10 things to know about storing cooked food

1.         Reheated cooked food can be at risk of food poisoning. This is especially if they are meats, casseroles, curries, lasagna, pizza, sauces, custards, patties, pasta, rice, beans, nuts and foods containing eggs.  Cooked food left out to cool before refrigeration can allow bacteria to multiply and contaminate the food if left out for too long and in warm weather. It is important to reduce the temperature of the food quickly.


2.         Bacteria stop multiplying when food cools down to 5°C. Bacteria that survive the cooking will start to multiply as cooked food drops to 60°C or below. The longer the food is left to cool, the longer the bacteria have to multiply.


3.         Bacteria like Salmonella and E. Coli thrive between 5°C and 60°C. [40°F - 140°F]. This means perishable food kept between these temperatures for a long period of time can allow the bacteria to multiply rapidly. According to a fact-sheet from the US Department of Agriculture, they can double in number in as little as 20 minutes.


4.         Don’t eat cooked food left out in the danger zone for more than 2 hours. This is even though it may look and smell good [The Victorian Health Department guide says 4 hours is the limit]. The Danger Zone is between 5°C to 60°C (40 °F - 140 °F). Dangerous bacteria which cause food poisoning (Pathogenic bacteria) do not show their presence in the taste, smell, or appearance of a food. In other words, they hide well.


5.         Hot food takes about six hours to cool to about 5°C [It takes two hours to cool from 60°C to 21°C and about four hours to cool from 21°C to 5°C]. That’s according to a guide in Food Standards Australian and New Zealand (FSANZ). But a safe rule is to refrigerate or freeze perishables, prepared foods, and leftovers within 2 hours or within one hour on hot days.


6.Cooked food can be left to cool on a bench till when the steam stops rising. Don’t leave it there once the temperature drops below 60°C.  “A lot of people think it will harm their refrigerator to put hot food inside, but it's not true. Hot food won't harm your refrigerator - Website of US Department of Agriculture.It’s a mistake to leave hot foods out on the counter to cool before refrigerating them…” says Bessie Berry, manager of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Meat and Poultry Hotline. But won’t this harm the refrigerator or overtax the motor?


Modern refrigerators are designed to handle hot foods.” Says Ms. Berry.  But the advice from Victoria’s Health Department website is this: “Don’t put very hot food into the refrigerator. Wait until steam has stopped rising from the food before putting it in the fridge.”


7.         Hot food can be placed directly in the refrigerator or it can be rapidly chilled in an ice or cold water-bath before refrigerating. Cover foods to retain moisture and prevent them from picking up odours from other foods.


8.         Divide cooked food (eg, a large pot of soup or stew) into smaller portions. Store in shallow, airtight containers. Use glass or non-leaching plastic containers. Put cooked food straight into the freezer if you want to eat it only after a few days.    


9.         Store cooked foods on the top shelves. This is to avoid any contamination from condensation on the raw food that falls onto cooked food in the fridge. Raw foods should be on bottom shelves.  


10.      When defrosting food, put it in the fridge and keep it below five degrees Celsius. Never leave it to defrost on a bench at room temperature because this places in right into the food hazard temperature zone.  In other words, food-poisoning bacteria can grow in frozen food while it is thawing. As a general rule, avoid refreezing thawed food as it is likely to have higher levels of food-poisoning bacteria. Raw food should never be refrozen once thawed.