Note: I wrote this column about holiday food gifts several years ago and it received more comments than almost anything I've ever written. I repeat the article now for those who may have missed the information then, or who are dealing with different gifts of holiday food this year.
Gifts of food are some of the most popular holiday items to share with business associates, friends and family members. But, once the holidays are past, how long can the food be safely kept on hand to eat and enjoy?
That was my recent question to Karen Blakeslee, coordinator of the Extension Rapid Response Center at Kansas State University. We discussed the tins of popcorn, candies, jellies and other foods that still may be lingering in homes and offices. The good news is that some holiday food gifts can be safely enjoyed for weeks or even months to come.
Here is a list of some of the popular holiday food gifts and recommendations for safe storage and use.
* Popped popcorn: Store in airtight containers away from moisture to prevent sticking if sugar-coated. Caramel-type popcorn has a shelf life of up to six months, cheese-coated popcorn has a shelf life of two to three months. Watch for rancidity.
* Summer sausage and other fully-cured meat sticks: Once these meat products are cut open and the outer coating is unsealed, they should be consumed within three weeks. Unopened, uncut products may be kept for three months in the refrigerator. The high salt content makes freezing a less-desirable option, so store only one to two months in the freezer for best quality.
* Firm cheeses: Blocks of cheese which have been opened will keep at good quality in the refrigerator for three to four weeks. Be sure to wrap well to prevent drying or molding. Unopened blocks of cheese will keep in the refrigerator for up to six months if well sealed. Firm cheeses also may be frozen for six months, well sealed, however, the texture may be more crumbly when thawed.
* Nuts: Mixed nuts, roasted peanuts, chopped pecans or other shelled nuts should be refrigerated after opening and frozen for longer storage. Unsalted varieties last longest before becoming stale or rancid. Opened containers of nuts at room temperature will be at best quality for two weeks. Unopened nuts may be kept on the shelf for three months; freeze for longer storage. Nuts in the shell should be used within four months for freshest quality.
* Candy: Well-wrapped chocolate will keep at room temperature for seven to eight months, but varieties containing nuts or other ingredients should be eaten sooner. Formed candies such as truffles, pralines and commercial boxed candies can be frozen and defrosted in the refrigerator before being brought to room temperature for eating. Some chocolates may appear discolored with a white surface residue due to fat separation in storage. This condition affects only the appearance, the chocolate is still safe to eat.
* Jams and jellies: Unopened jars may be kept on the shelf for 12 months, but longer storage may cause the color to fade or darken. Both homemade and commercial varieties of sweet spreads should be kept tightly covered and stored in the refrigerator after opening. It is possible for jams and jellies to mold at refrigerator temperatures, so discard products that become moldy.
* Homemade baking mixes in a jar or other container may be kept at room temperature for six to nine months, unless they contain nuts which cause them to become stale more quickly. Bake the cookies or brownies within that time, or plan to use the mix as a kitchen decoration only. Soup mixes consisting of dried beans and pasta may be kept at room temperature for up to a year, unless there are other ingredients in a seasoning packet which might require the mix to be used sooner.
* The "famous" holiday fruitcake: Some may say it lives forever! However, as with any food item, there is a limit to the lifespan for fruitcake as well. The fruitcake may be frozen for long-term storage up to one year. Store a cut fruitcake in air-tight wrapping in the refrigerator for six months. Fruitcake varieties which contain higher levels of alcohol will have better storing quality.
Take inventory of any holiday food gifts which might be lingering in your cupboards or refrigerator. Make a plan to consume or freeze any holiday hold-overs as recommended by these guidelines.
For more information on safe food storage, contact the Finney County Extension Office at 272-3670 and ask for a copy of the Kansas State Research and Extension publications "Refrigerator-Freezer Storage" and "Cupboard Storage." (They also are available online at www.ksre.ksu.edu.) These helpful publications should be on hand in every kitchen to answer those difficult food storage and safety questions.
For more information about food safety issues, see my "Living Well" blog at SWKTalk.com/livingwell.