Let’s face it, we all go a little overboard when it comes to cooking a feast for the holidays. No matter how many guests we invite, it always seems like there is enough food leftover to feed an army! I try my best to cook enough food only for that evening but somehow I wind up with more. Add a few cakes and side dishes that guests were nice enough to bring and voila! We have food leftover for three more meals.
But how long do leftovers last? A recent survey from Maid Brigade showed that I am not alone when it comes to cooking more food than what is consumed. According to the survey, most people usually have leftovers for two extra meals.
Are leftovers healthy enough to eat two days after they were cooked? According to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, they are.
In order to avoid foodborne illness, food has to be cooked at a safe temperature and left out at a safe temperature. Safe handling of leftovers is also very important in reducing foodborne illness.
Bacteria tends to grow quickly between the temperatures of 40° F and 140° F. After the food is cooked, hot food must be kept at a temperature of 140 degrees or warmer to prevent bacterial growth. Leftovers should be refrigerated within two hours of cooking or warming food. All perishable foods (hot and cold) that have been left in room temperature for more than 2 hours should be thrown away. When storing leftovers, in order to prevent bacterial growth, it is important to cool food rapidly so it reaches a safe refrigerator-storage temperature of 40° F or below as quickly as possible. One way to do this is to store the food in shallow containers. For instance, many of us like to store our leftover soup. Since a big pot of soup takes a long time to cool, it has a tendency to attract and multiply bacteria. Dividing the pot of soup up into smaller containers will cool quickly, thereby preventing bacteria growth. For whole roasts and hams, slice them into smaller parts. Cut turkey into smaller pieces and refrigerate. Turkey legs and wings may be left whole. Hot food can be placed directly in the refrigerator or be rapidly chilled in an ice or cold water bath before refrigerating. Leftovers should be covered, wrapped airtight, or sealed in storage containers. This helps reduce bacteria, retain moisture, and prevent leftovers from picking up odors from other food in the refrigerator. Immediately refrigerate or freeze the wrapped leftovers for faster cooling.
Believe it or not, leftovers can be kept in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days or kept frozen for 3 to 4 months. However, frozen leftovers can lose moisture and flavor when stored for longer times in the freezer. Thawing leftovers in a microwave is the fastest method. When doing so, continue to heat the leftovers until they reach a temperature of 165° F (measured with a food thermometer). This way foods that were thawed in the microwave can be refrozen after heating it to this safe temperature.
When reheating leftovers, make sure they reach 165° F as measured with a food thermometer. Reheat sauces, soups and gravies by bringing them to a boil. Covering leftovers to reheat will retain moisture which helps heat the food all the way through. When reheating food in the microwave, cover and rotate the food for even heating. Arrange food items evenly in a covered microwave safe glass or ceramic dish, and add some liquid if needed. Be sure the covering is microwave safe, and vent the lid or wrap to let the steam escape. The moist heat that is created will help destroy harmful bacteria. Because some microwave ovens have cold spots, be sure to check the temperature of the food in several places with a food thermometer. Allow a small resting time before checking the internal temperature of the food with a food thermometer. Cooking continues for a longer time in dense foods like roast beef or turkey than in other foods, such as breads, small vegetables and fruits.
What about refreezing previously frozen leftovers? The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service says it is safe to refreeze any food remaining after reheating previously frozen leftovers to the safe temperature of 165° F as measured with a food thermometer. If a large container of leftovers was frozen and only a portion of it is needed, try thawing the leftovers in the refrigerator, then remove the needed portion and refreeze the remainder of the thawed leftovers without reheating it.
Enjoy your leftovers!