What Is the Temperature Danger Zone? Food Safety 101

temperature danger zone

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There is no upside to food poisoning.

At best, it will see you wasting a few days hunched over your new porcelain best friend; at worst, it can have long-term adverse effects on your intestinal health.

Understanding some food safety basics like the temperature danger zone is the best way to avoid food poisoning.

We’re here to help you do exactly that!

What exactly is the temperature danger zone?

Simply put, the “Danger Zone” is a temperature band, between 40°F and 140°F, that creates the most conducive conditions for bacterial growth.

temperature danger zone where harmful bacteria grow rapidly

Many people don’t know that it was also what Kenny Loggins was referencing in his song of the same name. Clearly he was passionate about food safety!

Jokes aside, most food already plays host to bacteria like E-coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter, Listeria, and Staphylococcus, but not in the quantity required to make us ill.

Leaving your food unrefrigerated in the danger zone allows those bacterial colonies to double in size ever 20 minutes, growing to become a real problem.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 9.4 million people contracted a foodborne illness in 2011, resulting in 55,961 hospitalizations and 1,351 deaths, mostly children and the elderly. The most common cause of illness and death was salmonella.

How do you keep food out of the danger zone?

An easy way of keeping food out of the danger zone is to remember to keep hot food hot and cold food cold.

Keep hot food hot

Once you’ve cooked your meal, it’s best to keep it above 140°F until you plan to eat it. The idea that you need to ‘rest’ food between cooking and serving has been pretty conclusively disproved, so the best way to avoid bacterial growth is to go straight from the pan to the plate.

Keep cold food cold

The reverse applies to cold food. You should never leave refrigerated food out at room temperature and should make as much effort as possible to keep the food below 40°F. 

This means no defrosting poultry on the countertop!

It is important to remember that – unlike heating food – cooling, (or even freezing it) does not kill any of the bacteria that are already present. It merely puts them into a form of hibernation. As soon as the temperature comes back up, the bacteria will start to multiply again.

Storing food safely

Always stick to the “two-hour rule”. Food that requires refrigeration like meat, poultry, seafood or produce should not sit at room temperature for more than two hours.

That becomes the one-hour rule if the air temperature is above 90°F.

The same rule applies to leftovers or fresh food.

If you have a lot of leftovers or are deliberately cooking food in advance, you need to chill that food down and get it refrigerated as fast as possible. 

Food safety storage tips:

  • Keep your appliances at the correct temperature. That’s 40°F (4°C) for your refrigerator and 0°F (-18°C) for the freezer.
  • Eat read-to-eat food like luncheon meat as soon as possible as even when stored in the refrigerator Listeria has a chance to grow over time.
  • Watch out for any food that looks or smells suspect and throw it out
  • Food that looks and smells fine can still make you extremely sick.
  • Smoked food should be safe in the refrigerator for four days and in the freezer for three months.

There is a common misconception that placing warm food in a refrigerator can damage it or cause the other food being refrigerated to rise into the danger zone. 

For modern refrigerators, this is only the case with very hot freshly-cooked food. If you plan on cooking food and then storing it directly, the best way to bring that temperature down is with an ice bath. 

An ice bath allows you to bring the food down through the danger zone as quickly as possible, cutting down on the amount of potential bacterial growth.

Using an ice bath

  • Fill a cooler big enough to fit the food you are cooking half full of ice
  • Once the food is cooked, wrap it in a waterproof plastic bag and place it in the ice so the food is submerged and the top of the bag is not. We don’t want to waterlog anything
  • Use your instant-read thermometer to check the temperature every few minutes 
  • When the temperature drops below 40°F, transfer your food into the refrigerator

What temperature should frozen food be stored at?

To stop bacteria from growing food should always be stored at 0°F (-18°C).

  • Lower temperatures slow down the proliferation of microorganisms
  • While freezing doesn’t kill bacteria, the correct temperature will stop it from growing.
  • Always store leftovers in tight containers
  • Consider buying a refrigerator thermometer to check your appliance is running at a safe temperature.

Reheating food

The trick with reheating leftovers to avoid bacterial contamination is to make sure that you heat them up to a minimum of 165°F. Unlike freezing, bringing food up to this temperature actively kills bacteria, rendering it safe to be eaten.

The USDA also recommends that poultry be cooked to no less than 165°F to kill the naturally occurring salmonella that can be found in the juices.

Combining quick refrigeration with thorough reheating means you should be able to reheat leftovers without worrying about food poisoning.

Holding food

You might find yourself in a situation where you have lots of food being prepared with different cooking times. Some of that food will then need to sit in a holding pattern until the other food has finished cooking.

In this case, the only way to keep that food from slipping into the danger zone is to use the tools specially designed for this exact situation.

Chafing dishes, preheated steam tables, warming trays, and slow cookers can all hold food at a consistent temperature of 140°F or above, preventing bacterial growth.

Food safety FAQs

Will food spoil at 45 degrees?

Food starts to spoil as the temperature rises above 40°F. This is when the two-hour rule kicks in and you two hours to cook it or return it to cold conditions.

How long can meat be above 40°F?

Leaving meat at temperatures above 40 degrees Fahrenheit puts it in the temperature danger zone where bacteria can double every 20 minutes.

The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline recommend never leaving meat out of the refrigerator for over 2 hours, or 1 hour above 90°F.

How to keep food safe during a power outage?

So long as you keep the refrigerator door closed as much as possible, food should stay safe for about 4 hours according to the USDA.

A full freezer should keep food out of the danger zone for up to 48 hours. If you can get your hands on block ice you can use this to help keep the temperature down.

How can I tell if I should keep or throw out something that has been left out?

For most fresh food the two-hour rule is a good guideline to determine if something needs to be discarded.

Any of these items held above 40°F for more than two hours should be thrown out

  • Raw or leftover meat or seafood
  • Salads containing egg, meat or seafood
  • Gravy and stuffing
  • Lunchmeats
  • Pizza
  • Soft and shredded cheeses
  • Milk and baby formula

For a full list of what you can keep and what you need to discard refer to this table on the foodsafety.gov website.

Conclusion

As you can see, preventing the growth of bacteria that cause food poisoning on your food is actually pretty easy. You just need to remember to avoid the danger zone (between 40°F and 140°F by keeping hot food hot and cold food cold. 

Stick with those food safety guidelines and your stomach will thank you!

Do you have some tips on quickly refrigerating hot food, or on keeping food at a safe temperature? If you do, we’d love to hear about them in the comments below.

John McCloy

John McCloy

Formerly a brand manager for the UK high street, John gave up that life for the far less stressful job of running his own business. He now likes to spend as much of his free time as possible hunched over a grill, reading about grills, or staring forlornly out of a window as the British weather makes it impossible to use his grill."

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