When Holding Foods for Service Keep Them Hotter or Colder than The Food Danger Zone of 40° to 140° F.
Holding Foods
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Holding foods properly keeps prepared, ready-to-eat foods, either hot or cold, free of contaminants and out of The Food Danger Zone until they are served. Properly handled and cooked foods are considered safe to eat because the heat applied has either stopped the growth of, or killed any bacteria or pathogens outright.

But previously cooked foods can make a home for a new colony of pathogens very quickly if held improperly. The FDA recommends against holding hot foods for more than 2 hours at room temperature, 50° F to 70° F (10° to 21° C), or over an hour when room temperature is 90° F (32° C) or higher because dangerous levels of bacteria can grow that quickly.

Storage

One of the best ways to avoid the risks of holding food, are not to hold food, or to hold as little food as possible. To avoid holding food:

  • Food should be cooked and processed as close to the time of service as possible. Perfectly matching cooking and service is more difficult but it not only enhances the end quality of your foods, it is one of the best ways to counter contamination.
  • Practice prudent menu planning to avoid excessive leftovers that must be held. If you do have leftovers, don’t cross contaminate fresh food by mixing leftovers and fresh food together for storage.
  • Cook foods then remove them from the heat. Let them stand, as little as possible, but no more than the FDA’s recommended 2 hours at room temperatures between 50° F to 70° F (10° to 21° C). If your room temperature is hotter, 90° F (32° C) or higher, only hold the food for one hour or less at room temperature and then reheat it for service. When reheating make sure you bring your food above an internal temperature of 165° F (74° C) for at least 15 seconds to kill off any germs that may have adopted your dish.

When holding all foods, either hot or cold, guard it against contamination.

The first method of protecting your prepared food is to hold it out of The Food Danger Zone at an appropriate temperature. When preparing to hold hot or cold foods, bring them to the ultimate holding temperature as quickly as possible to minimize the risks of time spent in The Food Danger Zone, where bacteria thrive. 

The second best defense against contamination is to cover your foods to help prevent Biological, Chemical & Physical contamination. Biological contamination can occur if any bacteria reach the food, or if pests like flies, rodents or birds access it.

Chemical contamination can occur if the prepared food comes in contact with any chemicals, like lighter fluid, cleansers, lotions, bug sprays, perfumes, etc.

Physical contamination can occur if anything from kids’ toys, to spare change, to dangling jewelry, finds its way into the food. One of the best protections against all three is to cover the food, denying contaminants access. Chafing Dishes, lids, plastic wrap or aluminum foil, etc. can cover held foods during service.  

After service, unused foods often end up out of their original containers. If after service, you plan to hold anything a while or as leftovers, a best practice would be to track it by putting it in an appropriate container, labeled as to the contents and including a “Date Made”, or a “Use by Date.”

Holding Hot Prepared Foods

In the Perfect Meal, of which there are none, all the great dishes would be served to all diners at the same time. In practice the best we can do is approximate the ideal. One of the ways we attempt to do this is by holding hot foods. Holding means to keep your finished cooked products ready for service, at the right temperature, consistency and texture. Holding is useful when balancing the capabilities and limitations of your kitchen and cook (s) against the number of portions of products being cooked and their individual cook times. Holding is usually done at very low temperatures which are meant to keep the product above The Food Danger Zone and at an appealing, edible temperature without additionally cooking the product.  

Always hold hot prepared foods, not immediately consumed, above 135° F (57° C) by using Chafing Dishes, a Warming Drawer, your Oven or the Stove top at home and warming cabinets, steam tables, or other suitable devices in a commercial kitchen.

Though your foods will be perfectly safe hotter than The Food Danger Zone, we don’t recommend holding them for more than a few hours because though the bacteria won’t thrive, neither will the taste, quality or nutrition. While holding over heat, use a pocket thermometer, sanitized between uses, to frequently (at least every 2 hours) check your holding temperatures.  

When holding cooked meats they should be held at the desired Final Cooking Temperature. Any hotter and they will continue to cook. For example, if you desired to serve perfectly finish-cooked, Medium Beef, with a spot-on Final Cooking Temperature of 145°F (63°C) still cooked to a perfect Medium in a half hour’s time at 145°F (63°C), hold the beef in an oven or warming drawer at 145°F (63°C) until ready to plate & serve.

