By Laura Craven
Whether cooking at home or ordering take-out, we often find we have leftovers. And, today with people cooking in large batches while home-bound, this is more likely. To ensure leftovers are safe to eat, and enjoyable, it’s important to pay attention to food safety rules. Make sure food is cooked to a safe temperature, refrigerate or freeze leftovers quickly, and follow reheating best practices. This will help prevent foodborne illness from improper procedures.
The first step is to prepare and cook food safely and be sure to meet the minimum internal temperature guidelines by using a food thermometer. Red meats including beef, pork, lamb, and veal should reach 145° F before removing food from the heat source. Allow to rest for 3 minutes before slicing or serving. Ground meats require a higher internal temperature of 160° F to prevent foodborne illness. The process of grinding can introduce bacteria, so the higher cooking temperature is important. Cook poultry to an internal temperature of 165° F.
The next step is to keep food out of the Danger Zone. Bacteria grows at a rapid rate when food is between 40° F and 140°F.
Keep your hot dishes above the Danger Zone until ready to cool and refrigerate or freeze the leftovers. Always cool and store food within 2 hours of cooking or 1 hour if left out in a hot environment such as an outdoor meal during summer months.
Cold food should be kept at 40° F or below while serving. Nest bowls in larger bows of ice or only plate servings as needed and keep the rest of the food in the refrigerator. Store and refrigerate within 2 hours of being at room temperature.
When ready to store, cool food rapidly to prevent bacterial growth while the temperature passes through the Danger Zone. Divide large batches into shallow containers which will allow quicker cooling. Using an ice paddle (commercial and home-styles are available) or placing a container of the hot food into an ice bath will be effective. Do not put a hot glass or ceramic cooking dish or pan into cold water as it will shatter. For large pieces of meat such as roasts, turkeys, or ham, slice into smaller parts to cool. Do not put a large batch of steaming hot food into your refrigerator as it will warm up the entire compartment and could lead to other food spoiling.
When its time to store leftovers either cooked at home or ordered from a restaurant, wrap each type of food separately in airtight packaging or seal into storage containers with a tight lid-fit. This helps keep bacteria out and will prevent the mingling of odors. Leftovers can be stored in the refrigerator for 3-4 days and in the freezer for 3-4 months. Label your containers or storage bags with the contents and date stored. And, when in doubt, throw it out!
When it’s time to thaw frozen leftovers do so safely. Thaw in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave. If using the cold-water method, soak the food in an airtight and leak-proof container or bag in cold water just until thawed. When using a microwave, make sure the food reaches 165° F. Do not thaw food on the counter as this may allow the food to stay within the Danger Zone for too long. After thawing the food, it should be heated and eaten within 3-4 days.
Reheating leftovers requires safety practices as well. It is safe to reheat from a frozen state in a sauce-pan, oven, or microwave to the serving temperature of 165° F. When using a microwave, be sure to cover loosely and rotate to ensure even heating and allow resting time. If you end up with a second round of leftovers, it is safe to refreeze and follow the same safe procedures for thawing and reheating again.
This is part 2 in a series of blogs dedicated to sharing food-safety best practices for your home from your friends at Imperial Dade.