What Foods Have the Longest Shelf Life? [My Top 20 Checklist]
by Amanda Hermes
There is a surprising variety of foods that can last for years, or ever forever, at room temperature when stored correctly. For all of these foods, the storage method is paramount. To protect your food supplies, store them in airtight containers in cool, dry locations away from light.
Containers might be bins, jars or cans with lids or even plastic bags that close securely. Buying in bulk is a great strategy, but most foods last much longer unopened, so obtaining many smaller containers might be more beneficial, depending on the food.
Moisture is the number one cause of food spoilage because microbes, such as bacteria, molds, and yeasts, flourish in moist locations. These microorganisms feed on food matter and decompose it. Like humans, microorganisms require water to survive, so if you remove moisture from food, it will not decompose, or spoil.
Naturally occurring enzymes in food can react with oxygen to cause spoiling and ripening that destroys food, but these enzymes also need water, so without moisture, this reaction can’t take place.
Make sure to keep long-term foods in cool areas, since heat can cause sweating, which can produce enough moisture for mold to grow. Darker places are also better for storage since sunlight can increase temperature.
While the foods below can last for relatively long periods, always discard foods that have a bad odor, flavor, or appearance. If mold or insects ever appear in your food, discard it immediately,
as these can present serious health hazards if eaten.
Below are twenty foods with remarkably long shelf lives to stock your survival pantry.
1. Dried Beans and Legumes
Legume is a generic term for beans, peas, and lentils. All of these are low-fat, cholesterol-free sources of high-quality protein and fiber, which means they are good for satisfying hunger. All varieties of dried beans and legumes will last indefinitely if stored correctly, that is, in an airtight container in a cool, dry place, according to chef and food scientist Mark Bittman.
Although there are hundreds of varieties of dried legumes, almost all can be prepared in the same way.
To make dried legumes edible, simply place them in a large pot and cover with water. Heat to a boil, and then turn the heat down and cover loosely. Cook, stirring occasionally until the beans are tender. How long this takes depends on the size of the legume you are cooking.
Peas might only take 30 minutes, while kidney beans take about an hour to soften. Legumes that are older than one year might take longer to soften.
2. White, Long-Grain Rice
Basic white, long-grain rice is another food staple that will last indefinitely if stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. Brown rice will last approximately one year, but its bran contains oils that can go rancid, whereas the bran has been removed from white rice, allowing it to last pretty much forever.
Rice is basically 100 percent carbohydrates, which provide energy, but not a lot of nutrition. However, it does contain magnesium, vitamin B6, as well as a little protein and fiber. According to Jill Waldbieser at “Cooking Light,” very old rice is actually revered in some Asian communities.
Rice that is over twenty years old commands a higher price and is eaten by royalty because eating it is equated with longevity. To prepare rice, combine with water in a two-to-one ratio (2 cups water, 1 cup rice) in a saucepan.
Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down to medium-low and cover. Cook for about 15 minutes, or until water is absorbed.
3. Dried Pasta
All types of dried pasta will last at least 30 years when stored correctly, which is the same as the foods above. Pasta contains carbohydrates for energy and fiber, as well as iron and magnesium and a small amount of protein. To prepare dried pasta, bring a large pot of water to a boil.
Bittman suggests using five quarts of water per pound of pasta. Add your pasta, and continue to boil for 8-10 minutes, or until the pasta is tender. Drain water, and add seasonings or sauce if you have it.
Raw meat can easily be contaminated with microorganisms that cause disease, but treating it with heat destroys foodborne microorganisms, and drying it out removes the moisture that
allows them to grow. Jerky can be made from any game meat, beef or pork, but it’s best not to try with poultry.
To make jerky, slice raw meat into strips no more than 1/4-inch thick, and arrange strips on trays or baking sheets so they do not touch or overlap. Bake in a 140-degree oven for 10-24 hours. You can also use a food dehydrator to make jerky at home.
Vacuum-sealed jerky can last up to two years. Jerky is a good source of protein, iron, potassium, and zinc.
5. Dried Vegetables and Fruits
According to How Stuff Works, dehydration is one of the oldest food preservation methods, dating back to 12,000 BC. Dehydrated vegetables, like kale chips and dried green beans, can last up to eight years in an airtight container, according to Food & Wine. Dehydrated carrots can last up to 25 years, and dried corn has a ten-year shelf life.
Dried fruit, on the other hand, lasts about a year. Store dried vegetables and fruits in small airtight containers, such as plastic bags, because every time you open the container, the food is exposed to air and moisture, which lowers its quality.
As stated above, moisture promotes decay, but drying vegetables and fruits removes all the water, thereby preventing the decomposition process.
Unfortunately, it also zaps most nutrients out of fruits and vegetables as well, but vitamin A, iron, and fiber are retained. Use the same drying process as jerky, but check every two hours until food is completely dry and brittle.
6. Powdered Milk
Powdered milk has been around since the 1830s. It is a great way to get calcium, protein, minerals, and amino acids. In the original airtight container, powdered milk lasts up to two years, or ten years unopened.
