At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, households across the country scrambled to stock up on shelf stable food and pantry staples. And oats ranked high on that shopping list. Now, as the country begins to reopen and supply chains return to normal, many folks are curious how to get the most out of their bulk oats. As a result, we’ve been fielding a lot of questions from our community. 

“Can oats go bad? If so, how long does it take, and how can you tell? Is it enough to store them in a cool, dry place? Or can freezing help them stay fresh longer?”

 

Don’t worry. We’ve got the answers. Let’s look at some of the most common questions about storing your shelf stable oats and ensure you’re getting the most out of your supply—whether it’s for emergencies or just everyday eating.

 

Oats: a shelf stable pantry staple

 

Oats are a shelf stable food, which means they’re considered non-perishable. In fact, it’s relatively rare for oats to go rancid. When stored correctly, they remain edible for up to two years. Most often, when oats do spoil, it’s because of moisture or pests from improper storage. 

 

Of course, a few factors play a huge role in determining how shelf stable your oats will be. And that’s how—and whether—your oats were processed. Also, whether or not they contain any other ingredients and how you choose to store them. Let’s take a look at a few different processing strategies and their effect on shelf stability. 

 

The impact of processing (or not)

 

Perhaps the most important thing to consider is whether or not your oats were processed, and if so, how? As we’ve talked about before, oats come in a variety of shapes and textures. Some of the most common include whole oat groats, steel-cut, rolled oats, and quick cook. 

 

First, consider how all oats start their journey. When they’re harvested in the field, oats aren’t ready for human consumption yet. First, they have to be dehulled. During this process, the hard outer shell is stripped away, leaving you with the whole oat groat. The oat groat includes the whole bran, endosperm, and germ. 

 

Whole oat groats

 

Whole oat groats have simply had their hard, inedible hull removed. Otherwise, they’re the closest thing to what you’d find in the field. Whole oat groats can either be raw or heat stabilized. Oats that have not been heat stabilized will often say “unsteamed,” or “sproutable” on their packaging. Depending on which type of groats you purchase, they’ll remain shelf stable for anywhere from 12 months to upwards of two years.    

 

Steel-cut oats

 

Steel-cut oats are made by chopping whole oat groats. Just like whole groats, they can either be raw or heat stabilized.

 

Rolled oats

 

All rolled oats have been steamed as part of their processing. In fact, they have to be. An unsteamed oat groat would shatter beneath the pressure of the roller, rather than flattening. As a result, rolled oats tend to be the most shelf stable variety, especially if they’re the only ingredient. However, their shelf stability can be impacted by added ingredients such as flavoring, oils and other fats, dried fruits, and more. 

 

In short, oats that haven’t undergone some sort of heat treatment (such as steaming and kilning) will have a shorter shelf life than oats that have gone through this stabilization. Luckily, the heating process has little to no effect on the oats’ nutritional value. 

 

According to the British Journal of Nutrition, the positive effects of heat treatment include inactivating bacteria, yeasts, and molds that can pose food safety risks. However, it may destroy some “heat-liable vitamins, such as B vitamins.” Still, the journal concludes, the benefits of kilning to extend shelf-life far outweigh the undesirable effects. Even after processing, oats are considered a good source of daily vitamin B requirements. 

 

Home storage: easy ways to extend shelf life

 

But of course, there are ways to extend the shelf life of your oats. And that goes above and beyond considering how they’ve been processed before you purchase. 

 

Store in a cool, dry environment

 

Oats do best in a cool, dry environment, like a cupboard or pantry. In fact, moisture and humidity are the top culprits when it comes to spoiled oats. 

 

Avoid temperature extremes

 

If possible, you should also store your oats somewhere with a controlled temperature. As an article by Eat By Date explains, “When items go through temperature changes of cool to warm, and vice versa, the moisture in the air tends to condensate inside the packages. This moisture allows mold to grow and your oatmeal to spoil.”

 

Use airtight containers

 

If you’re a daily oat eater, you likely haven’t considered how to store your oats for long term storage. This is because most oats will fare just fine in their original packaging for a month or two. This is true whether they come in a bag, a canister, or a bulk sack from the grocery store. 

 

However, if you’re hoping to store oats for several years, you might consider transferring them to a more secure container. An airtight container will protect your oats from moisture and common pantry pests. 

 

How to tell if oats are past their prime

 

Some shelf stable foods give a clear indication that they’ve spoiled. If you’ve ever caught a whiff of sour milk or opened a deli meat container to find a slimy, thriving colony, then you’ve seen this firsthand. But other foods are more subtle. Unfortunately, oats fall into the latter category. 

 

So how can you tell if your oat supply has gone funky? 

 

Signs your oats are rancid: 

  • The first step is to check for visible signs of mold or fungus. These can both occur if your oats were improperly stored, stored in overly humid conditions, or exposed to moisture. A subtle but important thing to note: oats that spoil because of exposure to moisture will look “plumper” than regular dried oats. 
  • Color or texture changes can also be a dead giveaway that something’s not quite right. Your oats (especially single source, minimally-processed oats like Northerly’s) should have a relatively uniform size, shape, color, and consistency. If there are obvious differences, your oats may be contaminated. 
  • We also recommend trusting your senses! Just like with many other spoiled foods, rancid oats will have a distinct smell. If it smells off—sour, rotten, or moldy—then it’s best not to risk it. 

 

So, should you freeze your oats?

 

According to research by the University of Nebraska, there’s no need to store your oats in the fridge or freezer. As long as they’ve been heat stabilized, stored in an airtight container, and stay in a cool, dry place, they’re a shelf stable food that can last at least 12 months. 

 

The exception to this, of course, is unstabilized oats. Because they contain more natural fats and oils than stabilized, they’re more prone to rancidity. However, they’ll still last as long as three months in a cupboard or pantry. And oat brands that sell unstabilized oats claim that refrigeration keeps them fresh even longer. 

 

But! If you’re looking for a breakfast hack, it is possible (and convenient) to freeze prepared oats. Livestrong recommends taking the stress out of your morning routine by cooking up a big batch of oatmeal and freezing individual servings. On busy mornings, you’ll just need one or two minutes and a microwave to serve up a hot, healthy breakfast. Pre-cooked oats can spend up to six months in your freezer. 

 

Conclusion

 

Whether you prefer whole groats, steel-cut, rolled oats, or quick cook, there’s no denying that oats are a shelf stable pantry staple. With their health benefits and long shelf life, they’re a perfect everyday go-to and a versatile emergency provision. As long as your oats are stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry place, they’ll stay fresh and delicious for years to come. So why not stock up with a 25 lb bag?

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