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Got leftovers? Treat them with respect

Published:Wednesday | June 27, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Charlyn Fargo, Contributor

For most of us, leftovers are a great way to save money and still eat healthy. On busy nights, a transformed leftover can make a quick dinner. But there's a catch. Are your leftovers safe? The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) in the United States offers a few tips for keeping leftovers at their best.

"Leftovers the next day can be a lovely reminder of the meal you shared with loved ones," says food scientist Kantha Shelke, IFT spokesperson and principal of Corvus Blue, a Chicago-based food science and research firm. "They're also a great way to stretch your food budget. Properly handling and storing leftovers can help ensure your family gets the most value and enjoyment out of the food you've prepared."

There are three areas to watch: refrigeration, storing and reheating.

Refrigeration

Of course you know food needs to be preserved in a refrigerator, but does it need to be cooled off first? Your grandmother probably cooled or chilled cooked foods before refrigerating them for a couple of reasons. First, to save energy; hot food would make the fridge work harder. Also, there was a risk of a hot dish breaking when coming in contact with a cold shelf. Modern refrigerators, however, are built to cool hot dishes. Still, chilling food promptly after cooking and then placing in the refrigerator is both safe and energy conscious.

The temperature in your refrigerator should be at 40° Fahrenheit (about 4.45° Celsius) or lower. Generally, food can go in the refrigerator when it's reached a temperature of 90 to 100° Fahrenheit (about 32.22 to 37.78° Celsius) - the dish should be just warm to the touch. Chill food in an ice bath or cold water or divide it into smaller portions that can be placed into shallow containers. The key is to store leftovers quickly, within two hours of cooking (one hour on hot summer days or in warm climates).

Storing

The debate over dish or disposable wrap is a matter of personal preference. Thin-walled metal, glass or plastic containers that are shallow (no more than two inches deep) are ideal for storage. Bags, foil and plastic wrap also work well, especially if you have a piece of food that is large or oddly shaped.

Cooked meat can be stored three to four days in the fridge, while uncooked ground meats, poultry and seafood will last only a day or two. Raw roasts, steaks and chops (beef, veal, lamp or pork) can be refrigerated for three to five days. Casseroles, veggies and similar side dishes, as well as pie, will usually last three to five days.

If you have a lot of leftovers, you may choose to freeze them. Freezing completely halts bacterial activity, so food can stay safe and usable for months in the freezer, versus three to five days in the refrigerator. Most frozen foods will stay safe for several months; recommended storage times are merely for nutritional value and quality. Uncooked meats can last eight to 12 months in the freezer, while frozen cooked meats will begin to lose their flavour after three months. Freezer temperature should be at zero degrees Fahrenheit (about minus 17.78°Celsius).

Reheating

When it's time to serve those leftovers again, a thermometer is the best way to ensure food has been heated to a safe temperature. Most foods, especially meats, should be heated to 165° Fahrenheit (about 73.89°Celsius) in the centre. Bring sauces, soups and gravies to a boil. Never reheat leftovers in crock pots, slow cookers or chafing dishes.

Charlyn Fargo is a registered dietitian at Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, www.creators.com.