To reconstitute, add one cup water to 1/3-cup powdered milk. Besides drinking it, you can use powdered milk to flavor other foods, make desserts such as rice pudding, or add nutrients to other dishes.
7. Powdered Eggs
Since the early 1900s, people have been using powdered eggs instead of the original when camping. They are simply dehydrated eggs in powder form and last five to ten years in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.
Just like regular eggs, powdered eggs are a good source of protein, potassium, calcium, and essential vitamins. Simply mix with water and cook to create scrambled eggs.
8. Rolled Oats
Oats are another great source of fiber, potassium, iron, zinc, and several other key nutrients. They last about two years in an airtight container.
To prepare, combine two cups water with one cup oats in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat to low and cook, stirring often for five minutes. Remove from heat, cover, and let sit for five more minutes before eating.
9. Canned Fish
Canned fish, such as tuna, salmon, and sardines are a great source of protein and Omega-3 fatty acids that can last up to three years unopened in a cool, dry place.
The canning process removes air and places food in vacuum sealed containers that are heat processed, thereby destroying microorganisms and preventing bacteria from getting in, according to “Food & Wine” magazine. Canned fish can be eaten right out of the can or heated.
10. Nut Butters
According to “Readers Digest” magazine, nut butters, such as peanut, almond, and cashew, can last up to two years unopened, and six months once they’ve been opened.
Nut butters are a great source of protein and healthy fats.
11. Pickled Vegetables
Pickled vegetables are packed in a solution of water, vinegar, and salt. The acid from the vinegar combines with naturally forming acids in the vegetables, thereby slowing down the decaying process that causes fresh produce to go bad.
Therefore, pickled vegetables can last up to two years unopened. By the same token, vinegar itself never goes bad because it is basically self-preserving.
Pickling recipes vary by vegetable, so it’s best to consult a cookbook or other resource.
12. Canned Goods
Canned goods are a great way to bring variety to your extended shelf life pantry. Despite expiration dates printed on store-bought items, canned goods that are stored in a cool, dark place and remain undented and in good condition are safe for up to six years, according to Fox News.
Canned vegetables and fruits can provide a plethora of vitamins and nutrients, depending on the variety. While it’s safe to eat canned foods at room temperature, most are better heated, with the exception of canned fruit.
Also, read the article How Long Does Canned Food Last that was published here on MDCreekmore.com a few months ago…
Honey’s low moisture content and acidity make it inhabitable for bacteria, so it will last indefinitely at room temperature. After some time, honey may become crystallized, but simply heat a glass jar of honey over low heat in simmering water until it becomes liquid again.
Honey contains virtually no nutrients, but it does contain antioxidants, which protect your body’s cells from damage. It can also be used to treat burns and wounds, due to its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.
A spoonful of honey is a great remedy for a cough or cold, as it is a natural expectorant.
14 and 15. Sugar and Salt
Both sugar and salt are pure chemicals, which mean they are pretty much indestructible and will never spoil as long as they are kept free from moisture. Like children, microbes love to eat sugar, but they can only do so if it’s somewhat moist.
Whether brown or white, sugar is still safe to eat even if it becomes hardened over time. Salt is great to have on hand to season the foods listed above.
16. Soy Sauce
Fermentation is another method of preserving foods, which makes soy sauce one of the longest lasting flavorings out there. Soy sauce also contains a high level of sodium, thereby preventing bacteria growth.
According to Food & Wine magazine, unopened soy sauce can last indefinitely, and an opened bottle remains good for three years at room temperature.
17. Worcestershire Sauce
Similar to soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce contains high levels of acid and sodium, giving it a shelf life of up to five years unopened. It tastes great added to meat or fish or even beans.
18. Vanilla Extract
Pure vanilla extract can last indefinitely at room temperature in an airtight container because it contains alcohol, which prevents bacteria growth.
For the same reason, many varieties of distilled liquor, such as vodka, rum, whiskey, gin, and tequila, also last indefinitely. This shelf life only applies to pure vanilla extract; imitation vanilla extract generally lasts about four years.
19. Cocoa Powder
Properly stored, an opened package of unsweetened cocoa powder will generally last for about three years at room temperature. Just mix with hot water and add sugar for a comforting beverage.
Pre-mixed hot chocolate powder, however, does not last nearly as long, since it contains dairy.
20. Bouillon Cubes
Properly stored in an airtight container, a package of bouillon cubes or granules, whether beef, chicken, vegetable, turkey or fish, have a shelf life of about two years. These can be used to flavor rice, pasta, beans, or any other dish you are making.
MD Creekmore adds: Some foods like powdered milk, butter powder, cheese powder, shortening powder, and powdered eggs are difficult to package for long-term storage at home so I buy these prepackaged for long-term storage in #10 cans.
My choice for long-term storage food is Augason Farms (click here to see their long-term storage foods on Amazon.com) because of their selection, quality, prices, and customer service.
Bittman, Mark. How to Cook Everything. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2008.