Here's How Long Cooked Foods Can Stay Unrefrigerated, According to Food Safety Experts

Plus, how to know when your food is in the temperature danger zone.

Dumplings gumbo in pan on cutting board
Photo: Manny Rodriguez / GETTY IMAGES

After prepping meals or cooking for guests, it can be tempting to leave food out and take a break from the kitchen. Or sometimes, you might simply forget or get distracted by other tasks (it happens to the best of us). Regardless of the situation, it's important to avoid letting food sit out on the countertop for too long—you might be left with a food safety hazard, along with a spoiled dish.

But how long is too long, exactly? To find out, we consulted food safety experts to determine how soon you should refrigerate food before it goes bad.

The Temperature Danger Zone

When it comes to food safety, the first step is to understand the significance of the temperature danger zone. This is the temperature range (40 to 140 degrees) in which harmful bacteria is more likely to grow quickly, potentially making food unsafe to eat, says Ghaida Batarseh Havern, MS, food safety extension educator at Michigan State University Extension. This includes bacteria, such as Salmonella and E.coli, says Catie Beauchamp, Ph.D., VP of food science, quality, and safety at ButcherBox. In fact, such microorganisms can double in just 20 minutes in the temperature danger zone, according to Beauchamp.

The Two-Hour Rule

Cooked food can only stay in the temperature danger zone for so long before it becomes unsafe to eat. Havern explains: "The maximum amount of time perishable foods can [spend] in the danger zone is two hours. At two hours, the food must be consumed, stored correctly, or thrown away. This includes all cooked leftovers, [chopped] fruits and vegetables, meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products."

On hotter days, this time frame is even shorter. "If the temperature is 90 degrees or above, foods should be [refrigerated] after only one hour," says Beauchamp. That's because the warmer ambient temperature will hasten bacterial growth, thereby increasing the risk of food poisoning.

The Right Way to Leave Food Out

If you're hosting a party or dinner, it might make more sense to keep food out of the refrigerator. To do this properly, keep hot foods at 140 degrees or above—i.e., out of the temperature danger zone. "Place hot foods next to electrical outlets where they can be housed in slow cookers," advises Beauchamp. "This will allow you to keep these foods out and available longer, but safely." If hot holding equipment like a slow cooker is unavailable, your best bet is to refrigerate the cooked food and take it out in small amounts.

Let Hot Foods Cool Before Refrigerating

Although cooked foods should always be refrigerated, it's just as crucial to avoid placing hot dishes directly in the refrigerator, says Havern. The practice "will prolong the [overall] cooling time, and your food will spend longer in the danger zone," says Beauchamp. Instead, you'll want to help the food pass through the danger zone as quickly as possible. "You can do this by placing the food into multiple shallow containers to help the heat escape quicker," says Havern. Other options include adding ice cubes to the dish, if possible, or chilling the container in an ice water bath before refrigerating, she says.

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