Reheating Food Is a No-Brainer, Right? Chances Are You're Doing It Wrong: Here's the Ultimate Guide to Getting It Right

Personal Health

Among wealthy nations, Americans cook the least and eat the fastest. On average, Americans spend a paltry 30 minutes per day cooking. For some of us, even that sounds like a lot of time in the kitchen.

“Time is the big impediment to most people,” food writer Michael Pollan recently told the Atlantic. “People have less time and even people who have the same amount of time feel like they have less time. We work long hours, some of us work two jobs, and we have longer commute times.”

With his new Netflix series “Cooked” (based on his book of the same name) Pollan is trying to get people more interested in cooking. But for many overworked and exhausted Americans, spending more time in the kitchen is either an unwelcome hassle or a luxury that is frustratingly out of reach.

In the meantime, one area in which the busiest among us can probably use some improvement is reheating leftovers.

Isn't reheating food as easy as popping last night’s dinner into the oven or microwave or just stirring it up in a pan? Actually, it's not that simple. A lot of us are getting sick because we're doing it all wrong. Plus, it's not just reheating food that's a regular concern of public health officials. We're also not cooling down or storing cooked food the right way.

There’s a way to do all of this so that cooked food not only retains its flavor, but doesn't make us sick.

"Improper cooling and reheating are major causes of foodborne illness," says the New York State Department of Health. The DOH was so concerned about the issue that, in 1992, after meeting with regulators, food industry representatives, restaurant owners and food service operators, the New York State Sanitary Code was amended to establish "new requirements call for changes in cooling and reheating potentially hazardous foods."

Potentially hazardous foods (or PHFs, as they are known to food regulators and public health experts) are foods that are susceptible to the growth of bacteria and require two variables for proper handling: time and temperature. PHFs include cooked or raw animal products, like meat, fish and poultry.

"Bacteria that cause food poisoning grow at temperatures between 45 degrees Fahrenheit and 120 degrees Fahrenheit," says New York's health department. "The cooling requirement limits the length of time that potentially hazardous food is in the temperature range at which harmful bacteria can grow."

When it comes to cooling down already cooked PHFs, the agency recommends the following:

Potentially hazardous foods requiring refrigeration must be cooled by an adequate method so that every part of the product is reduced from 120 degrees Fahrenheit to 70 degrees Fahrenheit within two hours, and from 70 degrees Fahrenheit to 45 degrees Fahrenheit or below within four additional hours.

Foods that need special attention for proper cooling, according to the DOH, include "soups, sauces, gravies, stews, rice, chili, whole turkeys, turkey breasts and whole roast beef." They also recommend measuring food temperatures with a stem thermometer. 

Even defrosting food properly requires a little more thought: Transfer it from the freezer to the fridge—don’t just place it on the countertop where it is suddenly thrust into a room-temperature environment. You can help speed up the cooling process by spreading the food in a thin layer in shallow dishes. To help hot soups cool down faster, just drop in a few ice cubes, if you don't mind thinning it a little bit.

It seems like an awful lot to consider, especially for time-strapped Americans who just want to save leftovers. But putting hot food in the fridge, defrosting food too quickly and not reheating food to the right temperature—all things we probably do because we're in a hurry—is actually costing us more sick days.

The federal government agrees that improper food handling is a regular problem among Americans. “Not cooking food to a safe temperature and leaving food out at an unsafe temperature are the two main causes of foodborne illness,” says the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Safe handling of leftovers is very important to reducing foodborne illness.”

In order to limit bacterial growth, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration recommends that food be refrigerated below 5°C/41°F. The agency also recommends that food be cooked to 57°C/135°F. But for PHFs, the temperatures can be much higher.

The NYS DOH has established the following food temperature requirements for PHFs:

Cooking meals ahead of time—making a week's worth of lunches and dinners on Sunday, for example—is a great timesaver, particularly if you're cooking for more people than just yourself. And reheating leftovers is an easy way to avoid wasting food, which is a massive problem (nearly $200 billion in food market value is lost each year due to food waste in the U.S. alone).

But cooling, storing and reheating food requires a little extra thought and care to protect you and your family from foodborne illness. Hopefully someday, Americans will be able to spend more time in the kitchen making delicious fresh meals from scratch and not waste one morsel. But until then, getting it right when it comes to leftovers can be the difference between a quick meal and a sick day.

Happy to Survive, a website about preparedness and off-the-grid, self-reliant living, has produced “The Ultimate Guide for Reheating Food,” an excellent infographic to help you figure out the best way to enjoy your leftovers. Check it out below.

Infographic produced by Happy to Survive.

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