A few years back, I was rummaging through my kitchen, cleaning and taking out spoiled and expired food. It was January then, just a few weeks after New Year.
I remember finding a half-eaten fruit cake at the back of some forgotten cabinet. It was wrapped in plastic. And I initially thought a kid must have left it there from our Christmas party.
The fruit cake almost looks fresh, as if it was left there the day before. However, when I checked the label for its expiration date, I learned the cake was from a year ago.
I recall having the same question as you are now: how long does a fruit cake last?
Regular cakes usually last a few days in a covered container at room temperature. If refrigerated, these desserts can go for three months before they show signs of spoiling.
But this isn’t the case for our favorite Christmas treat. And these confections certainly earned a solid reputation for their extraordinary shelf life.
One well-documented instance of fruit cakes surprising people with their shelf life happened in Iowa. It started when two friends from the 1950s decided to gift-wrap a fruit cake and exchange it between themselves every Christmas.
Now, that might sound like your typical fun Christmas story. But hear this, the tradition of passing the same fruit cake has gone on between these friends until they turned 80.
In short, the fruit cake lasted over 50 years, surviving 10 US presidents!
I know a 50-year-old fruit cake sounds astonishing. But what about a century-old fruit cake?
In 2017, Antarctic conservators found a small surprising object hidden away in one of Antarctica’s oldest buildings. You guessed right, a perfectly preserved fruit cake.
Historical experts estimate that the cake is over 100 years old. Apparently, Robert Falcon Scott left the treat behind in one of his expeditions to the continent in the early 90s!
Another extraordinary display of these pastries’ unbelievable longevity dates back to the 1870s. That’s right, a fruit cake that’s almost 150 years old.
One family from Iowa decided to preserve the memories of their late grandmother by keeping her last confection, passing it within the family for over five generations.
That’s some fruit cake love they have there.
The incredible part about these decades-old cakes is that some people actually dared to sample them and lived. It only means that even after five, ten, and fifteen decades, the pastries remain edible despite no longer being appetizing.
The extremely long shelf life of fruit cakes is indeed remarkable. In fact, it often leaves people asking whether these confections last forever.
The USDA suggests that these pastries can last one year at best. Although, let’s not forget that it’s their job to protect the masses from potentially spoiled food.
But the short answer is YES, a fruit cake can go bad despite its notorious reputation. However, whether it goes bad quicker or slower can depend on several factors.
Moisture, for instance, can make your favorite holiday treat spoil faster. So, a cake made from fresh fruits instead of dried ones can result in a fruity spoiled mess fast.
The moist sponge can become a breeding ground for bacteria and other microorganisms. These instances can obviously spoil any food, including fruit cakes.
The cake’s storage is another essential consideration. Poor storing conditions can lead molds and yeasts to grow on or in the cake, affecting its taste and quality.
The ingredients are the primary reason fruit cakes can last years and still remain edible. As you may know, these cakes use dried nuts, dried fruits, and candied fruits.
In short, these fruity confections use dried ingredients stripped of moisture. This dry quality prevents microorganisms from infesting, prolonging the cakes’ shelf life.
Additionally, the trifecta of sugar helps preserve fruit cakes. Sugar acts as a preservative in food because, like salt, it inhibits moisture and bacterial growth.
Sugar and dried fruit aren’t the only things to thank, though.
If you look at authentic fruit cake recipes, you’ll learn they contain alcohol as preservatives. This traditional use of spirits in the cake triggers a preservation process we call “denaturation.”
Denaturation refers to the breaking down of all proteins in the cake. The unraveled proteins then stick together, forming a solid network that prevents growth or changes in the cake structure.
To sum up, fruit cakes last as long as they do because of their ingredients of dried fruits, sugar, and alcohol. That explains how some of these pastries survive decades of exposure!
Fruit cakes studded with dried fruit and soaked with alcohol can remain edible for a long time. These cakes can extend for months and even years with suitable storage and proper handling.
Some fruit cake lovers extend fruit cake life for years by periodically adding liquor. Others won’t even eat an alcohol-soaked cake until it reaches three years.
Forbes also reported extreme cases of “well-thinned and brandied” fruit cakes lasting two decades. Can you imagine eating a cake made when you were a toddler?
Still, most experts recommend eating a soaked fruit cake within a year. I’d suggest following their advice, especially if you’re squeamish about the idea of eating three years old cakes.
Some bakers prefer skipping spirits to appeal to younger or alcohol-intolerant individuals. But these versions often turn rock-hard and dry.
Obviously, fruit cakes without alcohol content won’t last as long as soaked fruit cakes. Although, they’ll still spoil slower compared to regular cakes with icing.
An alcohol-free cake should be good for three to four weeks at room temperature. So, you can leave it in your pantry for a few days on end and return to a still edible fruit cake.
However, eating an alcohol-free fruit cake a few days after baking is more advisable. Refrigerating it is also better than leaving it unprotected in your pantry.
Cut and uncut fruit cakes should have a similar shelf life. However, your ingredients, handling, and storing methods affect how long they remain edible.
For example, a cut cake baked traditionally with liquor should last longer than an uncut cake without alcohol. Conversely, a properly stored, alcohol-free fruit cake should have longer shelf life than uncut traditional fruit cakes exposed to moist conditions.
There are three basic steps when making a fruit cake. First is baking, second is aging (the longest step), and third is storing.
Aging an authentic fruit cake can take one to three months. The flavor of the confection can heavily depend on how well you tended to it during the aging process.
After the aging period, you can immediately eat the fruit cake. However, if you’re preparing the treat for a special occasion, you may want to preserve and store it.
Here are some fruit cake-storing methods I use:
Wrapping is a vital part of storing fruit cake. This step protects the confection from external elements, including moisture, dust, and heat.
Plus, if you’re storing the cake in the fridge, a tight wrapper will protect it from the smell.
I’d highly recommend wrapping the fruit cake with two layers of plastic wrap. Follow the plastic wrap with a layer of foil for additional protection, but ensure the foil doesn’t touch the cake.
After wrapping, place the cake in a clean, tight container before storing it in the refrigerator.
You can store alcohol-free fruit cakes in the freezer for up to six months. However, traditionally baked fruit cakes can last longer if you apply alcohol periodically.
As a final note, make it a habit to check stored cakes for signs of spoilage. If you notice mold or weird odors, it’s best to discard the cake quickly.
Did you know that you can trace the origin of fruit cakes as far back as the 14th century? It goes to show how much people adore these treats.
But now you know how long fruit cakes last! Why not try baking a piece or two of this timeless cake to share with your friends for the holidays?
Sarah is the founder of Baking Kneads, LLC, a blog sharing guides, tips, and recipes for those learning how to bake. Growing up as the daughter of a baker, she spent much of her childhood learning the basics in a local bakery.