How Long Can You Hold Hot Foods?

A discussion occurred between coworkers at a restaurant, on how long could chili be held? Could it be refrigerated and served the next day? What was safe to serve, and to eat?

This was reported on the website, by Dr. Jonathan Deutsch. He gave an example of high school concessions that served hot dogs all day, and then refrigerated the leftovers to serve the next day. As the doctor said, “Safe to eat? Probably. Disgusting? Definitely.”

For restaurants, you need to follow your state and local Municipal health codes. But these can vary. Conventional wisdom tells us four hours is the maximum time to hold hot, prepared foods. Yet many businesses do not follow this guideline.

There are really two interrelated concerns: A) Food Quality and B) Food Safety.

In the example of chili, it tends to be more resilient to hot holding than foods like cream-based sauces, lean proteins or vegetables. Remember that hot holding is still cooking the food, albeit very slowly, which can cause changes in food quality from overcooking and drying.

From a safety perspective, 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.”

Technically that means the chili in the example, 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 if you are trying to offer quality and good-tasting food, should the chili be served?

Proper temperatures can be a great safety tool to help insure food safety and prevent customers from becoming ill. But to keep customers returning, food quality needs to be more than just safe. Furthermore, the more opportunity you have to accidently have food enter the Danger Zone as far food safety is concerned, the more likely it is that accidents will happen.

For Food Quality and Food Safety, the four-hour guideline is still the best practice. Because regulations can vary from location to location, know your local health department requirements to be sure you are compliant.