The cold, hard truth about summer's favorite dessert. 

By Tim Nelson
June 10, 2021
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Ice cream scoops different flavor - strawberry, chocolate, creamy in transparent glass ice-cream bowl in modern pink color interior on white wood board.
Credit: AlinaYudina/Getty Images

With temperatures skyrocketing across the country, now's about the time where any rational person would dig through their freezer to assess their ice cream inventory. While plenty of us enjoy the stuff year-round (especially during a year that hasn't given us much else to do), there are certainly some folks out there who see ice cream as more of a summer treat. 

So if you find yourself scrounging for that freezer-burned pint of Ben & Jerry's, you may be asking yourself an important question: can ice cream actually go bad? The answer may seem counterintuitive, but hopefully by the end of this you can see the logic behind playing it (relatively) safe when it comes to ice cream expiration dates. 

Does Ice Cream Go Bad? 

Yes, ice cream can go bad. Ice cream, despite the fact that it lives in the freezer, a place where no food can seemingly go bad ever, has a finite shelf life. It's totally fair if it never occurred to you to look before, but your favorite dairy-based dessert does have an expiration date.

Supposedly, the shelf life of ice cream is up to two months for an unopened tub, after which point you're not getting it at its best. Once ice cream is opened, the clock starts ticking, and you have about one to two months to polish it off without running into any problems.

With that in mind, it's worth remembering that "best by" dates can tend to be a little conservative. Some say you can really eat unopened ice cream for up to two to three months past its printed date, so do with that information whatever you will. 

How Does Ice Cream Go Bad in the Freezer? 

You'd think the freezer is some kind of fountain of youth that'd keep food edible forever, right? Well, unlike science fiction, your freezer doesn't put your foods in cryostasis. The freezer can slow the growth of bacteria, but it does not stop it entirely. 

For non-vegan, lactose-tolerant ice cream fans, it's worth remembering that there's a whole host of frozen dairy in your typical ice cream, ranging from condensed milk to cream and even butter fat. Eggs may be in there as well.

While all of that's ultimately pasteurized and frozen before heading to its point of sale, you're still working with dairy at the end of the day, and even storing your ice cream in a way that would give rise to serious freezer burn can't stop bacteria from fulfilling its drive to promulgate. 

If it helps to clarify things, think of it this way: Ice cream is basically just like frozen milk that lasts a bit longer - at least as far as their shelf lives are concerned. This isn't a fine cheese you're trying to age, after all. 

How to Tell If Your Ice Cream Has Gone Bad

To figure out if your ice cream is officially past its prime, take a closer look. Usually, ice shards on top of the lid and under the ice cream are the surest sign of trouble. Sure, you can scrape them off and keep going, but it's a sign that you're about to encounter a weird mix of icy soup. 

While that's important to keep in mind, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of information out there about any association between expired ice cream and serious bouts of foodborne illness - but even a mild instance of messing with the wrong bacteria can make for an unpleasant experience as far as your digestive system is concerned. 

How to Make Your Ice Cream Last Longer

The best way to store ice cream is to keep it in a properly-closed container housed within a freezer set to 0 degrees F (-18 degrees C). If you really want to go all out, you can place plastic wrap on top of the ice cream - within the container - in order to create a texture-saving seal that slows down the development of ice crystals. That'll help you enjoy less "ice" and more "cream."

Other than that, take common-sense precautions like not leaving your ice cream out of the fridge any longer than you have to, whether when bringing it home or serving it up. In addition to the more aggressive move of plastic wrapping, just making sure the lid is on tight will help too. 

So while you may wish it could stick around forever, ice cream is just as mortal as the rest of us. Naturally, the easiest solution to your problems is to just eat however much ice cream you're worried about as quickly as possible, whether that means going to town on a whole pint by yourself or throwing an impromptu ice cream social to make sure it all gets eaten. We all have our part to play when it comes to reducing food waste, and eating ice cream before it goes bad ranks among the easiest ways to help solve this systemic problem. Do your part. 

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This story originally appeared on allrecipes.com