The can says “store in refrigerator after opening,” but that’s only part of the picture. Here’s what else you should know.
Whether you’re making pasta, gazpacho, or chicken parmigiana, canned tomatoes are a real boon. They are cheap, they taste delicious, and—as long as the cans are intact and show no signs of bulging—they will keep for months, even years, in the pantry.
But if you opened a can of tomatoes and you didn’t use all of it up in your cooking, can you at least put it in the fridge and use it… later?
Why, yes, you can! And, coincidentally or not, this is exactly what we will cover in this post, so do read on.
Properly stored, leftover canned tomatoes will keep for 3-4 days. Pour them from the can into a food storage container and close the lid, or transfer them into a canning jar and screw on the lid, then put them in the fridge.
Let’s talk about how to store canned tomatoes, opened and unopened, so that they stay fresh and remain edible for longer.
How to Store Leftover Canned Tomatoes
Can you store canned food in the can after opening?
People are worried about the aluminum cans corroding, but corrosion takes months, sometimes years. You shouldn’t be worried about the BPA lining on the interior of the can leaching into the tomatoes either. At least not over the course of a few days.
So what should you be worried about?
Well, if you can’t just be worried about nothing (as I certainly can’t), the best thing to worry about is preserving the freshness of the canned tomatoes in your fridge.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, you can safely store leftover canned food in the can it came in. But, as Science Notes explains, it’s much harder to keep them tasting fresh if you store them this way.
To preserve the aroma and flavor of canned tomatoes, the USDA recommends refrigerating the unused portion in an airtight plastic container or a sealed glass jar. You should use it up within 4 days, as you have no way to tell if a can stored for longer than that is safe to eat or not.
Related: Do You Drain Canned Tomatoes?
How Long Do Canned Tomatoes Last?
The answer depends on whether you opened the can or not, as well as on where you stored it.
Unopened canned tomatoes are shelf-stable, which means they can be kept at ambient temperature and they stay safe to eat indefinitely. In other words, you can safely store canned tomatoes in a cool, dry place away from heat and sunlight, such as on your pantry shelf or in a closed kitchen cabinet.
(This also means that places like the windowsill, the top of your fridge, and the counters above or next to your stove are not great for storing canned tomatoes or other canned foods.)
When you open a can of tomatoes, you break the seal on the can.
As a result, from a shelf-stable food item that lasts almost forever, the tomatoes and the sauce that they’re in turn into a highly perishable food item that spoils quickly.
Opened canned tomatoes will keep for 1-2 hours at room temperature and for 3-4 days in the fridge. If you freeze them, they will stay safe to eat forever—but they will only keep their best quality for up to 6 months.
Freezing your food doesn’t sterilize it and kill the bacteria in it as canning does. Instead, it puts bacterial activity on pause. As long as (a) you freeze the food before it spoils and (b) your freezer can maintain a temperature of 0°F (-18°C), it will stay edible indefinitely.
With that being said, the aromas and flavors in our food come from volatile organic compounds that don’t last forever. Eventually, frozen canned tomatoes will become flavorless, losing much of their original appeal.
How Long Can Canned Tomatoes Sit Out?
The trick is not to let canned tomatoes sit at room temperature for more than a few hours. For safe storage, cool foods must be kept cool and hot foods must be kept hot; in between is what food experts call “the danger zone.”
Pathogenic bacteria—the kind that can give you and your family food poisoning—thrives in the temperature range from 40°F (4°C) to 140°F (60°C). Exposing your food to temperatures within this range doubles the number of bacteria on it every 20 minutes.
One thing you absolutely need to know about food safety in the home kitchen is that the bacteria that can give you food poisoning are not the same as the bacteria that can make your food spoil.
Spoilage bacteria secrete compounds that make food inedible and disgusting. Pathogenic bacteria don’t. For example, a can of tomatoes that’s stood on the counter for too long may still smell good, but cause a bad stomachache or, even worse, food poisoning.
The Long And the Short of It
Can you keep canned tomatoes after opening them? Yes, you definitely can.
Can you keep canned tomatoes in the can after opening them? Absolutely, although they won’t stay fresh for long, even when refrigerated.
When you have leftover canned tomatoes, pour them into a food storage container or a mason jar, shut the lid or screw the cap back on, and put them in your fridge where they will keep for 3-4 days.
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