December 26, 2010

In DOUBT?Throw it OUTseven-day rule a safe bet for leftovers



Staff Writer

Leftovers, as comedian George Carlin says in his skit "Ice Box Man," make you feel good twice.

"When you first put them away, you feel really intelligent -- 'I'm saving food!' And then, after a month, when hair is growing out of them and you throw them away you feel... really intelligent -- 'I'm saving my life!'"

Just to play it safe, it's best not to wait for your holiday leftovers to grow hair before throwing them away.

"Chefs agree you can refrigerate leftovers for up to seven days," said Chef Charles J. Izzi Jr., a 30-plus-year veteran of the culinary profession, certified food management professional, and chef instructor at Capital Area Technical Center in Augusta. "After that you must throw them out.

"Typically, most chefs don't have items at home or in restaurants that long, as they freeze them after several days. What we teach, the big general rule with chefs is, you've got to smell it, taste it, you've got to look at the product. Because a lot of things you don't want to keep for seven days. I wouldn't be keeping seafood, for example, seven days, whether it's cooked, raw or otherwise."

Alan Majka, a registered dietitian and assistant extension professor responsible for providing food and nutrition education in Kennebec and Somerset counties for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said that, to prevent food-borne illnesses, it is important to remember to cook, chill, separate and clean.

"Two of these (cook and chill) are related to temperature, because bacteria grow rapidly in perishable food that is between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit," Majka said. "We recommend regularly testing the temperature of your refrigerator to be sure it's below 40 degrees, and your freezer is below 0 degrees. A thermometer should also be used to be sure that meat, poultry and egg-containing dishes are adequately cooked and held above 140 degrees. Leftovers should be heated to at least 165 degrees throughout. You can't see or smell dangerous bacteria or toxins they may produce."

Majka said "separate" refers to keeping uncooked meats, poultry, fish and eggs separate from foods that will not be cooked, or cooked as thoroughly.

And "clean," of course, means to clean hands, utensils, cookware and surfaces with hot, soapy water and allow to dry.

Izzi and Majka both said food, as a rule, should only be reheated once.

"After that it becomes dangerous, because it will have passed through the 'temperature danger zone' during which bacteria multiplies rapidly, four times," Izzi said. "Reheating again would be flirting with danger. So, when reheating leftovers, only heat what you think you will eat."

Both experts also said food should not be left at room temperature for more than two hours.

And both warned placing hot foods in the refrigerator or freezer can raise the inside temperature of the refrigerator or freezer, thus potentially affecting the quality of any other foods in the unit.

"If it is not cooling quickly enough, then separate it into smaller batches to aid in the cooling process," Izzi said. "After two hours, it must be refrigerated or frozen."

Majka also said if food is still too hot, after it has been separated into smaller containers, the containers can be placed in cool water to rapidly cool the food down before placement in the fridge or freezer.

As for food storage containers, Izzi recommends using airtight containers rather than plastic wrap, because they stop exposure to airborne bacterias and also may be stacked for a well-organized refrigerator.

And where things are stored, in the refrigerator, is also important.

"When storing foods in the refrigerator, make sure that you store cooked foods above raw food," Izzi said. "For example, you are planning hamburgers for dinner tomorrow and the package of ground beef or turkey is in the refrigerator. On the shelf below is a bowl of potato salad. The blood from the meat dripped into the potato salad. Now, that salad has been contaminated with salmonella, (in the case of) turkey, or e coli, (in the case of) beef. Since you do not cook potato salad, the contaminants will not be killed and someone will become ill."

And once a food item has gone bad, there's just no bringing it back.

"Once a food is handled improperly, there is no amount of cooking or boiling that will make it safe to eat," Majka said. "It's important that foods be handled safely before they ever become leftovers... Remember the old saying, 'If in doubt, throw it out.'"

Keith Edwards -- 621-5647

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