Cooking Tips · Techniques

Enjoy your left-overs safely

Are you a lover or hater of leftovers? I’m definitely a lover – not only is the flavor of some dishes enhanced by a rest overnight in the refrigerator but it is great to have an easy & quick meal sitting there after a day of work. It makes life so much easier. One time that you will surely have left-overs is after a Holiday meal. You can do so much with those left-overs but you need to store them in the best and safest way. That is what I will be talking about in this tip.

Hot foods (including leftover turkey) should be packaged and refrigerated within 2 hours after serving. (For turkey, after you cut the meat off the bones, save the bones to make a great turkey broth.) The concern for bacterial growth is when food is left in the “danger zone” between the temperatures of 40° and 140° for more than 2 hours (reduce this to 1 hour if the ambient temperature is above 90°). That is why it is important to keep your food hot (at least 140°) or refrigerate it so the temperature drops to less than 40° within 2 hours. For cold foods, keep it under 40° at all times.

For large pieces of meat, it is best to cut it into smaller pieces to quicken cooling. For a dish such as soup, you will want to portion it into shallow containers to allow faster cooling. You can place these items directly into the refrigerator or if you want more rapid cooling, use an ice water bath.

All leftovers should be wrapped well in air-tight packaging. This helps keep bacteria out while retaining moisture and preventing your left-overs from picking up other odors from your refrigerator.

Most left-overs can be stored safely in the refrigerator for 3-4 days. Here is a chart from the USDA about recommended refrigerator times. For longer storage, freeze the packaged left-overs. Generally, these items can be frozen for 2-4 months. Although you can safely freeze them for a longer time, the food does tend to lose moisture and flavor. Here is another USDA link that talks more about freezing with more specific recommendations for time.

When thawing them, you still need to be aware of the danger zone. That is why it is not recommended to thaw items by sitting at room temperature. Rather, thaw them overnight in the refrigerator. For faster but still safe thawing, use either a cold-water bath (make sure the leftovers are in a leak-proof package) or the microwave. Not all foods need to be thawed before re-heating. You can go directly from frozen to hot either on the stovetop or in the microwave.

One important caveat – when re-heating leftovers, you want to take them up to 165° as measured with a food thermometer. Not only will this temperature assure safety as far as bacteria is concerned but it will also be safe to re-freeze the item, if necessary.

How do you like to use your left-overs? Email me with your favorite ideas and I will share them with others!