We love the stuffed breads that we introduced this week, but they do need to be refrigerated.  How long can you leave these breads or any other perishable food out of the refrigerator?  How long can you leave hot food on the counter?  Can you put hot food in the refrigerator before it cools?  What’s the safest way to cool hot foods?  We’ll answer these questions in this article.

There are enough bacteria and mold spores in the air to contaminate any food left out.  If conditions are right, they will multiply and your salad or casserole will become unsafe.  The primary condition required for bacteria is temperature—between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, bacteria will multiply.  So, chill it or heat it.  Get the temperature below 40 degrees or above 140 degrees.  (Some high sugar content foods, like properly formulated pies, will not support bacteria growth even at room temperatures.)

How long can food be left out of the refrigerator?  It depends.  The longer that the food is left out, the more bacteria the dish will contain.  The warmer the environment, the faster the bacteria will multiply.  The greater the contamination before refrigeration, the more bacteria will grow as the food is brought to room temperature.  So what is the answer?  The official answer from the State of Idaho is that foods should not remain between 40 degrees and 140 degrees for more than four hours in total from initial processing to consumption.  Bacteria begins to grow in the food as soon as the temperature is suitable.  When chilled, the bacteria becomes dormant only to start growing again when the temperature rises.  After four hours of growth, foods may be dangerously contaminated.

You and I don’t know how long the food was above 40 degrees in the processing plant, in the delivery truck, in the grocery store, or maybe on the way home so it pays to minimize the time at room temperature.  Some experts say that it is okay to leave food out for two hours below 80 degrees or one hour above 80 degrees.  If we follow that advice, we won’t exceed two hours from the time the food comes off the stove until it goes into the refrigerator.  That dictates keeping the food hot—above 140 degrees—until serving time and refrigerating the food soon after meals.

Don’t leave hot foods on the counter or stove to cool.  Modern refrigerators have enough cooling power to cool hot foods without raising the ambient temperature to much.  Transfer hot foods into shallow glass or plastic containers—no more than three inches deep—and place them in the refrigerator with enough room around each container so that air can circulate.

Proper refrigeration will not only keep foods safer but protect the quality and nutritional value as well.

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