Admit it… you’ve nuked a dish of food and eaten it even if it’s still cold in the middle because you’re too hungry to give it another minute or two in the microwave. And you’ve been known to let the remains of dinner sit out on the counter for hours before packing it up in the refrigerator.
Leftovers may be the best part of Thanksgiving, but they need to be handled with care so that you can enjoy them for days to come, without getting sick. I learned a few scary things about bacteria and foodborne illness in culinary school, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to share with you some tips on how to safely store and reheat your food, whether it’s for Thanksgiving or any meal for which you have leftovers throughout the year.
- Highway to the Danger Zone. In the foodservice world, the “Danger Zone” refers not to the Kenny Loggins hit, but to the temperature zone of 40?F to 140?F, in which bacteria are most likely to breed. So try not to let food be in this temperature range for more than two hours. (In hot weather, food should be left in the danger zone for less than one hour)
- Chilling Out. After the big meal, pack up and store your leftovers as soon as possible. Portion them out into smaller containers so that they’ll cool faster (and so that you won’t need to reheat the whole thing if you just want a little), and put them right into the refrigerator or freezer. If you have a bunch of containers, don’t stack them up, but try to spread them out in your refrigerator so they’ll cool down faster.
- Un-Stuff It. If you stuffed your turkey, remove the stuffing and store it separately from the turkey. And it’s probably a good idea to carve the turkey completely and store the meat in a container, rather than putting the whole turkey (or what’s left of it) in the fridge.
- Out with the Old. No, that cranberry sauce from last Thanksgiving is not still good to eat! Generally, leftovers in the refrigerator should be eaten within three to four days. If you don’t think you’ll eat them that quickly, put them in the freezer instead.
- Deep Freeze. Speaking of the freezer, use a vacuum sealer, zip-top bags or very small containers to freeze your food, so that the minimum amount of air is in contact with food. This will prevent freezer burn. Vacuum sealers are particularly handy because the bag of food can be reheated in a pot of simmering water without drying out.
- Letting off Steam. When you heat leftovers, they should be steaming hot and heated through to 165?F. If you’re microwaving them, cover the food with a lid or plastic wrap (make sure it’s not actually touching the food), leaving a little opening to vent the steam, and be sure to turn the food halfway through the cooking time. Before digging in, check to make sure it’s not still cold in the center. Liquid foods, like sauces, soups or gravies, should come to a boil before they’re ready to eat.
- Follow Your Nose. It goes without saying, if something smells weird or looks strange, it’s better to just throw it out instead of taking a chance.
At least this year you won’t get more than you bargain for when you dig into that turkey sandwich or the remaining stuffing.