It is quite a common thing for Asian families to leave food out on the table and there are two reasons for this. One is so that people know the food is there, and two, it's so that they can help themselves to it. But how long can food be left out? What if they forget?
Sometimes food can be left out on the table for hours before someone actually consumes them.
Is it safe to eat by then, do we reheat it or do we need to toss them out? Let's find out.
How long can food be left out?
The answer to this actually depends on how long your food has been left out at room temperature. According to the US FDA, food should only be left out at room temperature for a maximum of 2 hours tops.
Which means any perishable food that has been left out past this 2-hour rule needs to be thrown away. In fact, they recommend that any food left out at 32.3 ºC be refrigerated to 4.4 ºC within the hour or alternatively be iced so that it remains chilled.
The reason for this precaution is because anything between 4.4 ºC and 60 ºC is the perfect temperature for bacteria to flourish. You might think that under an hour is a really short amount of time for anything to happen. Believe it or not, it can take as little as 20 minutes for bacteria to multiply in your food and make it unsafe to eat.
But don't forget that bacteria also exists naturally everywhere, therefore you should always cook food thoroughly to eliminate trace amounts of harmful bacteria.
How to ensure the food you serve is safe?
Okay, so to recap, how long can food be left out? Not more than 2 hours. But what about making sure that the food you serve is safe? There are two ways to ensure this. One way is to keep your food in the refrigerator at 4.4 ºC and below and the other way is to keep it warm in your oven between 94ºC to about 121.1 ºC until you are ready to serve. This prevents bacteria from forming and is precisely why hotels use warming trays and ice when in a buffet-style setting.
How about reheating?
Unfortunately reheating doesn't kill all types of bacteria. In fact, neither does freezing. When you thaw food, bacteria is still present. There are some bacterias that produce heat-resistant toxins that cannot be destroyed, even at high temperatures.
Certain foods can also contain more harmful bacteria than others. Meat, egg products, any food that is eaten cold and raw like salads can easily contain harmful bacteria. Even fillings in pastries or sandwiches are not spared. And let's not forget milk and most dairy products.
So do not chance it by leaving food out at room temperature for more than 2 hours or you might run the risk of getting food poisoning. When in doubt always throw it out, even when it doesn't smell bad. It is better to be safe than sorry.