What happens to expired instant coffee? If you’re a passionate lover of good cold brew coffee, chances are your kitchen is home to carefully-chosen whole bean coffees full of flavor and nuance.
Even so, there’s a chance that, somewhere, you’ve got a package or two of the instant stuff. If you haven’t had to crack it open in a while, there’s also a chance that it’s pretty old by now. Does this mean that you have to toss it?
Does Instant Coffee Expire?
No matter what kind of coffee you’re talking about, fresh is always best. Freshly roasted beans, freshly ground and freshly brewed, will always taste better. There’s a good reason for this, too: It’s all about the oils.
Coffee is chock full of oils and volatile compounds that give it flavor. These evaporate pretty readily — every time you take a sniff, you’re sniffing some that have faded into the airspace around the coffee.
Like most anything else, instant coffee can get old. Some experts say that sealed instant coffee will never technically expire no matter what dates are on the package, but this depends on how you define “expire.”
Instant coffee will pretty much always be instant coffee. Wait too long, however, and it’s not going to taste very good. That’s why, instead of expiration dates, instant coffee often has “best by” dates.
Coffee beans go through a pretty heavy-duty process to make instant coffee, and the small size of the grains means that the product has a lot of surface area.
More surface area is more room for oxygen to turn oils stale and volatile oils that give coffee its flavor to evaporate, leading to a flat, unpleasant cup.
What Is the Shelf Life of Instant Coffee?
Packages of instant coffee are often given a nitrogen flush at the factory. They are displacing the air in the container, slowing spoilage, and reducing the oxidation of the compounds in the coffee.
As long as this seal stays intact, instant coffee’s shelf life is pretty much indefinite.
Once it is opened, instant coffee needs to be stored properly. Under the right conditions, it can be used for years (according to some experts, decades) after its expiration date.
What Are the Best Storing Conditions?
As mentioned above, “stored properly” is the key. There are several factors to take into account when it comes to keeping your instant coffee in drinkable condition:
Moisture is important. You generally don’t want conditions to be too dry because a lack of moisture in the air encourages the evaporation of the aromatic compounds. You also don’t want it to be too wet.
Fortunately, you won’t need any fancy hygrometers here — keep it in cool, dry, dark places, and you’ll be fine. You can even store it in the freezer beside your whole beans and fresh coffee grounds if you like.
2. Airtight Container
An airtight container is always a good idea. Excluding as much oxygen as possible keeps the oils in coffee from oxidizing and will prevent much of the aromatics from evaporating into the surrounding environment.
You’ll also want to keep it in a cool, dark place that doesn’t experience a lot of temperature swings — warm areas encourage evaporation.
3. Dry Spoon vs. Wet Spoon
You should only ever use a dry spoon to measure out instant coffee. While this can be inconvenient, especially if you’re making multiple cups, it’s crucial.
Every time a wet spoon dips into a package of instant coffee, it’s introducing water into the product. It might only be a drop or two, but it’s still the best way to accidentally turn a package of instant coffee grounds into a petri dish.
Microorganisms need moisture, but not much. Even just high ambient humidity can allow them to flourish and ruin an entire package.
Even if your instant coffee doesn’t end up growing a colony of tiny, sentient life, water is still bad news. Instant coffee is designed to dissolve readily in water, so its flavorful compounds are turned into water-soluble crystals.
The extra moisture will cause it to clump up. This makes it harder to measure accurately and can keep it from dissolving once it’s added to hot water.
If you have to use the same spoon to measure out and stir multiple cups of coffee, either save the stirring until the end or thoroughly dry the spoon between cups.
What Can You Do with Old Instant Coffee?
Fortunately, even old instant coffee has its uses. Some people use used coffee grounds to amend their soil. While instant coffee isn’t the same as used ground coffee, you can still add it to compost as a nitrogen source.
According to some gardeners, instant coffee is also better than ground coffee at decreasing soil pH. Some plants love acidic soil, but used coffee grounds already have their acids extracted by brewing. Instant coffee still has the acids present.
Instant coffee can even have a second life in the kitchen. Mix instant coffee, coarse sea salt, garlic powder, smoked paprika, and cayenne pepper, and use it as a meat rub before cooking.
A bit of instant coffee can add depth to hearty dishes like chili, and many chocolate cakes and brownies wouldn’t be the same without a shot or two of coffee.
Instant coffee is even an excellent base for smoothies (especially blended with a ripe banana). As long as the old coffee’s flavor isn’t intended to be the star of the show, it’s still a great supporting actor in plenty of dishes!
Does Mold Grow on Instant Coffee?
Fungi are pretty opportunistic organisms. Give them enough moisture and room temperature conditions, and they can grow almost anywhere. This includes in your instant coffee.
No matter how long its shelf-life may be or what the date on the package says, you should never attempt to drink stale instant coffee. Molds don’t just affect the flavor and consistency; they can produce mycotoxins that make you very ill.
It’s also not enough to scoop out the moldy bits, either. Molds and other fungi grow an abundance of thin, almost invisible filaments akin to plant roots that can permeate the entire product.
While it’s true that the majority of molds that grow on food aren’t dangerous, some of them are. If you’re not able to identify which one is colonizing your coffee crystals, you’re better off tossing the whole thing.
What Happens If You Drink Expired Coffee?
Nothing. It’s not likely to taste as good as it did when it was fresh, but it won’t harm you. The expiration date marks the date when the coffee is most likely past its best flavor and consistency. If your instant coffee is a long time past this date, it’s not going to taste like fresh coffee.
If coffee is stored in a humid area for a long time, you might notice that expired instant coffee leaves more sediment. That’s because water molecules have already had a chance to work their way into the product. This can keep the instant coffee grains from dissolving quickly in hot water.
What About Single-Serve Instant Coffee Packets?
As was mentioned above, instant coffee can last almost forever as long as it’s kept sealed. Even after it opens, proper storage will allow it to survive for years. Instant coffee packets are one of the best ways for people who don’t consume them often to make sure it stays good.
By only opening one serving at a time, you’re ensuring that the seal and nitrogen flush stays intact for all of the other servings. This means that single-serve instant coffee packets are great for camping, emergency kits, or other applications where they might only be used infrequently.
However, if you consume more than a container or two every few months, you might want to skip the packets.
Since instant coffee is generally made with lower-quality beans than whole bean coffee, and its shelf life is already relatively long, you’re not preserving anything by purchasing the single-serving variety. (Those little packets can turn into a big pile of trash in the long run, too.)
Instant coffee is great for those times when you need a caffeine fix. It’s generally not made with the best beans out there, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a lot of well-deserved devotees.
One of its primary virtues is its very long shelf life. As long as a container of instant coffee stays sealed, it could theoretically end up outliving the person who bought it!
Once instant coffee is opened, like any other coffee, it becomes a race against time to drink it up before it’s past its peak flavor. Storing it properly in a cool, dark, dry area in an airtight container can help preserve its taste and significantly extend its lifespan.