Keep Cold Foods Cold and Hot Foods Hot

The Food Danger Zone

Temperatures between 40 F-140 degrees F are considered to be in the danger zone. What does this mean? When cold foods rise above 40 degrees F bacteria can grow very rapidly. When hot foods dip below 140 degrees F the bacteria grows very rapidly. How rapidly? When foods are in the danger zone bacteria can double in number in as little as 20 minutes. This is why we want to always keep foods out of the Danger zone for extended periods of time. The goal when heating or cooling food is to move it through the danger zone as quickly as possible.

Practical Advice Working With Cold Food

The Illustration below shows the temperature that foods needs to be cooked until to be safe and demonstrates the Danger zone area. Note that just beyond the bottom of the temperature danger zone is 40 degrees F. This just happens to be the same temperature of the refrigerator.

This means when you remove an item from your refrigerator and place it on the counter it begins to warm up. This places the food in the temperature danger zone. However, don’t panic. The food keeps its chill for a little while so you can leave the food out for up to 2 hours for most house temperatures. If you’re inside temperature is above 90 degrees F, your food can only remain on the counter for one hour.

Practical Advice When Working With Hot Food

Let’s talk about hot food. Let’s say you just baked a whole chicken to its proper cooking temperature of 165 degrees F. Your son calls to tell you his car broke down. Now you have to leave to go pick him up. If you are confident you will be back in less than two hours you can leave the chicken on the counter.

However if you are not sure of how long you will be gone, you will need to put the chicken away in the refrigerator to be safe. There is one catch, a whole chicken will not cool as quickly as pieces of it will.

Your only safe choice is to cut the chicken up into pieces or slices and place it in the fridge to move it’s way through the temperature danger zone as quickly as possible to reduce the growth of bacteria.

Cook to the Right Temperature

Food is safely cooked when the internal temperature is high enough to kill germs that can make you ill:

  • Use a food thermometer to be sure your food is safe. Make sure your thermometer is calibrated properly so that you can be confident of it’s reading.
  • To check the temperature of your food, place the food thermometer in the thickest part of the food. To get an accurate reading avoid the bone, fats, or gristle.
  • Make note of the rest time for meats at 145 degrees F. During the three minutes after meat is removed the heat source, its temperature remains constant or continues to rise, which destroys harmful bacteria.

Keep food hot (140˚F or above) after cooking:

If you’re not serving food right after cooking, keep it out of the temperature danger zone (between 40°F -140°F) where germs grow rapidly. You can safely use a heat source like a crockpot or warming trays to keep the food at 140 degrees F or above.

Keep Cold Foods Cold For Serving

The same holds true for cold foods. You need to keep the cold foods out of the temperature danger zone (between 40°F -140°F) where germs grow rapidly. If you are at an outdoor event in warmer weather this can be accomplished with trays of ice or ice packs underneath the cold food dishes to keep the cold food at 40 degrees F or below.

Crockpot as a Cooking Method

Crockpots are perfectly safe as far as food is concerned. Even cooking on the low setting is fine when the recipe instructions recommend. If you are using a crockpot to cook a meal, always start with cold but not frozen meat. If you use frozen meat you run the risk of it sitting in the temperature danger zone too long.

Microwave as a Cooking Method

  • Read package directions for cooking and follow them exactly to make sure food is thoroughly cooked.
  • If the food label says, “Let stand for x minutes after cooking,” follow the directions — letting microwaved food sit for a few minutes allows food to cook thoroughly as colder areas absorb heat from hotter areas.
  • Stir food in the middle of heating. Follow package directions for commercially prepared frozen food; some are not designed to be stirred while heating.

Reheating Food

Regardless of reheating method i.e. Stove top, oven, microwave foods should be reheated thoroughly to an internal temperature of 165 °F or until hot and steaming. On the stove, stir foods for even reheating. In the microwave oven, cover food and rotate so it heats evenly. Follow manufacturer’s instructions for stand time for more thorough heating. In the absence of manufacturer’s instructions, at least a two minute stand time should be allowed.