Better Tomorrow: How to Store Leftovers the Right Way
By: Jessi Minneci
One of the best parts about a party is all of the amazing food! We love feeding our guests, entertaining, and making sure that everyone leaves satisfied and happy. You may know from hosting yourself, there is often some grub left out on the buffet once everyone has gone home! These leftover tips we are about to share can also be used daily after family dinner, etc.
The downside of leftovers? Potentially, stored food can lead to decay, mold, strange odors, and other foodborne illnesses. But this doesn’t have to be that case. Some foods need to be kept in the refrigerator to slow down germ growth and keep food fresh for longer; others are better off being stored in the freezer. It’s all about knowing how to properly store leftovers so that you can enjoy them without worry. Follow these tips to prolong the freshness of your party’s remnants that were previously cooked.
Be a safe cook
Let’s backtrack from the party idea and first talk about leftovers in general. If you are cooking a big meal at home, the first step to ensuring delicious leftovers is cooking the food safely. Sounds like a given, right? Yes – but we’re still here to make sure you’re a pro! Be sure the elements of your meal are cooked to a safe temperature (we recommend using a food thermometer) and refrigerate the leftovers in a timely manner. Want to know the two main causes of foodborne illness?
- Not cooking food to a safe temperature
- Leaving food out at an unsafe temperature
If you’re cooking a meal with red meat (beef, pork, lamb, veal steaks, chops, and roasts), you’ll want the meat to reach a minimum internal temperature of 145° F. For both safety and quality, allow the red meat to rest for at least three minutes before carving or consuming. When it comes to ground meats (beef, pork, lamb, and veal), you’ll want the meat to reach a minimum internal temperature of 160°. For chicken, turkey, and other poultry – 165° F.
Bacteria growth thrives between the 40-140° F. After food is cooked, hot food must be kept hot (above 140°) to prevent that growth. Once you’re ready to store it, you’ll want to cool it below 40° F as quickly as possible so that, again, bacteria are not in that ‘thriving’ zone. To do this, divide large amounts of food into shallow containers and refrigerate. For example, divide a big pot of soup into pint-sized containers as opposed to sticking a huge pot in the fridge.
Throw away all perishable foods that have been left at room temperature for more than two hours – they are no longer good.
Now, let’s break down the specific needs for different types of foods. Here’s how to handle leftovers from your party, picnic, family dinner, and so on…
Meats, fish, and poultry
First store leftover meats/fish/poultry uncovered in the refrigerator to rapidly cool the item. Once cool, convert the meat to a shallow and sealable container.
As a general rule of thumb, raw ground meats, all poultry, seafood, and variety meats can be stored safely in the refrigerator for one to two days. Raw roasts, steaks, and chops should be safe for three to five days. Cooked meat, poultry, and seafood – three to four days.
Pro tip: if you opt to freeze your leftover meat, we recommend doing so in sauce, such as a pasta sauce or soup. This enables the meat to keep its moisture and taste better once defrosted. Defrost frozen leftovers in the refrigerator, under cold water or in a microwave oven. Refrigerator thawing takes the longest but the leftovers stay safe the entire time. After thawing, the food should be used within three to four days or can be refrozen.
Soups, sauces, and other liquids
Sauces, gravy, and soups should be portioned out and stored in air-tight containers or heavy-duty Ziploc bags. Spread the liquid out as much as possible to speed up the cooling process of hot items. A sauce will last safely between three and four days in the refrigerator. In the freezer, a soup/sauce/gravy will maintain best quality between four and six months, however, items kept constantly frozen at 0°F will keep safe indefinitely.
Cooked pasta will remain fresh in the refrigerator for up to five days, and lasts for eight months in a freezer. Drizzle just a bit of olive oil onto the pasta before storing in an airtight container to keep it from drying out.
After defrosting frozen pasta, re-boil in water to heat it right through.
As we’ve mentioned with other food items, the key to vegetables is to divide and conquer. Cool the veggies before sealing and storing them in the refrigerator. Once stored, veggies will maintain optimal freshness for two days.
Bread, rolls, and buns
There are few things quite as beautiful as the basket of fresh rolls at the end of a buffet table at a catered party… YUM! But when it comes to storing leftover bread products, the refrigerator isn’t too effective.
Sure, bread will stay fresh in a sealed bag for a few days, but if you have a surplus of leftover rolls, the freezer will be your best friend. Place bread in a sealable freezer and it will remain edible for several months.
Someone might opt to wrap leftover blocks of cheese, from a cheese plate, perhaps, in plastic wrap. This is actually a no-no as the plastic will cling to the fats and oils of the cheese and affect its taste. The best way to store leftover cheese is to grate it and place it in a freezer bag – this will keep it fresh for an extra two to three months.
Enjoying your meal later on
We mentioned before that your leftovers can be defrosted one of several ways. However, you can even reheat frozen leftovers without thawing, either in a saucepan, microwave, or the oven. Reheating of course will take longer than if the food is thawed first, but it is safe to do when time is short.
Remember to reheat leftovers to a piping hot temp (at least 165°F) and to bring sauces, soups and gravies to a boil. Always cover leftovers while reheating to retain moisture and ensure the food heats all the way through.
Safe food is great food – bon appétit!