I admit it, I like Thanksgiving leftovers even more than the first meal on Thanksgiving Day. But PLEASE store leftovers safely with some common sense tactics in the kitchen. Food safety is an important topic and if you have ever suffered from food poisoning (most of us have at some point in our lives) then you know what I am talking about. So, whether you are a young cook just learning or you’ve been cooking for decades, it never hurts to take a quick refresher on how to store leftovers safely. Hopefully, if you are reading this and not doubled over in agony, then you did it right yesterday, but there is still an opportunity to contaminate the leftovers so let’s learn to store leftovers safely.
I was fortunate to have had some seriously FORMAL and INTENSE food safety training. In the 1980s, I spent five years working as a Bob Evan’s Restaurant manager and went through their training program. In the restaurant industry, the last thing you want is to develop is a reputation for visits from the Health Department, or worse, for making people sick. So they ship new managers off to corporate headquarters to teach them all about proper storage, thawing, cooking temps & times, cleanliness practices, and food separation. For example, when thawing any meat in the walk in refrigerator, you first check to make sure the temperature is no warmer than 40°F and you never, ever store the meat on an upper shelf — above a case of lettuce or tomatoes. Why? In case that big box of thawing chicken springs a leak and drips its deadly juices onto the fresh veggies below. Meat ALWAYS goes on the bottom shelf. All walk in freezers and fridges are inspected for temp, proper food rotation, and food placement (and more) 8 times per day. Managers were completely accountable for those inspections and any problems identified had to be corrected immediately. Hourly employees … well, managers trained them and God help them if they messed up and we had to toss a case of lettuce.
Point is, I was fortunate to have learned all this in my 20s and I carry those valuable lessons with me to this day. So far, I have never made anyone sick (knocking on wood) but I also know that not everyone has had the benefit of an intense and structured food safety course. So we are here to help.
First, take a look at this infographic. It covers most of the basics for handling turkey (or any poultry, really) but today, pay special attention to the Chill section. (Click to enlarge but if that is still too small for your screen, click here to access the original file.) Remember, the bacteria that makes you sick cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted so it is important to know how long you can keep turkey in the fridge before you have to toss it. Just because it looks, smells, and tastes okay, does not mean that it is okay. So think twice on Tuesday!
Here are few great tips to store leftovers safely — and they aren’t just for today, but for everyday!
- Refrigerate or freeze leftovers in shallow containers. Larger cuts of meat should be sliced or cut into smaller pieces or portions before placing them in the refrigerator or freezer. This encourages rapid, even cooling.
- Try to use up refrigerated leftovers within 3-4 days. Label your leftovers with the date they were first stored so you can track it. A full list of recommended cooling and freezing times is here.
- Do not use leftovers that have been left out at room temperature for more than two hours, particularly things that contain meat, milk, and eggs. This includes leftovers you bring home from a Thanksgiving meal at a family or friend’s house. Some exceptions to this rule are foods such as cookies, crackers, bread and whole fruits.
- Just because a turkey is smoked does NOT mean it will last longer (that is a myth). Store a commercially smoked turkey in the refrigerator, unopened, no longer than a week. Once the package is opened, use or freeze the bird within 3-4 days.
- Get a food thermometer (affiliate link) and start using it! At Bob Evan’s it was part of a manager’s uniform! Then reheat solid leftovers to at least 165 °F. Reheat liquid leftovers to a rolling boil. Do not taste leftovers to check and see if they’ve spoiled – bacteria that cause illness do not affect the taste, smell, or appearance of food.
- Get a fridge/freezer thermometer and an oven thermometer (affiliate links). As appliances age, their temperature can fluctuate and eventually fail and it is one way to know when you need to have an appliance serviced or replaced. Freezers should be generally read between -4 and 4 °F (zero is perfect) and refrigerators should read between 36 °F and 40 °F. Oven temps should not fluctuate more than 10° one way or another. If it does, you can have it calibrated by a reputable repair technician.
DID YOU KNOW that food poisoning is a serious public health threat? 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) will suffer from food poisoning this year, resulting in roughly 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. Please don’t be one of them!
For more information on food safety, please visit the Food Safety website at http://www.foodsafety.