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Culinary Tips #2 - Temperature Control

June 19, 2019

If you've ever worked in a restaurant or managed a professional kitchen, you were probably required to take some type of food safety course to get proper certification.  Through this training, cooks learn the most efficient way to cool down large batches of soups, how hot foods on the line should be kept at, and how long is okay for a cold dish to be sitting at room temperature.

But for the rest of us who haven't had any training, it comes down to what we've been taught from others growing up.  Most of us know that pasta salad shouldn't be sitting in the sun for five hours on a summer day and then eaten.  But where do we draw the line?  30 minutes?  One hour?  Does it have to do anything with time at all?

After today's post, we hope that readers will feel more confident knowing what to do when it comes to cooling, reheating, thawing, and holding food.

The general rule to keep in mind is that food is at risk anytime it is left at temperatures between 41°F and 135°F for too long (more than 4 hours).  [Side note:  This applies to foods such as baked potatoes, tofu, sliced melons, cut tomatoes, cut leafy greens, cold salads, hot dishes, and so on.  Obvious foods like whole apples, whole onions, whole raw potatoes, etc. do not apply to this rule].  In the restaurant world, this temperature range is referred to as the danger zone.  It's actually standard practice for cooks to constantly be checking hot and cold items on the line every hour, and to keep written records of these temperatures.  Obviously this is a bit extreme at home, but do be aware of this general range of temperatures to avoid for too long.

So...you're probably wondering now, "how long is too long?"

  • When cooling food down, the timer starts once the food cools to 135°F (hence, if your food is hotter than this, it's safe).  Aim to cool foods down from 135°F to 70° within two hours, and then from 70°F to 41°F or lower within the next four hours.  When you're cooling something like tofu scramble, this is a piece of cake.  But what about something dense like a huge batch of chili?  We recommend transferring it to a large shallow dish (bonus points if you use an ice bath) and to stir often.  Once the chili has cooled to a point where it's safe to the touch, transfer it to the refrigerator uncovered and keep stirring from time to time.
  • When reheating food, heat to 165°F and then keep at 135°F or higher.
  • When thawing food, never do so at room temperature.  The best way is to thaw in a refrigerator several days in advance.  But another acceptable method is to submerge food under running water that's 70°F or lower.  Never let the temperature of the food go above 41°F for more than four hours.
  • When holding hot food, keep at 135°F or higher.
    • If you don't have something to keep your food hot (and don't attempt to cool it down as described above), your food needs to be tossed after 4 hours.
  • When holding cold food, keep at 41°F or lower
    • If you don't have something to keep your food cold, your food needs to be tossed after 6 hours assuming it never exceeds 70°F.
This may seem like a lot of numbers and times to take in, but the key is to just be mindful that prepared foods don't sit in the danger zone for too long; that's all :)

Now how in the world do you know what temperature your food is at?  With a stemmed thermometer of course!  We fell in love with the Thermapen years ago, but by all means, a standard food thermometer will do the job.  Costing next to nothing, it's a very important tool that takes all of the guess work out and keeps everyone safe.

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