Is This Still Ok to Eat? 7 Tips for Leftover Safety

Our all-things-culinary pro, Sam, shares his professional leftover storage tips, just in time to help you decide if you should risk one more turkey/stuffing/cranberry sauce sandwich.

                                       LEFTOVER SAFETY TIPS by Sam

We have all had that unpleasant experience of finding a long-since spoiled container of leftover food lurking in the back of the refrigerator. It could be leftover Moo Shu shoved to the back of the top shelf or leftover Cacciatore from that special dinner 2 months ago that was too good to throw away but then was forgotten. Here’s how you organize your refrigerator and store your leftovers, in order to protect yourself, and your friends & family, from food-related illnesses and food poisoning.

1.) Keep the refrigerator organized: Use different shelves/drawers of the refrigerator for different things. Keep all the vegetables together, all of the dairy together, and have a shelf for leftover food. If you keep a Sharpie marker and a roll of masking tape hanging on the fridge it is easy to make a quick label with the date and contents of an otherwise easily forgotten container of food. Every now and then check the dates and do a clean sweep.

2.) Use appropriate storage containers: Canned food should never be stored in the can that it came in. Once opened and partially emptied, it is difficult to ensure that the can’s surface is clean, and you don’t want to have any off tastes leaching from the can into the food, either. Transfer leftover tomato puree, beans, etc. into a clean, right-sized storage container with a tightly-fitting lid or cover tightly with plastic wrap. Also, try not to put pots, pans or bowls of food directly into the refrigerator. Once food is finished cooking and needs to be cooled and refrigerated, transfer it to a new container to begin lowering the temperature. Leaving food in the cooking pot slows the cooling process, not to mention that putting a half full soup pot into the refrigerator takes up a lot of space and will leave you without that pot for a few days.

3.) Watch the temperature: Various forms of bacteria grow exponentially once the food’s temperature is between 41F and 135F. If raw food or leftovers remain in that range for more than a couple of hours it spells trouble. This is why your want to wrap-up and refrigerate your leftovers before you tackle that big pile of dirty dinner party dishes.

4.) Don’t cross-contaminate: Cross contamination happens when food that is ready-to-eat (salad or cooked meats, for example) comes in contact with a surface that was used to prepare raw food. Imagine cutting a raw chicken breast into chunks to be sautéed, then chopping lettuce for your salad on the same cutting board without washing it. You have now contaminated your ready-to-eat salad greens with potentially harmful bacteria that won’t get killed through a cooking process. Always wash your cutting boards and tools, as well as your hands between tasks, especially if you are moving from raw ingredients to those that require no further cooking. Also, do not combine different kinds of raw meat in the same container. This results also in cross contamination. While chicken must be cooked to an internal temperature of 165F (to give Salmonella instant death), beef can be served rare at 125F. If the raw beef was stored with the chicken, it could have picked up bacteria that will not get killed during the cooking.

5.) Use your freezer: You can freeze leftovers or uncooked foods to significantly extend their life, but they should be wrapped in the food plastic wrap and aluminum foil, or placed in a freezer-safe plastic bag, to avoid freezer burn (that ugly grey coating on hamburger meat .) When buying frozen food, avoid anything that looks freezer-burned or has ice crystals. This indicates that the food was thawed at some point and is no longer top quality. When defrosting raw, frozen meat or seafood, do not take the meat out of the package before thawing. Thaw the entire package (if sealed) in COOL, running water or thaw overnight in the refrigerator. You can also defrost in your microwave, just make sure the food is not wrapped in aluminum foil, and cook immediately after defrosting. DO NOT us hot water to thaw or leave the raw meat out at room temperature. And don’t bother freezing dairy products (the fats will separate, ruining the product), whole eggs, or leftovers such as Chinese take-out (the combination or sauce, vegetables, and meat will not hold its flavor.) Leftover pizza, on the other hand, can be frozen for at least a couple months if wrapped properly.

6.) And finally, when in doubt, throw it out: Leftover food is generally good for about 2-3 days after it is cooked. If it has been longer than that, or the food has an off-smell or shows mold, just throw it away. Many products have “sell by” or “best if used by” dates which indicate when the products are at their peak quality (food can be eaten for a limited time after those dates but the quality may be lower). Expiration dates, or “use by” dates, on the other hand, indicate that food should not be eaten at all once that date is passed.

7.) Things to buy for good food storage:
–  A roll of food-grade, clingy plastic wrap to create an air-tight seal to protect food.
–  A roll of aluminum foil (this can be fairly expensive, so don’t use this to cover leftovers unless freezing as mentioned before).
–  Masking tape and a permanent marker to label leftovers.
–  Semi-reusable storage containers. Buy a variety of plastic storage containers with tight fitting lids. Glad and Ziplock make good containers that can be washed and reused, and are cheap enough that is they are lost/thrown out it isn’t the end of the world.
–  Re-sealable plastic bags. Buy large, medium, and small Ziplock-style bags, as well has some heavier bags that are meant to go in the freezer.

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Author My First Apartment

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Sam is originally from Boston, MA. He studied ecology and Spanish language during his undergraduate degree at Hampshire College (Amherst, MA). He then went on to train as a chef at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (Hyde Park, NY) and earn an introductory certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers in San Francisco in 2013. He currently lives in Barcelona, Spain and works as a culinary tour operator, wine educator, and food/travel writer for several outlets including My First Apartment. You can check out his blog at Zucker and Spice Travel.

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Comments (2)

  1. Avatar Kelsey

    I think another very important tip would be to store raw meats on the bottom shelf, and to always thaw raw meats in a sealed container or baggie in the fridge on the lowest level, so that salmonella juice can’t drip onto anyone’s food.

    • Sisko Sisko

      Thanks, Kelsey. Excellent point. Also, keeping the meat well wrapped will protect the veggies in the drawer below the bottom shelf.