To quickly answer your query, in case it’s for a paper or something and you need an anonymous internet source: yes. Yes, chocolate can go bad. However, your chocolate probably hasn’t gone bad. If you stumbled upon this article in order to sort out whether your specific chocolate had gone bad, this is my guesstimate: no. No, it hasn’t.
But to backtrack a bit, I decided to finally write this post because several times a month, people ask me how long to & where they should keep their newly-purchased bars of chocolate or box of bonbons or lumps of coal. Wait. Scratch that last one; I meant lumps of untempered chocolate (though maybe that’s just my friends). I always recommend to them that they store it in the same place as they would store spices, although you shouldn’t actually store it with your spices (the chocolate could absorb that flavor over time).
So in this article, you’ll learn the reasoning behind my cool & dry advice, as well as the reason why it doesn’t matter if you keep your Charleston Chews & 3 Musketeers in the freezer (no matter where they live, they’re still not chocolate). Read on to find out why, plus when each type of chocolate expires and how to store chocolate so that it never goes bad.
Table of Contents
Does Chocolate Go Bad?
As a general rule, chocolate doesn’t really go bad. Since it contains fat, it can theoretically spoil, but cocoa butter (the fat of the cacao bean) is incredibly shelf-stable. Therefore when stored in a cool, dry place, chocolate can last for a decade or longer. So the real danger of chocolate “going bad” comes from four main sources: fat bloom, sugar bloom, expired or overheated milk, or being infused with flavors or ingredients which can expire.
Let’s break each of these down.
Flavors or ingredients which can go bad in chocolate include nuts, caramels, and other wet fillings. Keep in mind that we’re just talking about plain chocolate bars here; chocolate confections and baked goods have much shorter shelf lives due to the addition of perishable ingredients, like cream and butter. When you have a flavored chocolate bar of any kind, it’s important to look at the ingredients list to see if any of them have a shorter shelf life than the plain chocolate would, like if there’s butter oil added.
So how long does it take for chocolate to go bad? Well, the general rule is that dark chocolate is good for at least two years, and each milk, ruby, and white chocolates are good for at least a year. They have shorter “best by” dates because they contain milk powder, which is perishable when exposed to water or high heat. Some people have wanted to know if chocolate chips can go bad, but they fall along the same lines— chocolate chips are good for as long as is the type of chocolate from which they’re made.
But even milk and white chocolates don’t usually go bad unless they’re exposed to high heat, as the powdered milk in them also has a very long shelf life. The most likely culprit for chocolate seeming to have gone bad is a phenomenon called “bloom.” There are two types of bloom: sugar bloom and fat bloom.
Fat bloom is when a chocolate’s lipid structure becomes less stable and the fat rises to the surface of the chocolate, making it look grey, like every chocolate bar you’ve ever left in the car on a hot day. It’s still edible, but the texture will be a little off. Fun fact: in Spanish, “bloom” is called cuando el chocolate se pone feo, or “when the chocolate becomes ugly.” Sometimes this chocolate is still beautiful, though.
Sugar bloom looks a bit similar to fat bloom, but it occurs as a result of destabilizing the sugar in the chocolate with the introduction of water. Even a bit of condensation can cause sugar bloom to occur. Basically, if water is introduced to tempered chocolate, it dissolves the sugar crystals which have been evenly distributed throughout the chocolate. This type of bloom is characterized by a whitish, dusty-looking, grainy coating that pocks the surface of chocolate.
So is it safe to eat bloomed chocolate? The short answer is yes! It may not taste as good as it did before, but even perfectly tempered cocoa butter crystals can’t hold their shape forever. All chocolate will eventually bloom. But unless something drastic has happened, that chocolate should still be good to eat. Only toss a bloomed chocolate bar if it no longer smells super chocolaty or has a moldy or musty smell to it.
My favorite use for bloomed chocolate is just making hot chocolate, but it’s also great to just bake brownies or cake with. The two sections below go into more detail about true expiration dates for chocolate and proper chocolate storage. So let’s look at the logistics of saving that chocolate you just found in the back of the cupboard!
When Does Chocolate Expire?
Properly tempered chocolate bars will last longer than most foods due to their lack of water activity. This is important to note because bacteria thrive in water, and it’s bacteria which rots food and makes it go “bad.” No water, no (bacterial) life. Additionally, well-tempered cocoa butter is a very stable fat, and sugar has been used for millennia to preserve food by protecting it from water activity.
So how long does chocolate last? Well, as mentioned above, most plain dark chocolate is good for at least two years from the manufacture date, while milk and white chocolates are good for at least one year. But I have chocolate maker friends who keep and occasionally snack on chocolate they made over a decade ago. Last year (2020) my mom made brownies with a bar of baking chocolate that was manufactured in 2008, so the expiration date of chocolate is pretty arbitrary.
