Store holiday leftovers properly for better flavor and food safety

Leftovers are a great way to stretch your food budget, but proper handling of them is important to make sure they maintain their taste and remain bacteria-free, says the Institute of Food Technologists.


In a news release, the institute suggests three keys for handling leftovers safely: proper refrigeration, containers and heating.

Leftovers need to be refrigerated within two hours of cooking (one hour on hot summer days or in warm climates). Modern refrigerators are built to cool hot dishes, and while it is both safe and energy efficient to cool food a bit before you refrigerate it, you don’t have to completely cool it. Leftovers need to be just warm to touch, or around 90 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit before placing them in a refrigerator that is maintained at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower.

The best containers are thin-walled metal, glass or plastic and no more than 2 inches deep, but bags, foil and plastic wrap also work.

How long are leftovers safe in the refrigerator? It varies:

  • Cooked meat can be stored three to four days in the fridge, while uncooked ground meats, poultry and seafood will last only a day or two.
  • Raw roasts, steaks and chops (beef, veal, lamp or pork) can be refrigerated for three to five days.
  • Casseroles, veggies and similar side dishes, as well as pie, will usually last three to five days.

If you have more food than you can eat within these time frames, Shelke recommends freezing it. Uncooked meats can last eight to 12 months in the freezer, while frozen cooked meats will begin to lose their flavor after three months. Freezer temperature should be at zero F (-18 Celsius).

On the front end, how do you food has been heated to a safe temperature? The best way is to use a thermometer. Most foods, especially meats, should be heated to 165 degrees F in the center. The institute also recommends that you bring sauces, soups and gravies to a boil before serving.

It also recommends that you never reheat leftovers in crock pots, slow cookers or chafing dishes, and only reheat foods to a rare center if they were initially cooked properly.

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