What Is the Food Temperature Danger Zone?

Dealing with food poisoning is a really uncomfortable situation. In general, food-borne germs that have been allowed to proliferate are to blame. However, allowing these germs to remain in an environment where they may keep expanding and reproducing is one of the riskiest things you can do.

The risk of food poisoning can be decreased by using the right preparation and storage techniques. Food poisoning is frequently caused by leaving perishables outside in a hazard zone.

What Is the Temperature Danger Zone?

The temperature danger zone is a term that refers to a range of temperatures where bacteria thrive and multiply quickly.

While the temperature ranges from 40 degrees Fahrenheit to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, the bacteria colonies could multiply every 20 minutes.

Many different types of bacteria can be found in our surroundings; a few main culprits are at fault for food poisoning: Staphylococcus, E-coli, Listeria, Campylobacter, and Salmonella.

The most hazardous bacteria to human health is Salmonella. Combined with the other dangerous bacteria, they are responsible for causing over 9.4 million cases of food poisoning in 2011. The Center for Disease Control reports 55,961 hospitalized patients and 1,351 death cases. Older people and children were recorded in the highest numbers.

How can you keep food out of the danger zone?

Photo credit: foodhygienecompany  

The most basic rule to keep food out of the danger zone is to keep cold food cold and hot food hot!

Keep the Cold Foods Cold

It’s important to keep refrigerated food at a safe temperature and maintain your cold foods below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Defrosting a steak or thawing a chicken on the counter is a surefire way to get your food into the danger zone.

Freezing or refrigerating your meal doesn’t eliminate any of the germs that may have developed on it. In fact, freezing only sets them in hibernating mode and prepares them to survive in a frozen state.

When the temperature is suitable for thrive mode, these germs can become active again.

The safest way to defrost is to place your food in the refrigerator overnight.

Keep the Hot Foods Hot

Resting the food after cooking can compromise its safety by leaving it in the danger zone.

If you’ll be serving the meal later, keep it warm (above 140 degrees Fahrenheit) by placing it in a slow cooker or warming drawer.

If safety is your biggest concern, serving the food right after it is ready is the best option.

How to Store Food Safely?

When it comes to food storage, we should adhere to the two-hour rule. The food that requires refrigeration should not sit out at room temperature for more than two hours before being put back in the refrigerator or cooked.

At 90 degrees Fahrenheit or above, the two-hour limit is reduced to one hour.

When you have a lot of leftover food, it is best to split it into smaller portions that are easier to cool down quickly.

If you’re cooking in advance for a large group, the safest option is to refrigerate the food as soon as possible.

Before placing food in the refrigerator, seal it in an airtight container or wrap it tightly with plastic wrap.

Do not overcrowd your refrigerator; this would further slow the cooling process down. Just make sure that you never reuse food containers for storing leftovers since they are difficult to clean and can encourage bacteria growth.

Here are some storage recommendations for food safety:

  • Make sure your refrigerator temperature is correctly set. This means the refrigerator section should be at 40° Fahrenheit, and the freezer section should be at 0° Fahrenheit.
  • Do not keep pre-prepared meals in the fridge for an extended time because germs like Listeria may still form.
  • Avoid foods that have an unusual smell or color or that are slimy, fuzzy, or have mold growing on the surface. This is an indication that the food has gone bad. It is best to throw it out.
  • Remember that foods that look and smell fine could also be contaminated, so you cannot rely only on sight or smell alone to determine if the food is safe.
  • Store any type of food in a clean and dry place.
  • Store raw and cooked foods separately. Avoid cross-contamination; this means using separate cutting boards and utensils for raw meat and other ingredients while cooking.
  • You can safely store smoked food in the freezer for up to three months. However, in the fridge, it would last 4-5 days.

The misconception that you can’t keep hot food in the fridge is outdated. Only very hot, freshly cooked food shouldn’t be refrigerated.

When you need to store freshly cooked food immediately, it is best to use an ice bath.

How to Use an Ice Bath

  • An ice bath is a container with cold water and ice cubes in it.
  • Find a container big enough for your food and fill it in half with ice.
  • After cooking, put the food in a waterproof plastic bag and submerge it in the ice. Make sure no water gets into the waterproof bag and ruins your food.
  • You can use an instant-read thermometer to monitor the temperature of the food, and once it falls below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, you can put it in the refrigerator.

What is the ideal freezing temperature for food?

  • The ideal temperature for storing food in the freezer is 0 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Make sure your freezer is set correctly to the lowest setting before you start freezing your food. This means that the freezer section of your refrigerator should be set to 0 degrees Fahrenheit, while the fridge section needs to be at 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • We recommend you use airtight containers to store food in the freezer because this would prevent ice crystals from forming and the freezer burning your food.
  • When you are storing pre-cooked food for a longer time period, use the sub-zero setting of your refrigerator.
  • It’s also vital to remember that bacteria are unaffected by freezing. Instead, they simply cease to proliferate.
  • Use a fridge thermometer to ensure your refrigerator is at the correct temperature.

How to Reheat Food Safely?

It’s important to safely reheat food because, unlike freezing, temperatures above 165° F will kill bacteria.

According to USDA, when cooking poultry, the internal temperature should reach at least 165° F. This is the minimum temperature to kill the Salmonella that occurs naturally in the bird’s juices.

Quick refrigerating, combined with safely reheating your food, is the best way to ensure your food is safe to eat.

Holding different types of foods

Different foods have varying cooking periods. To serve them all at once, we must hold the quicker-cooking foods outside of the temperature danger zone.

In that case, using slow cookers, warming racks, preheated steam tables, chafing dishes, and microwaves are ideal.

FAQ about Food Safety

Will food start to spoil at 40 degrees F?

Yes, when your food reaches 40° F, the two-hour rule applies. This is the maximum amount of time to either cook the food or refrigerate it at a lower temperature.

What is the two-hour rule?

When food stays at 40° F for more than 2 hours, this is when your food starts to spoil because bacteria begins growing exponentially. This rule becomes the one-hour rule if the room temperature is 90° F or above.

What Kinds of Bacteria are Found in the Fridge?

The refrigerator is home to Listeria, Salmonella, Campylobacter, Clostridium perfringens, and Staphylococcus.

How long is the food safe in the fridge during a power outage?

Photo credit: CDC

According to the USDA, with minimum door openings, the food in the fridge should be safe to eat for about four hours.

In the freezer, the food should last up to 48 hours.

What are the signs that your food is spoiling?

The most common signs of spoiled food are a bad smell, slimy texture, or a bulging package. If the food smells really unusual, it should be thrown away immediately.

The safest way is to follow the two-hour rule and cook and eat your food within two hours of taking it out of the refrigerator.

Here’s a list of the foods that are better to be thrown out if kept for more than two hours at 40° F or above.


Food poisoning can be fatal if the symptoms are ignored. The sooner you take action against it, the better chances you have to stop it from getting worse.

The best way to prevent food poisoning is by keeping the cold food cold and the hot food hot.

Always avoid the food temperature danger zone of 40° F to 140° F. This is where most bacteria will grow and cause food poisoning.

Take note of how to handle food at the correct temperatures and keep your family safe from potentially fatal food poisoning.

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