But when it comes to chocolate products, the question gets a bit more complicated. For example, do Hershey’s kisses go bad? How about things like Mars Bars or Reese’s Cups, these treats that we call chocolates but which are really candies? These questions go back to the other ingredients therein, usually sugar, artificial flavorings, and some types of milk products. Therefore it’s key to read the ingredients list for such candies, and if they contain milk or another perishable, toss them once they pass their best-by date.
Yet like a fine vintage, some chocolate bars only change and improve over time. These would be your single origin craft chocolates, made with mold-free cacao and no milk, worthy of careful storage and a revisit after a few years. In fact, most chocolate is purposefully aged for a time before it’s even packaged.
The only exceptions to the rules above are things that are chocolate-flavored and don’t actually contain much cacao, like Tootsie Rolls or M&Ms. Those should still be kept out of high heat and humidity, but feel free to toss them in a sealed container in the freezer. Cocoa powder and cocoa butter don’t really expire, either, but they could go stale & flavorless if improperly stored.
Unfortunately, unless it smells really weird, the only way to tell if a chocolate is expired is to taste it (and spit it out, if needed). That’s why proper chocolate storage is vital; read on to find out more.
How To Store Chocolate
First of all, remember that the best before date on your chocolate isn’t an end date, but a rough estimate of when it might taste less good. The amount of flavor loss you’re willing to put up with directly correlates with when your chocolate has gone bad for you. But the good news is, there are a few best practices that, if you follow them, will make storing chocolate a breeze.
In general, you should store chocolate in a cool and dry place, out of direct sunlight— heat and moisture are the enemy of chocolate (i.e. your cold, wet fridge is not ideal). Once opened, plain chocolate will last roughly 6-12 months, though it will last a few months longer if stored properly in the fridge. Something built for resistance, like chocolate chips, can be put into a sealed container and frozen for even longer shelf life.
Just remember to bring any frozen or refrigerated treats back to room temperature before baking with or enjoying them, as colder temperatures have a negative effect upon the taste buds (and recipes). That’s the simple answer, and for most people it will suffice. But if you’re a geek like me and are curious about basically everything food-related, then read on.
Why Is Storing Chocolate In The Fridge Bad?
There are hundreds of unique compounds contributing to chocolate’s flavor, and dozens of other chemicals interacting to maintain its structure and texture. Heat destabilizes this structure, and so does humidity, hence the avoidance of both. That’s why my general location recommendation is in the back of a kitchen cupboard or the bottom shelf of the pantry. Quality chocolate will basically last for as long as it’s properly stored, similar to honey.
If done improperly, putting chocolate in the fridge can ruin the outside layer of chocolate with condensation on the bar, softening and ruining the melt of the chocolate, as well as hurting the stability of any paper packaging it came in. The ideal storage temperature of chocolate is 55-68F (13-20C), the same temperature maintained in most modern homes, and well above the temperature of a fridge. So the refrigerator should be seen only as a last resort, like if you live in an unnaturally warm house (above 75F/24C).
But beyond temperature, the strongest-smelling foods in your fridge will be the worst perpetrators when it comes to ruining your bar. Think garlic, cheeses, and marinates; these smells will permeate your sweets until they taste more meat than treat. Additionally, chocolate and water-based liquids do not mix well. Just think of the last time you made hot chocolate by adding the chocolate to the hot milk instead of the other way around. It was chunky and soft, but it didn’t really melt, did it?
The trick to hot chocolate is to slowly thin the melted chocolate with the milk or water. But if you use low quality chocolate or stuff you’ve stored in your fridge, your unique fridge flavor could affect the smell and taste of your chocolate quite quickly, even just overnight. This is why it’s important to consider the packaging of the chocolate when putting it into storage.
Most sweets should be taken out of their original packaging and placed in glass tupperware with some dry paper towels before being refrigerated. This is also a good way to go if you’re keeping a bar very long-term (1+ years), and it goes for all chocolate, from the gourmet bar you picked up abroad to the Snickers bar from the corner store (yeah, okay, Snickers can count as candy-chocolate). Gourmet truffles or bonbons won’t last longer than two weeks, maybe less depending on the filling.
Sudden changes in temperature ruin the fat structure of your chocolate, destabilizing it by changing the type of crystal it forms. Refrigeration makes your chocolate 100% sure to “bloom” eventually (see above to understand bloom), which ruins the texture when you eat it and potentially it’s ability to properly melt at normal room temperatures. So if you do refrigerate your chocolate, let it sit out at room temperature for a few hours before you finish it off. Your taste buds will thank the both of us.