Fruitcake – Will it Last Forever?

Photo credit: Jonathunder, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve always thought that, in the event of a nuclear apocalypse, the Earth will be populated solely by cockroaches, those Styrofoam hamburger containers that fast-food joints used in the 1980s, and fruitcakes. Since this is the season for loved ones to inflict fruitcakes on one another, I decided to get to the bottom of this mystery: will fruitcakes really last forever?

As it turns out, the answer depends on how you define “fruitcake.”

Most fruitcake recipes include dried nuts, dried fruit, and “candied” fruit or peel (meaning the fruit has been both dried and preserved in sugar). [Note: not all fruitcakes are made this way, see the safety note below.]

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that fruitcake will last two to three months in the refrigerator without spoiling, and will maintain its quality if stored up to a year in the freezer. But it’s a federal agency’s job to think of the worst-case scenario. Could fruitcakes really last longer?

“All of these dried and candied ingredients have what we call ‘low water activity,’ meaning they have very little moisture available,” says Ben Chapman, a food safety researcher at NC State. “Low water activity is important because many microorganisms, including foodborne illness-causing bacteria, need moisture in order to reproduce.

“In practical terms, this makes most fruitcakes extremely shelf stable, so they would be safe to eat for a long time – a really long time,” Chapman says. “But it might taste pretty bad.”

That’s because a lot of things can significantly affect the quality of the fruitcake.

For example, mold could grow on the surface of a fruitcake, or yeast could cause some of the sugars in the fruitcake to ferment.

“But some people wrap their fruitcakes in linen that’s been soaked in rum or other spirits to reduce the chance of mold or yeast problems,” Chapman says.

“However, rancidity may still be an issue. Fruitcakes contain a variety of proteins, from eggs to butter to nuts – even the fruit items. And when proteins are exposed to air, they can become oxidized, which can create rancid flavors and odors,” Chapman explains.

So, while you may be able to save that fruitcake forever, you should probably eat it now.

Safety Note: If a fruitcake has a significant amount of moisture (e.g., if it was made with fresh fruit) it is more likely to spoil or to give pathogens enough moisture to reproduce. In other words, it could make you sick if not kept refrigerated and eaten relatively quickly.

28 responses on “Fruitcake – Will it Last Forever?

  1. Bruce Thomas says:

    It was always a running joke when I was young that my aunt would give fruitcakes out at Christmas. She would date the tags, (though not sure why). Upon my mothers death, we found a couple fruitcakes that were 10-12 yrs. old!!!

  2. Mary Boulden says:

    Our family had a fruitcake that was passed around among 6 uncles & 1 aunt for about 5 years. Finally Uncle Les decided to eat the dadburn thing–and pronounced it delicious! To everyone’s surprise, it had apparently fermented and the alcohol content gave it a slightly different flavor.

  3. Lyle Ellingsen says:

    Why would one eat fruitcake in the first place?

    1. Cheri Baker says:

      Because it’s delicious!!!!!

  4. Evie butterfly says:

    I have a “fruit cake confection” from Harry & David in a tin, as well as a traditional fruitcake in a tin from the same supplier. Due to illness of long duration, my husband and I probably will not eat these fruit/confections for a long time. What is the best way to freeze them? Many thanks!

  5. Sue says:

    My problem is being able to keep it around….someone’s already slicing off a piece.

  6. Vince P says:

    I have a fruitcake In A round can. I got it from my grandma November 1953 over 61 years old

  7. Steeleweed says:

    My wife has been making and selling fruitcakes per her father’s recipe for nearly 50 years. I have no idea how long they will last, but I have eaten some well over 20 years old.

    Her recipe includes brandy and mostly fruit – only 1 cup of batter in a 3-quart jar of fruit/nuts.

    They are so rich we serve VERY THIN slices – about 1/2 inch at most.

    They are then wrapped in waxed paper, then aluminum foil, then stored in tin boxes in a cool room. Every year we open and serve some, then moisten with sherry or brandy and rewrap.

    This year’s servings (today, in fact) came from one made in 1992. It was not moldy or rancid and it was delicious. It will last a couple more seasons before we start on the one made in 1993.

    Merry Fruitcake To All.

  8. Valerie Leit says:

    Every year I make a fruitcake even though only my husband, daughter and I like it. Last week he and I ate the last piece of last years cake!
    Why mine lasts so long is because I soak it in
    brandy! I wrap it up in a white cotton cloth and
    then in Saran wrap and put it in a large Ziploc bag.
    I check on it through the year and pour more brandy over it to keep it moist.
    Unfortunately not a lot of people like fruitcake.

  9. Doug Beebe says:

    Nobody seems to like fruitcakes so I get to enjoy all the unwanted gifts of Christmas. I have notice the ones in metal cans are the best. So if there is a nuclear apocalypse I would have something to eat.

