Here's how experts say you should actually be storing your condiments

From ketchup to butter to maple syrup, we asked food experts where you should be storing your favorite condiments

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published December 4, 2023 12:00PM (EST)

Condiments in bottles (Getty Images/Johner Images)
Condiments in bottles (Getty Images/Johner Images)

Things have a mysterious way of moving around in my kitchen. Soy sauce I thought I'd seen on a shelf somehow winds up in the door of the refrigerator. I leave the good French butter out on the counter for extended periods of time, only to discover a nervous family member has put it back in cold storage. And the ketchup I'd swear I put in the fridge seems to drift into the cupboard. So who's right and who's wrong here — and where should my maple syrup go?

At least I'm not alone in my confusion. Early this year, The UK branch of Heinz drummed up controversy by replying on social media to the age old question of fridge vs cupboard with a unequivocal "FYI: Ketchup. goes. in. the. fridge!!!" But just a few years earlier, American Heinz had offered a much more subdued perspective, tweeting that "Because of its natural acidity, Heinz Ketchup is shelf-stable, but refrigerate after opening to maintain product quality."

I have an admittedly relaxed attitude toward conventional food protocols. I don't wipe down my milk cartons, I don't wash my chickens, I keep bread in a drawer, and am leisurely about putting my unopened groceries in the refrigerator. My spouse, in contrast, dashes home from the supermarket like he's transporting a human heart in his D'Ag Bag. And yet, this is the same person who will let a jar of jam purchased around the first season of "Succession" linger in that same fridge indefinitely. 

While there is some disagreement about where and how long to store certain foods, a few good rules of thumb do apply. "Opened condiments should go in the fridge," states Vered DeLeeuw, a certified nutrition coach and creator of Healthy Recipes Blog. "This includes ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise." And while it sounds obvious, she says, "When in doubt, check the instructions on the bottle. They will most likely say, 'Refrigerate after opening.'" And here's where I discover my entire condiment collection should probably be tossed — "Ketchup will last six months in the fridge," she advises, "mustard a year, and mayonnaise two months." Barely touched bottle of chipotle mayo, I hardly knew you.

I was also surprised by DeLeeuw's assertion that "Maple syrup should go in the fridge." Just like jam, she says that "Both will grow moldy if stored out of the fridge once opened." She adds that "Commercial jam will last about a month in the fridge," a timeline far more conservative than the USDA's recommended six months, but still a harsh blow to the Bonne Maman I've been working my way through since last Christmastime. In contrast, honey, with its seemingly infinite shelf life, honey, DeLeeuw says, is safe in the cupboard. And she's adamant that "Bread does NOT go in the fridge! It becomes dry and develops a stale flavor in the fridge. It's best to store in a cool, dry place (such as a breadbox) for up to five days."

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I may get confused about where to stow my syrup, but where things get really puzzling is when I compare my food storage habits against those of my friends in other countries, buying their unrefrigerated milk and keeping their eggs and butter on their counters. We Americans, however, need to think twice before trying that at home. In several parts of the world, for example, milk undergoes ultra-high-temperature pasteurization (UHT) that makes it more shelf-stable before opening. You can sometimes find UHT milk at your local supermarket, but it's never quite caught on in our nation that assumes the dairy aisle is synonymous with refrigeration. 

Likewise, there's a reason your supermarket keeps eggs and butter in the refrigerated section but other places don't. Earlier this year,  Lisa Steele from Fresh Eggs Daily told Salon that "Farm fresh eggs from your own backyard, a neighbor, farmers market or local farm that haven't been washed don't need to be refrigerated, and can be left out on the counter at room temperature." (She did  advise gently washing them before using.) As for regular supermarket eggs, Meghan Martigan of the You're Gonna Bake It After All blog recommends, "While safe for short time frames, eggs left on the counter run the risk of bacterial growth."

And as our Ashlie Stevens has explained, your "good" butter, stored appropriately in a butter bell crock, can hang out on the counter and save you from impatiently shredding your toast with ice-cold pats straight from the fridge. There are limits, however, especially in warm weather. Use common sense and only keep out what you're going to use in a short amount of time.  Sarah Johnson, an appliance expert and kitchen advisor at Big Air Fryers, suggests thinking of certain foods as going in the "counter zone." "Keep some fruits, vegetables, and small amounts of butter on the counter," she says, "but remember to rotate them regularly and consume within a reasonable time."

Smart storage isn't just about sticking food in a specific place, though. Your fridge isn't going to do your ridiculously expensive groceries any favors if it's not actually keeping them cold. The USDA recommends "Refrigerators should be set to maintain a temperature of 40 °F (4.4 °C) or below." If you're suspicious your fridge settings may be off,  appliance thermometers are cheap and worth their weight in unspoiled food. And remember that the door is typically the warmest place in the fridge, so it's fine for pickles and soda but iffier for shorter shelf life items like milk.

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And while it's almost always a safe bet to err on the side of refrigerating any food or condiment you're unsure about, there are exceptions. Dried "herbs and spices possess inherent crispness that gets damp inside a fridge," says Sunita Yousuf, creator of The Wannabe Cook. "The humidity and cold airflow of the refrigerators decrease the spices texture, color, and taste. Refrigeration can clump up the ground spices while the whole spices (cinnamon, pepper, clove, cardamom) get clammy. Hence," she says, "it’s better to store spices in a cool (not chilled) and a dry place instead of a refrigerator."

While I still engage in family debates about where to put the chili crisp, I recognize that the most important aspect of a good kitchen isn't what you store, it's what you eat. "The best way to keep your food fresh and safe to eat is to take more trips to the grocery," says Kam Talebi, CEO of the Minneapolis restaurant The Butcher's Tale. It's a simple, smart strategy. "Buy fresh food more frequently," he says, "rather than stockpiling food, and throwing much of it away."

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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