The idea is that holding the product at the Final Cooking Temperature will maintain it there and not cook it further. If product is held at a higher temperature than the desired Final Cooking Temperature, it will continue cooking and then stay at the higher holding temperature until served. For example again, if you hold your Medium beef at 165°F (74°C) you will be eating perfectly Medium Well finish-cooked beef with an internal temperature and ultimately a Final Cooking Temperature of 165°F (74°C).

In short, think Final Cooking Temperature, when deciding how to hold your finish cooked products. Rare roast beef or steak with a lower Final Cooking Temperature than The Food Danger Zone is the only exception to the holding at 135°F (57°C) or above rule. Rare roast beef or steak can be held a short time at 125° F (52° C). You should only serve rare beef if you are sure of your source of supply and even then it is still a risk. 

Cover up hot foods when holding them with a lid, plastic wrap or foil. The cover helps prevent foreign particles or pests from getting in. It also slows evaporation loss from stocks & sauces. An exception to covering your hot held foods would be that some fried foods keep better and crispier uncovered.

Be aware of any potential for Carry Over Cooking, which we cover in Lesson 4: Introduction to Cooking Methods, Topic 2: Dry Heat Methods, Exercise 6: Finish Cooking when considering how to hold your hot foods.  

If any of your held foods drop below 135° F (57° C) for periods approaching 2 hours, remember the FDA’s 2-Hour Rule: discard any perishables (foods that can spoil or become contaminated by bacteria if unrefrigerated) left out at room temperature for longer than two hours. When temperatures are above 90° F (32° C), discard any perishable food held below temperature after only one hour. Use common sense, don’t push the boundaries.

Holding Cold Prepared Foods

When discussing holding cold prepared foods, there are two categories to consider. The first is holding cold foods for service, like when a bound salad is held out on a buffet table. The second is holding previously prepared foods, (hot or cold) for future use. Chilled, meaning held on ice, or refrigerated foods should be kept at or below 40° F (4° C) at all times and should be cooled out of The Food Danger Zone as quickly as possible.

Holding cold foods for service is usually accomplished at home by popping the dish in and out of the refrigerator as needed for serving or by chilling, over ice in a buffet line, for example. In a commercial setting, in addition to chilling refrigerators (reach-ins, walk-ins) and specialized refrigeration like cold cases or refrigerated holding tables are used. When holding cold foods for service:

  • Keep cold foods covered using a lid, plastic wrap or foil. As mentioned, a cover helps keep out foreign particles & pests and helps keep moisture in. You may want to make an exception for foods with a crust and leave those uncovered to keep them firm.
  • Keep cold prepared foods away from hot serving dishes, ovens, chafing dishes, etc. that can raise their temperatures to unsafe levels.
  • If on ice at room temperature, 50° to 70° F (10° to 21° C), meats poultry and fish should have adequate ice for the holding time contemplated and a way to drain the melting ice water. If held over ice for more than one day, the ice should be changed daily. If held at other than room temperature, adjust accordingly.
  • If holding cold foods, such as protein or bound salads over ice or in a display case or refrigerator table for service, do not mound the food above the level of the container. Mounding could leave the taller portion of the salad insufficiently chilled and in The Food Danger Zone.

When cooling hot prepared, ready-to-eat foods to be stored under refrigeration for future use you may want to consider the following:

  • Hot foods should be cooled to room temperature, 50° F to 70° F (10° C to 21° C) at room temperature, then refrigerated. The FDA has determined that foods can only stay out in The Food Danger Zone for 2 hours maximum (1 hour if room temperature is 90° F {32° C} or higher).
  • If natural ambient cooling won’t be enough and will leave your hot food in The Food Danger Zone too long, faster cooling may be induced by placing the container with the food to be cooled in a bath of cold running water (being careful not to soak the food) or an ice bath. We cover “Venting” in Lesson 8: Stock, Sauces & Soups Basics. If you need to actually vent now, you can read ahead and watch Teaching Chef demonstrate in the video.
  • If you have a considerable amount of food to cool, thick or solid foods should be spread out in a shallow pan for faster cooling.