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December Cartoon: 3 Common Myths for Preparing & Storing Food Safely at Home
Cartoon of Santa Claus vomiting into a stocking while an elf comments that the glass of milk was left out too long

Have you ever questioned: "Has this food been sitting out too long? Is it still good?" Sometimes it is easy to tell if food has spoiled by the way it smells, looks, or feels. Oftentimes, though, it is difficult to determine if a food could make you sick or not.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) releases guidelines to help restaurants, grocery stores, and other retailers keep food safe for customers. While most recommendations are meant for large-scale use, many of the principles can be used while cooking and preparing food at home.

Below are some common misconceptions about preparing and storing time/temperature control for safety (TCS) food at home.

Myth #1: It doesn't matter how long food sits out as long as I put it back in the fridge.

As a general rule, TCS foods (such as milk and dairy products, meat and fish, and cut melons) can sit out for 4 hours as long as it will be thrown away immediately after that time has passed. If the air outside is hot (above 90°F), that time shrinks to 1 hour. Why those specific time frames? That's approximately how long it takes for bacteria and other pathogens to grow to harmful levels.

If you are unsure if a food is classified as a TCS food, it's better to play it safe and treat it as such. In addition, if you are unsure if your food is safe to eat, it's best to throw it away.

If you plan on saving food for later, you should put it in the refrigerator within 2 hours of it being out at room temperature. Refrigerating hot food requires a little extra attention and time (more on that next) to cool it quickly, so be aware of that when storing food.

Myth #2: Once my food is in my fridge, it should be safe to eat... right?

Believe it or not, you can't just place hot food in the fridge and be safe. Before putting it in the fridge, you must first cool it quickly to keep bacteria and other pathogens from growing to dangerous levels. Some ideas include:

  • Dividing large portions into smaller, shallow containers
  • Loosely covering food while it is cooling in the refrigerator to allow the heat to dissipate faster
  • Adding ice as an ingredient (this works best in liquid foods like soup)
  • Chilling food in an ice bath

Try to cool food as quickly as possible to prevent possible bacterial growth!

Myth #3: Defrosting food on the counter overnight is the easiest way to thaw it.

Because food usually defrosts from the outside in, bacteria can grow to dangerous levels if left at room temperature for a long amount of time. One of the best ways to thaw food is to place it in the refrigerator before it is needed. Usually, you should allow 24 hours for every 5 pounds of food that needs defrosting.

Another way to safely thaw food is by running cold water on top of it. This method can be a little tricky, as it does require a constant stream of water running over the food. Don't use hot water, which can thaw food unevenly – the outside may be growing pathogens while the inside is still frozen!

Some foods can also be thawed as part of the cooking process. This method is usually best for foods that can be broken apart, like ground beef. In addition, you can also use a microwave to thaw food. However, once the food is done thawing in the microwave you must cook it immediately.

Following these guidelines can help keep you and your loved ones from getting sick. If you have any doubt that a food is safe or has been stored properly, it's best to throw it away. To learn more about preparing food safely at home, take our FREE course: Food Safety for Home Kitchens.

– Janilyn Hutchings

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