If it smells OK, it must be OK, right?

We've all been in this situation: You grab the milk to pour in your coffee or bowl of cereal, only to notice the date on the package has already passed. But instead of automatically pouring it down the drain, you may ask, "How long is milk good for after the expiration date? And how can I tell if milk is bad?" We'll break down everything you need to know about cow's milk, from expiration dates to signs of spoiled milk, so your next breakfast isn't ruined.

What Do the Dates on Milk Mean?

First, it's important to understand what those numbers on the bottle of milk actually mean. With the exception of infant formula, you may be surprised to learn that the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service doesn't even require dating on products. As a result, the dates found on milk can vary by manufacturer, and the numbers you're seeing might not be an expiration date at all, even if they sound like they are.

According to the FSIS, there are four types of dates you may see:

  • Best if Used By/Before indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality
  • Sell-By is used by stores for inventory management
  • Use-By recommends the last date to use the product for peak quality
  • Freeze-By suggests when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality

While a Best if Used By/Before or Use-By date will indicate a product's best quality before it starts to decline, that doesn't mean you should toss your milk the day after that date passes if there aren't signs of spoilage (more on that below).

a collage of a milk jug in front of a question mark background
Credit: Getty Images

So, How Long Is Milk Good for After the Expiration Date?

There are no official recommendations, but the general rule of thumb is as follows:

  • Open milk: 3 days after the expiration date
  • Unopened milk: Up to 7 days after the expiration date

Milk may still be good after these timelines, so it's always best to check for signs of spoilage before consuming. Also, be aware that these timelines apply to pasteurized milk, which is what you'll find in the grocery store. Unpasteurized milk, also known as raw milk, is milk that has not been treated to kill harmful bacteria. As a result, raw milk has a shorter shelf life and carries a high risk of causing foodborne illness.

How to Tell If Milk is Bad

While it is safe to drink milk past the expiration date, you'll want to check for signs of potential spoilage before consuming. Here's how to tell if milk is bad:

  • First, check the smell: Spoiled milk will have a sour, unpleasant smell that's often noticeable upon first whiff. If you can't smell, there are other ways to tell if milk is bad.
  • Next, examine the color: Pasteurized milk has a white color. If the milk is spoiled, it may develop mold, which can range in color from black to blue. 
  • Next, look at the consistency: When milk has gone bad, it may change in consistency from a creamy, smooth liquid to one with chunks or lumps. This visual indicator is a sign that the milk is beginning to curdle and is no longer safe to drink.
  • Finally, taste it: If your milk isn't displaying any other signs of spoilage, or you're still unsure if it's consumable, try a small sip. The milk should taste fresh, and if you notice any sourness or acidic flavors, it's best to toss it.

If your milk has any of these indicators of spoilage, it's best to dump it. Consuming spoiled milk may lead to vomiting, stomach cramping or diarrhea.

How to Make Milk Last Longer

Store Milk Properly

One easy way to ensure your gallon of milk doesn't spoil before its time is to store it properly. While it may seem convenient, milk is one of the foods you should never store in the refrigerator door. That's because every time you open the door, you expose the contents to warmer temperatures. Milk needs consistent cold temperatures to prevent bacterial growth. Instead, it's best to store milk on the shelf toward the back where the temperatures are coldest.

Freeze Milk

Another way to make your milk last longer is to freeze it. Learn how to freeze milk, which is a convenient way to prevent food waste when you know you won't be able to use it up before it spoils. We recommend portioning it out beforehand, so you only thaw what you need when the time comes.

The Bottom Line

Milk can often be consumed after its expiration date, generally for up to three days for opened milk and up to seven days for unopened milk. Before consuming, it's best to look for signs of spoilage. You can tell if milk is bad by checking the smell, color, consistency and taste. To make sure your milk stays fresh, be sure to store it on the refrigerator shelf toward the back.