  10. Jake says:

    I lived in New Jersey in the early 70’s. A 90 year old widow offered my wife and me a taste of her wedding cake. This was a fruitcake that was about 65 years old.
    With some hesitation, we sampled the small piece that remained. As expected, it was quite dry, BUT we did not suffer any ill effects. I can attest fruitcakes last a long time.

  11. dean t. jackson says:

    My mother followed her English grandmothers fruitcake recipe. The ingredients were always liberally soaked in a liquor for what usually ended up being two weeks or more. We looked forward to it every holiday season, sliced and covered with a warm ‘hard sauce’. She made several sizes, decorated them nuts and candied fruit and gave them as X-mas. She stored a few in the pantry for our consumption, wrapped in plastic wrap and foil. Once, one was discovered behind the freezer and determined to be at least 2 or 3 years old. We found it unspoiled and absolutely delicious. So, long live true fruit cakes.

  12. Martin says:

    A traditional wedding cake in Englkand is a spirit soaked fruitcake covered first with marzipan and then Royal icing which seals the cake to the baseboard it is sitting on. The top small tier of the cake is not cut at the wedding but saved for the christening of the first child… 9 months to a year later. These cakes are just fine without refrigeration kept in an tin with a tight fitting lid.

  13. Fred says:

    Am I the only person in the world who likes fruitcake? I live near the second largest city in Michigan and a few days before Christmas I went out to buy a fruitcake and came home empty handed!

    1. Donna says:

      Oh no… son and I LOVE them. Me being brought up on them mom from England and me being born there. I do like my English fruit cakes the best. When my son was in the Marines and they all got fruit cake….my son ended up with a pile because no one like them.

  14. Larry and Jaqui Mager says:

    A fruit cake was found in England ( I’m not sure where)
    that was over 750 years old. Aand yes, the people who tried it were fruicake afficiandos. They stated that , indeed, the flavour was “nasty”, but still somewhat sterile.
    Happy + Safe New Years to all!!!!!!!

  15. D. Koettgen says:

    Dumb question. Would it be safe to even try a tin foil wrapped fruit cake in the freezer that my deceased husband made over 21 years ago?

  16. Jim May says:

    I fought forest fires for the forest service in the mid seventy’s. What we got to eat was WW 2 K rations, dated 1945 to 1947. Mostly for a desert we got either canned pound cake or fruit cake. The pound cake was sought after. If you got hated Fruit Cake, you would most likely throw it away.
    forests were littered with uneaten fruit cake. I am sure they got K Rations for many years after I left


    1. Ronald Morrison says:

      Wow! Me, Too! In New Mexico and central CA. I usually got all the fruitcake tins from my co-workers and would take them home, soak them in sherry and eat them later. Some of the tins dated WAAAAY back.

  17. R. Bassett says:

    This is also the wedding cake for Candian weddings. My wife made our fruit cake for our wedding. She brought it with her when I was posted to Germany. We had it for our 1st wedding anniversary, and then for the birth of our first child. When I was finished with my tour and sent back to the world the cake didn’t make the trip to well it had a good 1/2 inch of mold on it. We scrapped it off but were not brave enough to try it so it took the trip. This was in 1968.

  18. Cupcake says:

    Hi, I’ve been making and decorating Christmas cakes now for almost 15 years, I decided , back in the day, it was easier to give a Christmas cake as a present to friends and family. I always make the cakes in January, once cooked and left to get cold (bearing in mind I soak the fruit in cognac for two days) I then put more cognac over each cake the double wrap in grease proof paper, then cling film and finally silver foil. Every month I turn the cakes over, and store them in a large plastic air tight container. When November comes I unwrap them (the aroma is wonderful) and then proceed to marzipan them, leaving the marzipan 3/4 days to dry then I ice and decorate them. I have never has any complaints and my cakes are lovely and moist.

    1. martie says:

      Hi cupcake

      I have to cover a lot of fruitcakes how long before christmas can I start covering?

  19. shaida anyhony says:

    I will like to have a good fruit cake recipe that will last for a year or more I’m want to use mazipan and plastic icing for the decor of the cake please

  20. Lia says:

    I’m making a round 4 tier rich fruit cake for my son’s wedding, 30cm, 25cm, 20cm and 15cm. I can’t find airtight storage cake tins for the 30cm and 25cm cakes. Is it safe to store these in a plastic lidded container for 8 weeks whilst I feed them with brandy? Also I intend to cover the cakes with marzipan and homemade fondant two weeks before the wedding. I am going to brush the cakeboards with vodka to sterile them and then place each cake on a cakeboard. I intend to place each cake into a lidded cardboard cake box, two weeks before the wedding, so that the fondant can harden. Is this okay to do? I then need to transport them to the wedding venue which is an 8/9 hour drive away. Any tips on how to transport would be most welcome. Thanks in advance.

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