Tag Archives: safe temperature of food

Holiday Dinners Often Mean Leftovers

We have just finished one big U.S. holiday centered around big family meals and celebrations.  What comes with those times might be a table full of leftovers.  You may be happy with the way you managed the Thanksgiving leftovers or wish you had done some things better.  Since another holiday season with many food-filled activities and events is upon us, I thought I would review some food safety advice for handling leftovers.

One really important task is to get the “perishable” leftovers into the refrigerator or freezer and cooling within two hours of the cooking.  By perishable, I mean those foods that require cold storage to be held safely. And yes, that means conversation and games at tableside might have to be cut short for the person or people who put up the leftovers!  But if someone gets sick from eating leftovers not stored safely, future good times will be cut off, too.  Time-temperature abuse as well as possible post-cook contamination during the meal means even well-cooked foods can be future hazards.  Cooking doesn’t remove all bacterial concerns from foods; they still have to be kept at recommended temperatures.

To get started on those leftovers, make sure you have clean hands, work surfaces like cutting boards and counters, food storage containers, and utensils.  A clean apron can help protect you as well as the food you work over. It would be best to start with a clean apron and dish towels or wipes and not those you used in meal preparation and now have been sitting around dirty with food residues at room temperature themselves.

To prevent bacterial growth, it’s important that food will cool rapidly to the safe refrigerator-storage temperature of 40°F or below. For example, divide large amounts of food into shallow containers. Cut or slice roasts, hams and whole turkeys into small pieces and fill into small containers. Legs and wings can be left whole. Other larger items like big casserole dishes should be packaged in smaller portions if you have a lot leftover. It is best to separate the turkey, stuffing and gravy into separate shallow containers.

Package your leftovers in tightly sealed containers or wraps for best quality. For freezer storage, packaging should be moisture-vapor resistant materials to prevent freezer burn. Plastics should be “freezer-weight” or composition, glass jars that are meant for freezing, and all sealing areas should be tight-fitting. For freezing, be sure all sealing areas are also clean and dry and to leave recommended headspace for expansion (https://nchfp.uga.edu/how/freeze/headspace.html). Moisture left on sealing surfaces can expand when it freezes and create air gaps in your seals. Clearly label each package with the name of the food, ingredients, and packaging date. Package foods in amounts you will be likely to use at one time.

Do not overload the refrigerator or freezer with warm leftovers causing the temperature to rise above the recommended storage temperature. The small containers of your warm food can be spread out until cooled or frozen; you can then go back and stack or organize them differently if desired.  A large stack of warm containers will cool more slowly, as if you had used a large container instead of many shallow ones. The refrigerator temperature should keep foods at 40°F or below, so you might need the interior cabinet temperature to be around 38°F. The best freezer air temperature should be 0°F for best food quality and storage times.

Use turkey and stuffing within 3 to 4 days for safety; gravy might be best used within 1-2 days. It is safe to refreeze leftover cooked turkey and trimmings even if you purchased them frozen. Frozen typical turkey meal leftovers are best used in 3-4 months; although safe if kept frozen longer, they start to lose noticeable quality when kept longer in the freezer.

When it’s time to enjoy the leftovers from the freezer, the safest way to thaw them is in the refrigerator. If foods are then to be reheated, reheat leftovers to at least 165°F and check the internal temperature of the thickest part with a food thermometer. Bring gravies, sauces, and soups to a rolling boil as added safety.

Food safety steps for correctly storing the turkey and trimmings are critical when preparing your favorite sandwiches, casseroles, and soups from leftovers. Avoiding illness is important so don’t take short cuts or waste time in getting to this task quickly at the end of the meal!  Remember, harmful bacteria grow rapidly between the temperatures of 40°F and 140°F. Even recommended cooking temperatures can result in some bacteria still contaminating the food. Some pathogens contaminate food in a heat-resistant “spore-form that survives cooking.  These spores do not make us sick if ingested in that form, but temperature abuse during serving and holding food will result in those spores germinating to forms of bacterial cells that can make us sick or even produce toxins that will make us very sick if ingested.

After food is safely cooked, enjoy your meal, but within 2 hours of cooking food or after it is removed from an appliance keeping it warm above 140°F, leftovers must be refrigerated.

Additional resource: You can see more about recommended food storage times and tips for safe preparation in the FoodKeeper.app. The database is searchable online or available as a mobile app for Android and Apple devices. (https://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/foodkeeperapp/index.html)


Lots of Leftovers?

