The cold facts: A guide to stor­ing leftovers safely

When it comes to stor­ing and us­ing leftovers, most of us make mis­takes from time to time. Mys­te­ri­ous un­marked con­tain­ers are for­got­ten at the back of the freezer; leftovers go off in the fridge be­cause we ac­cept last-minute din­ner in­vi­ta­tions. Even when w

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To keep leftovers safe from harm­ful bac­te­ria, there’s a sim­ple rule to fol­low: ei­ther keep them pip­ing hot, or chill them quickly.

While many of us have been taught not to put hot food in a cold fridge, mod­ern fridges are equipped to han­dle hot foods in small amounts. Leftovers should be cov­ered and placed in the fridge or freezer as soon as they have stopped steam­ing, as bac­te­ria will start to grow rapidly if food is left stand­ing at room tem­per­a­ture.

Per­ish­ables such as meat, poul­try, pasta, rice and casseroles should be dis­carded if they are left out of the fridge or freezer for more than two hours.


Hot food should never go into the fridge in deep con­tain­ers, as the food needs to cool quickly enough to re­main safe. Shal­low (no more than 5cm deep) air­tight con­tain­ers made of me­tal, glass or plas­tic are ideal for stor­ing leftovers.

Look for square or rec­tan­gu­lar con­tain­ers for ef­fi­cient use of space, and con­sider smaller con­tain­ers that will store sin­gle serve por­tions.


Your fridge tem­per­a­ture should be be­tween 2°C and 4°C, while the freezer should be at or be­low –18°C. Rather than rely on tem­per­a­ture con­trols, you should check these tem­per­a­tures pe­ri­od­i­cally us­ing an ap­pli­ance ther­mome­ter (avail­able from hard­ware stores). In ad­di­tion to keep­ing your fridge at the right tem­per­a­ture, you should be care­ful not to over­pack it, be­cause cool air needs to cir­cu­late freely around the food.

Wipe spills up im­me­di­ately to re­duce the growth of lis­te­ria (which grows at fridge tem­per­a­ture) and to re­duce the risk of bac­te­ria spread­ing from one food to another. Fi­nally, check ex­pi­ra­tion dates on foods regularly and if they are past their “use by” dates, dis­card them.


As a gen­eral rule, leftovers can be stored for three to four days in the fridge, while un­cooked meats, poul­try and seafood will last one or two days. If you won’t be eat­ing leftovers within three to four days, it’s best to freeze them and then eat them within three months.

It’s still safe to eat leftovers af­ter this pe­riod (freez­ing halts the growth of bac­te­ria), but their flavours, tex­tures and nu­tri­tional value will start to de­cline.


When re­heat­ing liq­uids such as sauces, cur­ries, soups and gravies, al­ways bring them to a boil. When re­heat­ing leftovers in the oven or mi­crowave, cover them to re­tain mois­ture and en­sure food is heated all the way through. You can’t tell just by look­ing at or smelling a food whether harm­ful bac­te­ria has started to grow, so to be sure it is safe to eat, the food should be heated to 70°C or higher. The best way to check this is with a food ther­mome­ter.

TIP: When putting food in the freezer, write the date and the name of the dish on the con­tainer – it’s sur­pris­ingly easy to for­get what’s in a con­tainer and how long it’s been in there.

TIP: It’s okay to leave steak, other whole cuts of beef or lamb a lit­tle bit rare when you re­heat them, as long as they were ini­tially seared at a high tem­per­a­ture to kill bac­te­ria on the sur­face of

the meat.

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