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Your Holiday How-To: Keeping Hot Foods HOT and Cold Foods COLD!

Posted by Meredith Carothers, Food Safety and Inspection Service, USDA in Health and Safety
Dec 11, 2018
Holiday buffet spread
Holiday buffet spread. Bacteria multiply rapidly between 40 and 140°F. To keep food out of this "Danger Zone," keep cold food cold and hot food hot!. Photo credit: iStock

The holidays are here, which means plenty of gatherings with family, friends and food! These get-togethers are usually fun-filled with catching up, laughter and occasional dancing, so don’t let foodborne illness crash your party. One of the best ways to keep foodborne illness off the guest list is to keep your food items at the proper temperatures while you enjoy your party.

What are the proper temperatures you may ask? To put it simply, hot foods must stay hot (above 140°F) and cold foods must stay cold (below 40°F). When foods are held between 40 and 140°F, bacteria can grow rapidly to levels that can cause you or your guests to get sick. This temperature range is called the “danger zone” and should be treated as a big party no-no.

Keeping your food at safe temperatures isn’t as daunting as it may seem, so let’s break it down into easy options for you and your partygoers:

Keeping Hot Foods Hot:

*Before using any of the following methods for keeping foods hot, it is crucial to mention that all foods must be fully cooked and have reached a safe internal temperature before serving. None of these specific methods are designed for cooking party foods, only keeping them HOT!

Chafing Dishes & Steam Tables

There are many different types of chafing dishes and steam tables, with the most common being disposable. The disposable chafing dishes usually come with a wire rack, aluminum pans (one large for water and smaller ones for food), and an external heat source. The larger aluminum pan should be placed on the wire rack first and filled with hot water to a level that is close to but not touching the pans holding the food. Next, light the heat source and place underneath the water pan. The food pans will then be placed in the water pan (they will rest above the water), and the water pan will create steam that will keep the food hot!

If you have a more permanent chafing dish, chances are it will work in a very similar fashion with a stand, water pan, food pans, and external heat source. Some chafing dishes and steam tables may have a permanent heat source that just requires plugging in to an outlet.

Throughout the party, periodically check that the water level is maintained and the heat sources are still lit and providing heat.

*Set up the chafing dishes according to manufacturer recommendations when possible.

Warming Trays

Warming trays are a small appliance specifically designed to keep foods hot during events. The trays are small, flat surfaces that provide a heated area where food can be placed. Food items can either be placed directly onto the heated surface to keep warm, or can be placed into serving dishes or pans that are then placed on the heated surface.

Slow Cookers

Slow cookers can be a great appliance to cook a variety of party foods, and they can also be used to keep those foods hot during a party! Once foods are fully cooked either using the slow cooker or another cooking method, the slow cooker can be placed on the “low” or “warm” setting. These settings will keep foods above the necessary 140°F.

*The slow cooker must remain plugged in in order to keep a safe hot temperature!

With all of these options, stir food occasionally to evenly distribute the heat and prevent the food from burning.

Keeping Cold Foods Cold:

Ice Baths

Ice baths are a great option for keeping cold items cold at a party. To prepare an ice bath, fill a pan or bowl with ice and place a container with food on top so it is resting on the ice. It is important to monitor the ice bath by draining off the water as ice melts and replacing the ice as needed.

Smaller Portions

In addition to ice baths, another option for keeping foods cold is to put out smaller portions of cold items at a time. By putting out a smaller portion of cold foods, this reduces the amount of food that an ice bath has to keep or the amount that will be on a 2-hour timer.

If you have a question about keeping food safe at your holiday gatherings, call 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854). Hours of operation are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, Eastern Time. You can also listen to food safety messages on various topics, recorded in English and Spanish, 24 hours a day. You can also email or chat via Ask Karen and Pregúntele a Karen.

Category/Topic: Health and Safety