The notion of abundance seems to permeate the holiday season. In preparation for guests or as a contribution to a potluck gathering, you might prepare enough food to feed 12 or more people…and sometimes only 6 people show up, or there are so many other dishes to choose from that only small portions are taken from each dish. So then, what do you do with the leftovers?

First of all, perishable foods that have sat at room temperature (higher than 40°F) for over two hours need to be discarded. It’s also handy to note a few particular foods don’t generally freeze well: celery, cucumbers, parsley, radishes, and lettuce are vegetables that don’t freeze well due to water logging; mayonnaise, sour cream, milk sauces, and cream and custard fillings are likely to separate; fried foods, meringue and icings with egg whites will lose their desired consistencies.

If you plan to eat a food within three to four days, then cover that food with plastic wrap or seal it in a reusable container and refrigerate. Check that your refrigerator is set to 40°F or below.

If you don’t think that you’ll get to it in the next few days, then freeze the food at 0°F or below. For best quality, get it in the freezer sooner rather than later. Also consider portion sizes when you package food for freezing. Avoid creating such large portions that you repeatedly thaw and refreeze- thawing and refreezing leads to water loss, and therefore a drier final product.

Package foods in freezer bags or tightly sealed glass or plastic containers. You may also use butcher paper, heavy-duty aluminum foil, or plastic wrap. Regular plastic wrap will allow air to reach the food and cause it to deteriorate overtime, so wrap with multiple layers of plastic wrap and consider placing it in a rigid container as well. The material of freezer bags, glass, thick plastic, and butcher paper is impermeable to air.

If using a bag or rigid container, remember to leave enough head space for the food to expand while freezing. Adequate headspace is important so that the package doesn’t break. The actual amount of headspace required depends on the food you are freezing, but leaving one inch is most likely enough unless you are freezing a liquid, in which case leave 1½ inches.

Be sure to label packages with the name of the food and date, as color and appearance may change in the freezing process, or you might just not be able to see through the packaging.

For quickest freezing, spread the items out against the surfaces of the freezer, then rearrange packages closer together once frozen. This more rapid freezing prevents ice crystals from forming, which are likely to damage food cells. Also, freeze only about two to three pounds of food per cubic foot of freezer space. That’s the amount that can freeze within 24 hours.

Information in this entry comes from the Freezing and Food Safety Factsheet by the United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety Inspection Service, Preserving Food: Freezing Prepared Foods by The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, and So Easy to Preserve.

Beat the Bacteria Buffet

Spread cheer, not the worst foodborne illness of the year!

We love sharing foods this holiday season, but unfortunately, sometimes in the process we also share foodborne bacteria causing illness. Buffets and potlucks are particularly popular, but come along with certain risks. Make your hearty gatherings the most healthy (and happy!) by practicing these food safety tips from USDA.

Keep Clean
Wash hands, wash dishes, wash utensils, and clean kitchen surfaces. Wash well and wash often.  Invite your guests to also wash their hands as you welcome them.

Cook Completely
Cook foods to safe temperatures. Measure their temperature internally with a food thermometer, before removing from heat source. Cook beef, pork, lamb and veal steaks, chops, and roasts to at least 145°F. All raw ground beef, pork, lamb, and veal needs to be cooked to no less than 160°F. Poultry must be cooked to a minimum of 165°F. You can cook any of these meats to higher temperatures, but not lower.

Store Shallow, Serve Small
To store cooked foods before serving, store them in the refrigerator or freezer in a shallow dish to encourage rapid, even cooling. Most foods, and especially all meats, poultry, seafood, casseroles, and soups must be reheated to at least 165°F before eating again; serve them in small portions and continually replace platters when empty. This way, foods stay a safe temperature for longer and growth time for bacteria is minimized.

2:02 is Two Too Much 
It is best to discard perishable foods after they sit out at room temperature for more than two hours.  Otherwise, keep them below 40°F or above 140°F. Of course, it’s okay to keep out foods that are stored at room temperature for longer times, like uncut apples and crackers.

Cold means Cold, Hot means Hot
Use chafing dishes, slow cookers, and warming trays to keep hot foods at 140°F or warmer. Nest dishes in bowls of ice to keep cold foods at 40°F or cooler. Otherwise, keep swapping in foods from the oven or refrigerator.

Hidden in Handling
Remember that harmful bacteria capable of causing illness usually cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted. Three common bacteria found partying at food festivities are Staphylococcus aureus, Clostridium perfringens, and Listeria monocytogenes. If anyone does feel ill, please remind them to contact a health professional and describe their symptoms.

The information in this entry comes from the Holiday or Party Buffets Factsheet by the United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service.