A crumpled bag of baking chips in the pantry. The linen closet candy stash you forgot about. The kids’ old Halloween haul. A fun-size piece in the glove compartment. There are few things as exciting as discovering a piece of surprise chocolate from who knows when. But does chocolate go bad? Eventually, but not in the same way more perishable foods, such as dairy or produce, do. Here’s the truth about your favorite late-night treat.
How Long Does Chocolate Last?
There’s no easy answer to this question. The type of chocolate, its quality and how it’s been stored all affect the shelf life. In general, chocolate tastes its yummiest before its best by date (and even a little after), but it’s safe to eat for way longer. The quality of the chocolate has a lot to do with its lifespan. Store-bought, big-brand chocolate that’s made with artificial preservatives will go bad sooner than the high-end stuff. High-quality chocolate can even improve with age, just like wine. You can thank flavanols, its natural preservatives, for that; they’re what gives dark chocolate its antioxidants.
First, let’s talk types of chocolate. The higher the milk content, the quicker the expiration. (Sorry, white- and milk-chocolate lovers.) Semi-sweet, bittersweet and dark chocolates have a better chance of surviving a long stint in the pantry. Here are some guidelines for a few popular types:
- White chocolate: Since it’s pretty much all dairy and cocoa butter, white chocolate’s shelf life is a little more fickle than bittersweet or dark chocolates. Unopened, it can last for up to six months in the pantry and even longer in the fridge. Opened, it’s more like four months.
- Milk chocolate: We heard we’re supposed to trade this in for dark now that we’re grownups, but we refuse. This creamy treat can stay at peak quality for up to a year at room temp or longer in the fridge if it’s unopened. If the wrapper or bag has been torn, you have eight to ten months to use it.
- Baking, bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate: Less dairy means a longer shelf life. Keep it at room temperature or in the fridge for up to two years.
- Dark chocolate: Unopened bars should last at least two years. If you’ve already helped yourself to a few squares, it still has one year left to go (if you don’t devour it by then, that is).
- Belgian chocolate: As if we need to tell you to eat it in a timely fashion. Belgian chocolate will only last at room temperature for one to two weeks. Double its shelf life by popping it in the fridge, or kick it up to two months by putting it in the freezer.
- Chocolate chips: Unopened in the pantry, chocolate chips are good for two to four months. You can also keep them in the fridge for six to eight months or the freezer for two to three years if they’re bound for a future batch of cookie dough.
- Handmade chocolates or truffles: If you get your hands on some of these cuties, odds are you’re eating them within a few hours. They only last one to two weeks and shouldn’t ever go in the fridge or freezer. (They’re fancy like that.) You can definitely eat them past the two-week mark, but they may not taste their best. The sooner you eat them, the better.
- Cocoa powder: This stuff basically never goes bad, but it will lose its potency over time. Unopened, it keeps in the pantry for three years. Opened, it’ll be just fine for another year or two. After that, you may notice a slight difference in taste, but it’s not dangerous to consume.
How to Tell If Chocolate Is Bad
Chocolate’s expiration date is really just an indicator of when its quality will start to decline. If it looks, smells and tastes normal, you’re in the clear. Cracks or dots on the chocolate may signal it’s a bit stale and has seen better days. If your chocolate has significant discoloration or mold, it’s ready for the trash.
Before you scarf down or toss away neglected chocolate, consider what you’re going to do with it first. Older chocolate may taste off to snack on solo, but it could still work nicely baked into brownies or cookies. Be stricter with snacking chocolate than with chocolate you’re going to melt and repurpose. Also keep in mind that chocolate with ingredients like nuts or fruit can be more susceptible to expiration. The more ingredients it contains, the quicker it’ll go bad. If the filling or crunchy bits spoil, it won’t matter that the chocolate is still good. Use your best judgment before indulging.
Um, Why Does My Chocolate Have White Spots on It?
The white or gray film you may find on old chocolate is either sugar bloom or fat bloom, and it’s the result of the separation of either sugar or cocoa butter from the chocolate. It happens when chocolate partially melts, usually after being stored in an area that’s too humid or hot. Fat bloom primarily changes the chocolate’s appearance rather than its flavor, so it should still taste on par with the original, despite its appearance. Sugar bloom, on the other hand, can have a grainy or powdery texture and off taste. Even though it’s safe, you might not enjoy eating it.
Can You Eat Expired Chocolate?
If the package is unopened, it can last for months past its expiration date if it's been stored at room temperature, or even longer if it’s been in the fridge or freezer. Although it can be safe to eat months or even years after its best by date, you may notice differences in its taste or appearance.
How to Store Chocolate
A consistent cool temperature is most important; taking the chocolate from hot to cold or vice versa is a recipe for condensation and mold. A cool, dark spot in the pantry works like a charm. Keep your sweets out of the fridge unless you live in a really hot or humid environment. (The cocoa butter will soak up all kinds of smells in there.)
If you’re storing chocolate that’s already opened, keep it wrapped as tightly as possible, then place it in an airtight container so it doesn’t absorb any surrounding odors. Leave it in its original packaging, too; most chocolate is packed in aluminum or opaque wrapping, which combats oxidation and moisture.
If you have a ton of chocolate on your hands that you’re worried about wasting, keep it in the freezer in an airtight container or freezer bag. Just refrigerate it for 24 hours first to keep the crystallization process from happening too quickly in the freezer. (Crystallized fat and sugar = unsightly bloom.) Once it’s frozen, it can last up to eight months depending on the type of chocolate and if the bar or bag is unopened. To thaw, move it to the fridge for 24 hours, then let it come down to room temperature on the counter.
The Short and Sweet Truth
Your chocolate’s golden years may have passed, but as long as it looks, smells and tastes relatively normal, it’s safe to eat. Chocolate’s shelf life varies based on the type of chocolate, its quality and ingredients and how it’s stored. But all in all, unless it smells off or has serious discoloration or mold, eat your heart out. Bloom be damned.