A crumpled bag of baking chips in the pantry. The linen closet 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? 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. 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. Although it can be safe to eat months or even years after its best by date, there can be differences in taste and appearance.
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 chocolate. 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 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 in the fridge 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).
- 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 the 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 fridge for two to three years if they’re bound for a batch of cookie dough someday.
- 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 be at their best. The sooner you eat them, the better.
- Cocoa powder: This stuff basically never goes bad, but 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.
The quality of the chocolate also 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, aka its natural preservatives; they’re what gives dark chocolate its antioxidants.
How to Tell If Chocolate Is Bad
Chocolate’s expiration date is really just an indicator of when its quality will start to decline. But 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 big white spots, significant discoloration or mold, it’s ready for the trash.
We know what you’re thinking: What’s that white stuff you remember seeing on old Halloween candy? The white or gray film 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 is stored in an area that’s too humid or hot. Fat bloom primarily changes the chocolate’s appearance, so it should taste on par with the original. 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.
Before you scarf down your findings, consider what you’re going to do with the chocolate. Older chocolate that may feel strange to snack on “raw” can still get the job done in the oven. 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.
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 just fine. Keep your sweets out of the fridge unless you live in a really hot or humid environment. It’ll soak up all kinds of smells in there through the cocoa butter too.
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. And leave it in its original packaging; most chocolate is packed in aluminum or opaque wrapping, which fights 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 = 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 freezer 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, has serious discoloration or any mold, go for it. Bloom be damned.