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Food | Living

The Shelf Life of Black Pepper: It Might be Shorter than You Think

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Black pepper is one of the oldest and most widely-used spices. You likely have a jar or two sitting in your cupboard. If you’re wondering what the shelf life of black pepper is, well, it depends on how it was stored, and how it’s processed (ground or whole). Generally pepper is best if used within 2-4 years. But the good news is, if you accidentally ate some old pepper, you likely won’t get sick.

Did you know…black pepper comes from berries from the Piper nigrum plant. The peppercorns are the fruit of this flowering vine. Black pepper is made from unripened berries. White pepper comes from the same plant, however with ripe berries with the skins removed. Used less frequently, there are also green peppercorns (unripe berries) and red peppercorns (fully ripened berries)

Flickr_ShelfLifeOfBlackPepper-pepperplant
Credit: Boston Public Library / Flickr, Pepper, Piper nigrum

What’s the shelf life of black pepper?

Black pepper is considered a shelf-stable spice. Like other store-bought shelf-stable products including sugar, oils, rice, and pasta, your package of ground black pepper or peppercorns has a “best by” date. 

According to the USDA, “a shelf-stable product can be safely used after the “sell-by” date. Products displaying a “use-by” date, although still safe, may not be of acceptable quality after the “use-by” date.” 

Different forms of black pepper have varying shelf lives. Ground pepper has a shorter shelf life than when left “whole” and begins to quickly lose its aroma and flavor (even turning bitter) after several months. Ground pepper has more of its surface area exposed to elements such as sunlight, oxygen, and moisture which is why it has a shorter shelf life.

Your best bet for the long run? Invest in a package of whole peppercorns. Whole peppercorns retain their essential oils, aroma, and flavor the longest. When properly stored, it can last several years. 

And if you’re really a fan of ground black pepper, just buy a small quantity you can easily use up to avoid wasting food.

Type of Black PepperStorage TimeStorage Temperature
Ground pepper2-3 years (although some can become stale in months)Room temperature
Whole peppercorns2-4 yearsRoom temperature
Brined peppercornsUp to 1 monthRefrigerated
Water-packed peppercornsUp to 1 weekRefrigerated
Sources: Ask USDA and The Spruce

The ultimate everlasting kitchen spice is salt. It pretty much lasts forever without losing its flavor or texture.

Unsplash_ShelfLifeOfBlackPepper-peppercorns
Credit: Calum Lewis / Unsplash

How to properly store black pepper to extend shelf life

By now, you’re probably familiar with the advice to store spices in a cool, dry, dark place. It might be tempting to display your spice collection on your countertop beside the stove, but this really isn’t the best storage place.

Instead, store black pepper inside a cupboard away from the heat of the stove and oven, or the warmth of the dishwasher. Your pantry is also a good place. These places protect your spices from sunlight which can speed up food degradation.

While store-bought spice containers are often plastic, glass or ceramic containers are preferable for long-term storage—consider investing in a few for spice and herb storage. Plastic has a tendency to absorb odors. Glass and ceramic containers also provide for a better airtight seal.

Food-safe metal tins are also another good option as they block out all light. You can buy amber-colored glass containers to protect your spices from light.

How to tell if black pepper has gone bad

Unlike other foods that have spoiled, black pepper, like other shelf-stable herbs and spices, don’t truly “go bad.” Rather, they just become less potent over time with lackluster flavor.

Before you decide whether to use it, check the overall condition of the package and contents. If in doubt, throw it out.  

If it looks okay, do a simple taste-and-sniff taste. Crush or grind a bit of pepper to bring out the aroma and flavor. If it has a weak flavor, or a bad smell, it’s time to replace it. The aroma of black pepper is sharp and distinct—if your nose doesn’t detect any aroma, it’s time to toss it.

The best way to use black pepper

There’s nothing quite like freshly ground pepper to spice up a dish. So buy whole black peppercorns and get a decent peppermill with an adjustable grinder. Finely ground pepper has the tendency to irritate your throat and cause fits of coughing. Adjust the peppermill to “coarse” and enjoy your meal.

Would you like some pepper with that?

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  1. Britannica, Black pepper,https://www.britannica.com/plant/black-pepper-plant. Accessed October 2020.
  2. USDA, Shelf-Stable Food Safety, https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/safe-food-handling/shelf-stable-food-safety/. Accessed October 2020.
  3. USDA, Ask USDA, Will spices used beyond their expiration date be safe?, https://ask.usda.gov/s/article/Will-spices-used-beyond-their-expiration-date-be-safe. Accessed October 2020. 
  4. Filippone, Peggy Trowbridge (26 July 2019). “Peppercorn and Pepper Storage and Selection,” The Spruce Eats. Accessed October 2020. 

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