Hundreds of kitchen scenarios—you wake up craving a big bowl of cereal, your cookies need a dunking partner—all end the same: you, standing at the refrigerator, fingers crossed, nose deep in a carton of milk, hoping it isn’t as old as you think it is and hoping it doesn’t smell spoiled. There have been times when we’ve wondered, How long is milk good after it’s sold out?
The sell-by date can be confusing, and it doesn’t necessarily indicate when food has gone bad. It’s no wonder so many people doubt whether their milk passed the sniff test and make an emergency trip to the grocery store to replace the questionable carton. (It’s hard to treat them as gospel when bottled water expiration dates are also a thing!)
You’re confused by all the expiration dates on your gallon of moo juice, aren’t you? To find out how long milk lasts, if date labeling is regulated by federal agencies such as the Department of Agriculture or the Food and Drug Administration, and how to extend the shelf life of milk. It turns out that you can follow some of the meat storage guidelines or similar strategies to avoid expired eggs, but there are also some milk-specific guidelines and practices.
How long is milk good for after the sell-by date?
Milk is good for a long time after its sell-by date depends on many factors. According to John A. Lucey, director of the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Dairy Research in Madison, the biggest factor is whether the milk has been pasteurized. As defined in a 2015 paper published in Nutrition Today by Lucey, pasteurization refers to heating every particle of milk or milk product in properly designed and operated equipment to any combination of pasteurization time and temperature designed to destroy all human pathogens.
How long raw milk lasts
Since raw milk has not been heated to reduce the microbial count, it will break down and spoil more quickly, says Amit Shah, senior director of quality at Maple Hill Creamery. To sell milk in mass quantities in America, pasteurization is regulated and required.
A raw milk drinker would be lucky to get seven days of drinkability, according to Alex O’Brien, director of food safety and quality at the University of Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research.
Typhoid, diphtheria, scarlet fever, and tuberculosis were often transmitted through milk until the early 1900s. Milk-related products accounted for 25% of recalls in 1938, according to O’Brien. Compared to today’s 1%, that’s a huge difference. It is illegal in many states and situations to sell raw milk to the general public. There is an increased risk of foodborne illness since pathogens such as Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella spp., Campylobacter Jejuni, and Mycobacterium bovis are not destroyed.
How long pasteurized milk lasts
As long as it’s refrigerated properly, pasteurized milk generally lasts between three and a month once it’s been processed. That applies to all kinds of milk, whether it is nonfat, low fat, whole or lactose-free. According to Cornell University’s Department of Food Science, unopened milk will last two to five days past its sell-by date, though experts say you should be fine for a week. To ensure the freshest taste, drink opened milk as soon as possible (such as within a few days). Opened milk has a shelf life of seven days after the printed date, according to O’Brien.
When stored properly and unopened, aseptic milk lasts anywhere from 30 to 90 days. The milk is pasteurized at ultra-high temperatures and packaged in sterile containers in a sterile environment “to prevent bacteria or pathogens from contaminating the milk,” said Maple Hill co-founder Julia Joseph. According to her, aseptic milk does not require refrigeration until it is opened. Maple Hill guarantees that [its milk] will last for 50 days and tastes exactly the same.”
Pasteurization at ultra-high temperatures extends the shelf life of milk, but once opened, the clock starts ticking. Cornell University’s Department of Food Science recommends drinking it within 7-10 days of opening.
Do other factors affect how long milk is good for after the sell-by date?
According to the experts, only two characteristics of milk make a significant difference in terms of milk’s quality time frame-whether it’s raw or pasteurized. Skim, low-fat, whole or lactose-free milk all have a similar shelf life once pasteurized, so they don’t see much difference in shelf life.
Consumer handling habits and storage details play a larger role in how long milk stays fresh. Since so many things can cause milk to turn after the sell-by date, it’s hard to determine how long it will last. The speed at which milk spoils is influenced by so many factors, Shah says. The quality of the milk at the farm, the type of processing, the type of container, temperature while transporting, storage temperature, how long it sat open on the table, whether people drank directly from it.”
It is important to keep milk cold, unlike certain foods that should never be refrigerated, says Megan Holdaway, RDN, nutrition science manager at the Dairy Council of California. Pasteurized milk should be stored between 34 and 38 degrees, and pasteurized milk stored above 45 degrees will significantly shorten its shelf life.”
What do milk expiration dates mean?
People often toss food based on dates, thinking they indicate when food has become unsafe to eat, but the reality is more complicated. According to the FDA, “confusion over date labeling accounts for an estimated 20% of consumer food waste.”
Food and drinks are not required to have expiration dates, except for baby formula, which is regulated by federal law. Companies use a variety of dates, and there are no uniform or universal definitions for them.
According to Holdaway, the dates are a rough guide to quality, not safety. Because of this, determining how long milk is good after its sell-by date isn’t an exact science. It is more than likely safe to drink milk beyond the expiration date on the package, she says. (There are, however, some foods you should never consume after the expiration date.)
There is one thing Shah is certain of, however: “The milk’s quality will decline after the expiration date.”
How do manufacturers determine which dates to add to various goods? “Products are dated in one of two ways: with a use-by date, during which the product will be at its best, or by a production date, a code or series of numbers that identifies the date and time of production,” Holdaway says. Typically, meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products have use-by dates, while canned goods and shelf-stable items have production dates.
In the end, creameries decide whether to include a date and what wording to use. According to O’Brien, some labels target consumers, while others are helpful to retailers and stores, suggesting when the inventory should be rotated or removed.
