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Airtight Tips for Keeping Leftover Food Safe and Tasty

June 18, 2008

By KAREN HERZOG

Leftovers don’t last forever.

Spoilage risks increase the longer you store a food after it is cooked. In fact, improper handling or storing of cooked food is one of the most common causes of food poisoning.

The following are tips for storing, reheating and disposing of leftover foods from Rutgers University Cooperative Extension service, as posted at www.whatscookingamerica.net, and from the July 2008 issue of ShopSmart, a magazine for women from the publisher of Consumer Reports:

Storing leftovers

– All cooked foods should be reheated to 165 degrees, refrigerated or frozen within two hours after cooking. In hot weather, the time limit is reduced to 1 hour, according to Rutgers. The “safe” period starts right after food is cooked, and includes the time it sits both before and while it’s being served.

– Cool food at least partially before refrigerating by transferring it to small containers.

– To avoid waste, repackage leftovers into meal-size packages and freeze what you cannot use immediately.

– Containers meant for one-time use — such as cottage cheese containers — should not be re-used for leftovers, ShopSmart says. Place leftovers in small, shallow containers, 3 inches tall or less. Using shallow containers and leaving air space around them promotes rapid, even cooling. (In larger containers, food in the center stays warm longer, which can promote growth of dangerous bacteria.)

– Be sure lids are on tight so air and moisture don’t seep in.

– The refrigerator should be kept at a safe 37 degrees and the freezer at 0 degrees.

– As a general rule, leftovers should not be refrigerated for more than four days. (For extra insurance, label and date all leftovers.)

– The sniff test isn’t reliable; food that doesn’t smell can still make you sick.

– Never taste leftovers of questionable age or safety.

Warming leftover foods

– Thoroughly reheat leftovers. Bring sauces, gravies and other “wet” foods to a rolling boil before serving them. Heat all other foods to 165 degrees throughout. Stir foods while reheating them to be sure all the food reaches the appropriate temperature.

– In the microwave, it’s better to reheat foods at a lower power setting (50%) for a longer period of time.

Throwing away leftovers

The usual rule applies: When in doubt, throw it out.

Dispose of any potentially unsafe food in a garbage disposal or in the trash in a tightly wrapped package, so that it cannot be eaten by animals.

— Karen Herzog

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