If I leave fully-cooked food (particularly meat) out at warm temperature - say on the counter or in a crock pot that's been turned off - how long will it stay safe to eat?
Does it make any difference if I re-cook the food afterward?
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The USDA has this to say on it:
One of the most common causes of foodborne illness is improper cooling of cooked foods. Because bacteria are everywhere, even after food is cooked to a safe internal temperature, they can be reintroduced to the food and then reproduce. For this reason leftovers must be put in shallow containers for quick cooling and refrigerated within 2 hours.
You'll find similar statements from government agencies around the world. The safe limit for raw or cooked food is 2 hours in the danger zone (40-140° F or 4.4-60° C).
If you're a restaurant owner or cook, you must follow this rule, hold hot foods above 60° C and quick-cool other foods before refrigerating. If you are not working in a professional capacity then you are not legally required to follow it, but if you are serving guests then it would be irresponsible (and possibly actionable, if someone gets sick) to do otherwise.
If you're an individual serving only yourself, then take whatever liberties and break whatever rules you want; it's your food, and your body. But there's no table or chart anyone can give you; there's no single specific point at which a food transitions from "not entirely safe" to "probably will kill you" because it depends entirely on the food, the environment, your immune system, and a plethora of other variables. The rule is 2 hours, period; any longer and there is some non-trivial risk to your health.
Some hints, tips, and warnings:
The 2-hour rule is a conservative estimate with a safety margin. Don't ask what that margin is. It's like asking what the "real" speed limit is on a posted road; you might know from experience, but it could change depending on circumstances and exceeding it by any amount means you take your chances and accept the risks.
Don't put large, hot items (such as an entire pot of soup or chili) directly into the fridge. The residual heat will warm up and potentially spoil other items in the refrigerator.
To quickly cool large cooked items, use an ice-water bath and/or divide them into small containers. (Note: Don't use an ice-water bath for cast iron.)
Don't assume that re-cooking an improperly-stored item will make it safe. Most bacteria produce protein toxins, which are actually the primary agents responsible for food poisoning, and several of these toxins are heat-resistant. Cooking will not kill or inactivate these toxins and eating the re-cooked food will still make you sick.
Don't assume that cooking "kills everything" and that a cooked food or cooking surface is absolutely sterile. Cooking kills enough to make the food safe to eat, but some organisms - such as bacterial spores from bacillus and clostridium - can survive the cooking process and immediately start producing more bacteria. Sous-vide bags, crock pots, etc. are not safe environments for cooked food in the temperature danger zone.
UK Food Hygiene Regulations (see UK FSA web-site) state that cold foods must be kept at 8°C or below and hot foods must be kept at 63°C or above. This is a legal requirement throughout the UK.
However when you are serving or displaying food, you can keep it out of temperature control for a limited period of time: Cold foods can be kept above 8°C for up to four hours. You should only do this once. If any food is left after this time, you should throw it away or keep it chilled at 8°C or below until it is used. Hot foods can be kept below 63°C for up to two hours. You should only do this once. If any food is left after this time, you should throw it away, reheat it to 63°C or above (82°C in Scotland), or cool below 8°C This applies to the UK with relatively temperate ambient temperatures - there have been nasty food poisoning cases where poorly prepared foods have been held in hot cars for relatively short periods.
Having said this, cold foods should always be served cold as soon as possible, and hot foods served hot as soon as possible after preparation.
Potted meat, meat held in hardened (( Rendered/clarified) animal fat, can last for quite some time without going bad.
EASILY SEVERAL days without refrigeration ! ! At normal room temp. 72F...
The problem with this method is that AIR on the surface of the fat can oxidize the lard and make it go rancid, but that takes much more than 4 days.
If you put saran wrap on top of the hard lard and poured water you could move all the air out, and preserve the lard even longer.
Lard potted meat using proper snow white lard or double clarified butter can last for months and months in the cool cellar or ground ! !
My grandmother used lard potted meat that was over a year old kept in the fridge ! !
No frezer burn, tasted amazing ! !
It was PERFECT ! !
Dont try this in direct sunlight of a hot summer day.
Pickled meats last a long time, pickled eggs...
You can pasteurize many different ways.
Bacterial spores can be killed by double flash pasteurization, though its usually done 3 times.
New methods are being invented, especially a modified microwave which could kill 100% of bacteria is VERY promising. Lasts 10x longer than irradiated food ! !
I ate 50 year old bacon( fetal pig) that was kept in pure ethanol when i was locked in a basement storage facility of a university during summer break at Indiana university.
As far as i know you can eat 100+ year old specimens preserved in alcohol. Besides being tasteless and getting drunk it was fine.
I left a crockpot full of broth, smoked turkey, turnips seasonings and spices(Onions red green & yellow peppers) mistakenly, out overnight & it was covered. That was around 8pm. I went somewheres, returned at 10am. Yeah, it was left all night long. But I said, "bump that", reboiled it, threw in some sun dried tomatoes & fresh spinach, threw some hot sauce on it, served over rice and I ate it, damn everything these germophobes say! Then I washed it down with some ice-cold gingerale!