How Long Can Ice Cream Be Safely Left Out or Frozen?

If you are wondering about the limits of what your ice cream can endure, you have come to the right place! This article discusses various scenarios and whether or not your ice cream will make …

ice cream containers in freezer

If you are wondering about the limits of what your ice cream can endure, you have come to the right place! This article discusses various scenarios and whether or not your ice cream will make it through them safely and without making you sick.

Ice cream can be safely left at room temperature (72°F or 22°C) or hotter for no more than two hours. Ice cream has a shelf life of two years at the FDA-recommended freezer temperature of 0°F (-18°C). 

Below are some more specifics about ice cream product shelf life and temperature limits. When in doubt, it is best to stay on the safe side and keep the ice cream in the freezer where it belongs…

chocolate ice cream with spoon

How Long Can Ice Cream Be Left Out of the Freezer?

Whether you or someone in your household left the ice cream on the counter after getting a bowlful, you just want to know if you can safely pop it back in the freezer. Thankfully, science has the answer for us.

Ice cream can be left out of the freezer for a couple of hours, maximum, but it will almost certainly melt. If your ice cream has been sitting at room temperature for more than two hours, it is likely unsafe to eat, since it will attract the growth of harmful bacteria.

Turns out, keeping your ice cream in the freezer is not just about halting the melting process – it’s about stopping bacterial contamination.

The more the ice cream warms up, the greater the chance that harmful bacteria are multiplying within it. Leaving it out for more than two hours will expose it to bacterial growth (source: Wisconsin Department of Health Services).

Even if it is an unopened ice cream, you should not leave it at room temperature for an extended period of time. Dairy products are quite susceptible to harmful germs, and bacteria love them almost as much as we do. Even if you feel the ice cream has not been ‘exposed’ to germs, it is unwise to refreeze it. 

If you cannot tell how long your ice cream was left out, it is better to be safe than sorry.

melting vanilla and chocolate ice cream

How Long Can Ice Cream Be in a Car?

If you plan on leaving ice cream in your car while you run other errands, you might want to hurry your trip! Hot cars are the last place you want to forget your frozen treat. 

Do not plan to leave ice cream in a car with temperatures of 85°F (29.4°C) or higher for more than an hour and a half. The longer the ice cream remains unfrozen, the more likely it will become contaminated. 

If you have a long drive from the grocery store to wherever you are going, try to insulate the ice cream in a portable cooler or another temperature-maintaining container. 

In the absence of a cooler, you can try keeping your ice cream next to other cold or frozen items while you drive. A group of cold items has a better chance of staying cool than one cold item on its own! Just remember that this grouping of cold items is not a proper substitute for a freezer. 

Tip: If you’ve bought an expensive type of ice cream spontaneously and didn’t bring a cooler, buy a cheap bag of frozen veggies (peas are good) or ice and use them to insulate the ice cream. You’ll spend a small amount to save throwing away a whole tub of ice cream. When you get home, use the veg for your evening meal, or make a soup!

If you forget the ice cream in the hot car for an unknown amount of time, open it up and check how melted it is before deciding to put it in your freezer. If it is just a little drippy around the edges, you are probably safe popping it in the freezer. If the ice cream looks more like a milkshake than a frozen dessert, you’re probably too late to save it. 

How Long Can Ice Cream Be in a Freezer?

I know we have said a lot about how not to treat your ice cream, but ice cream actually has a great life expectancy if properly housed in your freezer. As long as it remains frozen, there is very little to fear. 

Ice cream can be in a freezer for two years. If stored at the FDA-recommended freezer temperature of 0°F (-18°C), studies show that it has a shelf life of a little over two years. However, bear in mind that the ice cream taste may deteriorate over time.

Keep in mind that the two-year mark is not when ice cream ceases to be safe (that is, healthy) to eat: it is only when the ice cream loses enough of its quality, flavor, or texture for the FDA to consider it “bad.” So do not be afraid to taste your two-and-a-half-year-old ice cream before throwing it out! 

However, the same study used to determine the ideal freezer temperature for ice cream also noted that the higher the freezer temperature, the shorter the shelf life. For example, a box of ice cream kept at 21°F (-6°C) only lasts for two months, and a box kept at 32°F (0°C) does not even last a month (source: National Library of Medicine).

ice cream containers in freezer

Now, it is one thing to test ice cream shelf life in a controlled environment with minimal temperature changes. Home-stored ice cream will go through many more trials than clinically measured ice cream.

The opening and closing of the freezer door, frequent time on the counter, and unstable temperature will all contribute to the eventual demise of the flavor and texture of the ice cream. 

The best thing you can do for your ice cream is regularly check the freezer temperature to ensure it does not rise above 0°F or -18°C (source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration).

If your freezer is getting on in years, this might present a challenge. In that case, just do your best to set the freezer temperature as low as possible. Even then, complications may arise with time. 

Freezer burn is a common storage condition that can affect nearly any food but is particularly unwanted in ice cream. Freezer burn occurs when frozen food comes into frequent contact with air. The air slowly removes moisture from the food and eventually dries out certain portions. 

Thankfully, freezer burn does not affect a frozen item’s safety, only its flavor or overall quality. You cannot get sick from eating freezer-burned food; it just won’t be as tasty as you hope (source: U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service). 

To keep your ice cream from getting freezer-burned, you should try to limit the additional time it is left in the freezer after opening. If you have a large amount of ice cream that you do not think you can get through before it suffers freezer burn, you can portion it into separate airtight containers.

Airtight ice cream containers will help ensure that the ice cream is not needlessly contaminated or dried out before you have time to eat it. 

If your ice cream does suffer freezer burn, you may be able to salvage some of it anyway! If it is a large amount of ice cream, you can try scooping off all discolored or crystallized ice cream from the top. By ridding the box of the freezer-burned portion, you can happily eat the rest without fearing a change in flavor or texture. 

However, there is no harm in being too careful when it comes to warm temperatures. We all know that nobody wants to “waste” a beautiful box of ice cream. But it is better to throw out a shady batch than to eat it and feel sick for the next forty-eight hours.