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How long should restaurants leave food in a hot holder?

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Question:

I’m having a discussion with a co-worker: I say that chili held on the line all day should be tossed at the end of the day. She says it is safe to put it back out the next day. Who’s right?

– Lance Cope, Cordes Junction, Ariz.

Answer:

My daughter had a high school concessions job at a place I won’t name in print. They served hot dogs on a roller grill. At the end of the day, they would chill them in the freezer and serve them again the next day. Safe to eat? Probably. Disgusting? Definitely.

Municipal health codes vary, and most I reviewed do not specify a maximum holding time for food safely held above the minimum hot holding temperature. But nothing lasts forever. There are really two interrelated concerns:

  1. Food quality.
  2. Food safety.
     

From a food quality perspective, I wouldn’t want to see hot food held beyond two to four hours, depending of course on the type of product and the holding temperature. While chili will be more resilient to hot holding than foods like cream-based sauces, lean proteins or vegetables, it is important to remember that hot holding is still cooking the food (slowly) and causing associated changes and quality loss such as overcooking and drying.

From a safety perspective, the food code is very clear on how long food can be kept in the danger zone, but less directive on how long food held at proper temperature can be stored. The USDA did issue an advisory that “A minimum temperature of 135 degrees for a maximum of 8 hours, or a minimum temperature of 140 degrees Fahrenheit indefinitely also would be adequate to ensure food safety.”

So your colleague is right that chili, properly held over 140, could be held “indefinitely,” according to the USDA. It follows that it can also be safely chilled using the two-stage method: stored cold and reheated to 165 for at least 15 seconds, then hot-held again. But that doesn’t mean it should be.

My advice is to put a two- to four-hour limit on hot-held food for both quality and safety best practices. If the cost and waste of discarding long-held chili are a problem, consider heating product in smaller batches with more frequency or reducing your production.

As always, communicate proactively with your health department to be sure you’re compliant with local regulations.

More on hot holding here. 

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