The Top Safety Rules To Follow When Leaving Out Refrigerated Foods

Before you hit your next potluck.

Buffet or potluck-style meals are among the events we Southerners do best. Tables are often brimming with casserole dishes stacked atop trivets and potholders and filled with delectably simple favorites and secret family recipes. While the piping fare is always a crowd-pleaser, the real proof of the pudding is in our chilled foods. From pimiento cheese to congealed salads, there's nothing as satisfying as a cold bite of one of these classics. But, just how long should those cold foods stay out on your table? We turned to Louisiana restauranteur and caterer Angela Lasyone for her advice.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 40°F or colder is the temperature at which cold foods should be kept. In fact, once the temperature rises, you start to enter what Lasyone refers to as the danger zone. "Once food reaches a temperature beyond 40 degrees, bacteria can start to form," she says. And that bacteria is actually what can make you sick, not the ingredients in the dishes themselves.

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There are a lot of myths about refrigeration out there. You might have heard old wives' tales about foods being fine at room temperature as long as they don't include ingredients like eggs or dairy, but Lasyone says, that's simply not the case. "Two hours is the maximum amount of time a cold food can sit out before it becomes dangerous, regardless of its ingredients. And at an outside event on a warm day, it's likely less time than that."

To combat any bacteria, and frankly, any distasteful food, Lasyone first says to invest in a meat thermometer. "For a dense food, just stick the thermometer right in the middle," she explains. "Any reading above 40 degrees means it's time to toss it and replenish with something fresh."

She also recommends portioning things like cold dips and cheeses appropriately. Instead of putting the entire dish out at one time, refill directly from the refrigerator as needed. "That way the quality of your food is better, and it stays in edible shape." Portioning foods will also cut back on food waste. Anything that stays cold in the fridge is already put away for leftovers.

Laysone also says not to worry quite as much about making sure everything is out before the first guest arrives. "Let people come in and mingle. When you get a decent number of people there, then you can put out your refrigerated items."

Her most clever tip is to use containers that help insulate your foods. Your grandmother's pewter, sterling silver, and silver plate serving pieces are all great options. They will hold their temperature better than plastic or foil. Bonus: it's a much prettier presentation, and your Nana would be proud.

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