Expiration dates, explained
Here are some of the most likely dates you’ll see stamped on food and beverage packages.
- It indicates the date by which a product should be consumed for quality and sensory reasons. Consumers are the target audience for this label. “Best if used by” is the FDA’s preferred label.
- This tells the store how long the product should be displayed for sale. Inventory management relies on these dates for retailers.
- The last date by which the product should be used at its peak quality. According to Holdaway, it does not indicate food safety except when used on infant formula.
- According to Mark Johnson, assistant director of the University of Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, you won’t find this on dairy products. However, you may notice it on other items as well.
- The freeze by date indicates when you should freeze a product in order to maintain peak quality.
There is also a color-coded labeling system used by many producers, but colorful caps and labels have nothing to do with milk safety or drinkability. It’s all about the milk’s fat content.
How do you tell if milk is spoiled?
Milk does not fall into the category of foods that never expire like honey, sugar, and salt. When bacteria, yeast, and mold build up, the milk eventually breaks down and spoils. It is very easy to detect rotten milk using sensory clues.
In general, O’Brien suggests trusting your senses. “It’s probably spoiled if it doesn’t look right or smell right.”
There’s “enough acid being produced by bacteria to precipitate the proteins,” which means your milk has spoiled.
A breakdown of proteins and triglycerides in milk can cause off-putting flavors. These are often described as “soapy, fruity, bitter or rancid baby vomit.” That, too, usually indicates you need to get milk and drain acquainted.
The Center for Dairy Research’s Johnson points out an exception to the taste-test rule: “Glass [containers] allow light to penetrate the milk, which can cause a chemical change to the milk fat, creating a bitter taste you can taste, but it isn’t a safety issue because light oxidation has not [affected] microbiological quality.”
The best way to check your milk is with a “simple sniff test,” Holdaway says. This, according to her, is the easiest and best way to determine if milk is spoiled.
Can you drink expired milk if it smells fine?
It’s a trick question! It’s important to remember that milk doesn’t expire, and if it smells fine, it hasn’t spoiled. “If milk exhibits any signs of spoilage, such as a sour odor, flavor, or texture, it should be discarded,” Holdaway recommends. “Otherwise, milk can be consumed with confidence.”
It’s safe to drink if it doesn’t stink.
How can you make milk last longer?
Grocers and shoppers can use handling habits to effectively stave off spoilage and buy extra time to enjoy a cold glass of milk after the sell-by date.
Anti-spoilage strategies begin at the store. In order to avoid milk sitting in your trunk, O’Brien recommends making grocery shopping your last errand. Put all refrigerated items in the same reusable bag at checkout and grab the coldest carton with the latest date stamp. If your milk is nestled tightly against cold butter instead of that rotisserie chicken you bought for dinner, it’s less likely to warm.
Holdaway recommends adding milk last to the shopping cart and returning it to the refrigerator immediately afterward. She recommends keeping milk in the refrigerator or cooler no longer than two hours. If the temperature reaches 90 degrees in the summer, reduce that time to an hour. Bacteria can grow after that and greatly reduce shelf life.”
Handle with care
As Shah says, drinking directly from the carton, leaving milk open to air, not screwing on the cap tightly, and returning poured milk to the original container all introduce bacteria, mold, and yeast to milk.
The experts’ tips often revolve around fridge factors. You should keep your fridge between 34 and 40 degrees, and milk should be kept in the coldest part. According to Holdaway, milk goes bad more quickly when it is exposed to fluctuating temperatures on the door.
Maintaining a clean and organized refrigerator is also important. In order to avoid losing the ability to taste when milk has gone bad, Holdaway recommends regularly cleaning coolers and fridges before use.
According to her, smells from fruits, vegetables like onions, unclean conditions, and/or a dirty cooler can easily affect the taste of milk. When ‘chemical-like,’ ‘off’ flavors are detected in milk, citrus fruit often stored close to it is to blame.
Wait to open
According to O’Brien, unopened milk lasts longer, so break the seal only when ready to use or drink.
Switch to a different type of milk
Consider pouring a different type of milk into your cereal and coffee if you can’t drink cow’s milk before it goes bad. In addition to dairy-free varieties like oat and almond milk, there are also aseptic shelf-stable varieties of cow’s milk. Aseptic milk may appear brown or have a “cooked flavor.” Johnson warns that these last longer in the refrigerator.
Try powdered milk instead. Due to its low moisture content, dried milk powder has a much longer shelf life than liquid milk. But be warned: Rehydration changes the taste slightly, so you might want to use it for cooking instead of drinking.
Freeze the milk
There is no doubt that milk can be frozen and used later, especially for cooking, but whether this is a good idea depends on who you ask. Shah recommends not freezing milk you intend to drink straight. According to him, it affects the product’s quality and consistency. Fat and solids may separate from water, and it is impossible to make it homogeneous again.”
According to Johnson, this is the case. According to his colleague O’Brien, “Frozen milk does not have a large section at stores because freezing can rupture fat globules and cause an oxidized flavor to develop.”
She, on the other hand, thinks you can freeze milk just like you can freeze butter or deli meat and that it is a “great way to store it for future use.” However, she has a few tips. “Milk will expand when frozen, so leave room in the container so it won’t burst,” she says. Thaw [it] in the refrigerator or under cold water. It is best to freeze milk for three to six months, not longer.
There are plenty of other foods you can freeze to prolong their usability, and you can save money if you employ freezing and thawing hacks effectively.