There can be circumstances in a household where cooked foods need to sit on the counter for a while, before being served to eat. The question then arises on how long can cooked food be left out before it becomes unsafe for consumption.
It’s seen that the spoilage factor of cooked foods, left outside refrigerator, depends on four factors.
- The room temperature where the cooked food is sitting.
- The method of preparation (smoked meats last longer than gravy/fried meats).
- The presence of contaminating agents like flies, mosquitoes etc around the food.
- The type of food in question, for example meats, cut fruits, certain cooked vegetables have a low shelf life when left on the outside compared to other foods
In this article we will focus primarily on how long cooked meats can be left out in the open before consumption, in the view of the cooking methods, room temperature and type of meat involved.
Duration Cooked Meat Can be Left Out
In most food establishments, 4 hours is the maximum duration that a cooked meat is allowed to stand on the shelf when the room temperature is between 40F to 140F.
At temperatures less than 40F, foods can remain bacteria free for a longer duration. In fact, when cooked meat (gravy, broth or dry fried) is refrigerated at a temperature between 32 to 40F, it can stay consumable for close 3-4 days.
Temperatures between 60F to 140F are ideal breeding conditions for bacteria, and if there is humidity in the air the likelihood of infection is higher.
Cooked meats are very susceptible to bacteria growth especially when they are not cooked thoroughly. Under these temperatures, cooked meat can develop staleness as quickly as 3 to 4 hours. So if you are planning on eating cooked meat which has been left out for more than 4 hours on the shelf, you will be doing it at a health risk.
Is it Safe to Eat Cooked Meat after Re-Heating It?
Let’s say you have left out the cooked meat for around 6 to 7 hours, now would it be safe to consume it after re-heating it thoroughly?
Well, re-heating cooked food helps destroy bacteria for sure, but contaminated meat, even when heated, can have traces of harmful bacteria hidden in its tissues.
But it’s definitely much safer to eat the cooked meat after re-heating it thoroughly than to eat it cold (provided it’s been out for less than 7 hours).
If it’s been out for more than 7 hours, you better discard it or run a definite risk of some form of infection.
Do Processed Meats Have Longer Shelf Life When Cooked?
It’s true that processed meats like luncheon meat cuts, sausages, ham etc have a longer shelf time because they are cured (treated with brine and other disinfectants), before being stored and sold.
These meats are less likely to be infected by bacteria due to the high sodium content in their exterior tissues.
From this view point, cooked “processed” meats are safer to eat, when left outside for a few hours, than cooked fresh meats.
Many restaurants keep their ham & sausages (made for lunch) at room temperature for 6 hours, and serve them (after heating) to the customers who come in for an early dinner, but they would throw out their meat broths and gravies after 3-4 hours of shelf time.