. These stores will then move the ice cream products into freezers within 10-15 minutes!
It is no surprise that ice cream needs to spend as little time as possible at room temperature to maintain its quality because as soon as the ice crystals start to melt, the ice cream will start to lose its quality over time, this effect is compounded when the ice cream pack is open – more on this below.
Storing Ice Cream at Home
This is the final step in the cold chain process. Once you purchase a pack of ice cream from the store, the fate of the product is literally in your hands.
To maintain quality, the ice cream must be stored as soon as possible or you might compromise its flavor, texture, and shelf life – even when unopened.
While ice cream products are rated to last some time at room temperature thanks to airtight packaging and quality checks, it can still be very, very easy to mess things up!
How Long Does Ice Cream Last In The Freezer?
If stored properly, ice cream in the freezer will last about 2-3 months if it is left unopened.
Why does opening the pack make such a huge difference? Well, it has to do with the airtight seal that keeps bacteria and air out of the pack. Keep in mind that air is just as bad as bacteria and once the ice cream is exposed to it, it will start to oxidize.
Here is a chart showing the storage time of ice cream in some situations:
|Storage Type||Storage Indications|
|Room Temperature - Unopened Pack||Store in the freezer within 15-30 minutes|
|Room Temperature - Opened Pack||Should not be left out for more than 10 minutes|
|Freezer – Unopened Pack||Consume within 2-3 months|
|Freezer – Opened Pack||Consume within 6 weeks|
|Freezer – Melted and Refrozen Ice Cream||Consume within 2-3 weeks|
|Refrigerator||Store in the freezer or consume within 30-45 minutes|
If the ice cream has melted, then the best thing that you can do is to move it into the freezer within the hour to maintain its quality.
While refreezing it will rearrange its microstructure and affect its mouthfeel, it will be completely safe to eat for about a few weeks.
Best Before Vs. Expiration Date
Look at the back of the pack of ice cream in your fridge. You will probably see a label that reads “best before” rather than a hard “expiration” date.
This is because theoretically, frozen food will remain safe to eat forever. As long as your freezer is functioning 24/7, there is very little that can go wrong when it comes to its safety.
But while freezers are excellent storage vessels, there is almost nothing that can be done when it comes to the flavor and quality of frozen food.
Time is the real factor here. When opened, ice cream exposed to air will slowly start to lose its flavor and texture until it becomes diluted or even dry – we’ll discuss why in a minute.
The best before date simply states the time before the product starts to taste different. For some people, this can only be a slight difference in flavor, but for others, this can be a huge dip in quality.
Does this mean that the ice cream has gone bad?
Not really, it is just undergoing normal chemical changes that are NOT driven by bacterial growth.
But sometimes these quality dips can be prominent enough for people to label the ice cream as “expired”.
Take freezer burn as an example, when exposed to moisture and air, ice cream can develop freezer burn that can either stay confined to the surface or even spread across the entire mass.
Freezer burn can cause the ice cream to lose moisture – yes, ice cream can dry up too! When this happens, you will notice lumpiness in the ice cream. This will give your favorite dessert an unappealing chewiness with varying flavors.
Again, the ice cream hasn’t gone bad, rather, it has been ruined beyond saving due to improper storage practices.
A Typical Scenario for Ruining Ice Cream
As we have already discussed, frozen food will not go bad and cause health problems, but there are a few circumstances where ice cream can go bad.
Imagine the following scenario: you purchase a tub of ice cream from the store but decide to run a few errands before heading home.
After finishing work and taking 1-2 hours on a hot summer day, you finally decide to go home.
You take out the groceries after 10-15 minutes on the counter and then store the ice cream near the door of the freezer. You continue to open and close the freezer door to put in, rearrange and take out other stuff – this takes around another 10-15 minutes.
By this time the freezer thermostat, which started at 0F has gone up to 10F and everything in your freezer has started to melt. But you’re finally done and decide to leave the freezer undisturbed. The ice cream spends the night chilling and freezes over successfully.
A few days later you open up the pack and serve the ice cream – storing the leftovers back in the freezer for later using the same poor storage practices. A few months go by and you continue to open the freezer door in the same way for other purposes.
After 4 months of bad storage practices, you remember the tub of leftovers in the freezer and decide to eat it – but you notice that there is severe dryness and even discoloration on the ice cream.
This is when you should sound the alarms. The ice cream has gone bad!
What Happens If You Eat Expired Ice Cream?
Eating severely compromised ice cream can lead to digestive and general health issues. Once the ice cream develops visible bacterial growth, it will become unsalvageable and should be discarded right away!
If you see any form of growth, fuzziness, discoloration, curdling, or notice a foul odor, then it is safe to assume that the ice cream has gone bad, and eating it will surely lead to a lot of trouble.
If you suspect that you have consumed bad ice cream then please consult with your health provider for more information.
Do not induce vomit and seek professional help if needed. In many cases, you may not need any medical care, but if the ice cream was severely contaminated, then you might need to visit a hospital.
Tips for Storage
Here are a few best practices that you can use to improve the longevity of your favorite frozen dessert:
Purchasing at the End
When at the supermarket, always purchase the ice cream at the end so that you get a frozen tub of dessert instead of a melted mess.
This tip is highly underrated and many people don’t understand how important every minute is when it comes to ice cream products!
As soon as the ice cream leaves the freezer, it will start to melt. There is no “leeway” or “safe window” here.
Most supermarkets will have freezers next to the check-out counter by design! You are meant to purchase frozen products at the end so that you get a cushion of a few minutes before the ice cream goes bad (melts)!
Leaving Ice Cream in the Trunk
Keep the bag that contains the ice cream with you in the front or back seat. The trunk of the car will be way hotter than the inside cabin. You can also help by cranking up the air conditioning, especially on a hot summer day!
Please keep in mind that if the inside of your car is too hot for you, then it will also be unbearable for the ice cream as well.
Storing at the Back of the Freezer
This little tip will take you far in storing ice cream. The door of the freezer is the worst storage place for ice cream or easily perishable goods.
Opening the door will expose the ice cream to warm air which can lead to freezer burn! Always store the ice cream in the coldest part of your freezer for the best experience.
Servicing the Freezer
Regularly service your freezer to maintain its cooling capabilities. No-frost freezers are a good fit for this purpose but you can use any type of freezer to store ice cream. Bonus points if your freezer has a digital temperature display!
Occasionally check the temperature inside the freezer using the display and adjust your storing habits accordingly.
For more ice cream storage tips, watch this video by Mashed on YouTube.
Storing ice cream is extremely easy but poor storage practices can just as easily ruin it too. Now that you know how long ice cream lasts, here are some related questions:
Should ice cream be thawed before serving?
This isn’t necessary unless you enjoy soft-served ice cream. The best way to go about this is to first scoop out the required servings and then store the leftovers back in the freezer.
Store the scooped ice cream in the fridge for about 10-15 minutes and then serve, by this time the ice cream would have melted enough to have a soft texture. Do not leave the ice cream out in the open for more than 10 minutes or it might fully melt.
Can you eat 1-year-old ice cream?
If the ice cream was unopened and stored at 0F for the entire storage duration then you may eat the ice cream even if it is a 1-year-old.
Will it taste good? Not really. The ice cream will likely taste less sweet and rich and may even have differing textures – but it will be safe to eat since it was stored the right way.