It's never a bad idea to be prepared for emergencies, and a pantry full of canned foods is one way to cope with power outages and other inconveniences. Cans don't require electricity, fridge or freezer space, and even the strongest winds and rain pose little short-term threat to their safety. Canned vegetables won't last forever, but their usable life goes well beyond any date stamped on the can.
Expiration Date vs. Use-By Date
The dates on consumer food products have different meanings, and it's important to understand the difference. An expiration date indicates that a food may no longer be safe once the date has passed. Among common canned foods, only infant formula has a hard-and-fast expiration date. It's more common to see a use-by date, which provides a conservative guide to the food's limitations in flavor and quality. Manufacturers set their own use-by dates, and these dates are unrelated to the product's safety. In many cases, the can contains only a production date; you'll have to work out the shelf life for yourself.
When properly stored, canned vegetables are still good beyond their stamped date of demise. In many cases, the food may even be good for a year or longer beyond the date, provided the can was stored in a cool, dry location.
Canned goods are highly durable, so the limits of your shelf life are flexible. High-acid vegetables and vegetable products such as tomatoes, tomato sauce and sauerkraut should be used within 12 to 18 months after the production date. That's because they can slowly erode the cans' non-reactive lining, eventually discoloring or developing off flavors. Most other vegetables, with their relatively low levels of acid, are safe for two to four or even five years. If the cans aren't stamped with a date, label them yourself with a felt marker or a stick-on label after purchase so that you can monitor them and eat the oldest first.
Limitations and Danger Signs
Cans store best in a dry environment, at temperatures below 75 degrees Fahrenheit. If they're routinely subjected to higher temperatures, their quality will degrade more quickly. Cans that freeze should be discarded. Rusted cans can still be safe, if the rust is confined to the surface, but cans pitted with rust might not be airtight any longer. They should be discarded. So should swollen cans, or cans with a dent on the seam or a deep, sharp dent. Leaky cans should also be discarded. If a can sprays when you open it, or the contents appear to be under pressure, it's likely unsafe and should be discarded.
If you've opened an expired of veggies, the contents should still look and smell as fresh as they would in a younger can of the same vegetables. If the contents do not look or smell fresh, discard them.
Once the Can Is Open
Those shelf-life guidelines apply only to unopened cans. Once you've opened your vegetables, they're as perishable as any other prepared food. Any unused or leftover canned vegetables should be refrigerated within two hours, to keep them food safe. Like other leftovers, they're best and safest if used within 3 to 4 days of being opened. If you're unlikely to eat the remaining vegetables before that time, you can bag and freeze them for later consumption.
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Fred Decker is a trained chef and prolific freelance writer. In previous careers, he sold insurance and mutual funds, and was a longtime retailer. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. His articles have appeared on numerous home and garden sites including GoneOutdoors, TheNest and eHow.