The Dos and Don’ts of Keeping Leftovers Safe

W ay back in April I inadvertently sparked some controversy here on Stonesoup. It all started when I suggested that some roast butternut pumpkin would keep in the fridge for ‘a few weeks.’

One reader commented “No way would any food be safe to eat after a few weeks in the fridge. Yuck!”

Which sparked much debate and some disparaging remarks about my food safety knowledge. (For the record, I have a degree in Food Science, majoring in microbiology. So yes I know my Listeria from my E.coli.)

The thing I found most interesting was the observation that different people have different comfort levels around how long leftovers should keep.

I think the most important factor should be whether you feel comfortable eating something or not. Not whether it fits some generic ‘guidelines.’

After all, you know how it’s been stored, how well it was cooked in the first place, whether your fridge is cold enough. You can see if there’s any mould growth or if it looks and smells funny.

That being said, there are some actions you can take to make sure your leftovers are as safe as possible. So I’ve pulled together a quick ‘Dos and Don’ts’ list to help you adopt food safety best practices in your kitchen…

The Dos

DO put leftovers away ASAP
Bacteria love warm environments. The sooner you refrigerate or freeze your leftovers, the sooner bacteria growth will be slowed and the longer your leftovers will last. Simple.

Do cover food well
Food exposed to the air in your fridge or freezer will dry out surprisingly quickly. This doesn’t tend to be a food safety issue but it does make leftovers less appealing.

I always cover with cling wrap or transfer leftovers into containers with airtight lids. I love the glass ones from Pyrex with the blue coloured plastic lids. For freezing, best to use proper ‘freezer’ bags or zip lock bags to prevent freezer burn.

DO trust your instincts
If something smells funny, or doesn’t look the right colour or has mould or other nasties growing on it, it’s best to trust your senses and throw it out.

DO share the love
It’s important to be realistic about how many leftovers you can cope with. Better to send guests home with a little takeaway package than forcing yourself to eat the same leftovers for days.

DO properly reheat food again before eating
Just as low temperature is important to minimising bacterial growth, high temperatures are the best way to ‘kill off’ any sneaky fellas that have managed to grow.

The Don’ts

DON’T eat anything that feels unsafe
I still follow my Mum’s rule, ‘if in doubt, throw it out.’ If you feel that something is unsafe, there’s no point stressing yourself out and risking your health.

DON’T throw away perfectly good food
Just because food has passed some arbitrary guideline of being in the fridge for ‘X’ days, you don’t need to toss it automatically. If you know it’s been handled carefully and refrigerated promptly and it looks and smells fine, then in all likelihood it will be safe.

DON’T leave things sitting around at room temperature for long periods of time
I know we mentioned the ‘opposite’ of this in the ‘Dos’. But low temperatures are really one of the most important parts of keeping food safe so I wanted to stress it again.

DON’T feel like you always have to ‘obey’ best before dates
This applies more to packaged food than leftovers, but since we’re talking safety and waste, I thought I’d throw it in. If you’d like to learn more, check out my Insiders Guide to Use-by Dates.

hughs sweet potato gratin-2

Hugh’s Sweet Potato Gratin

Takes about 60 minutes.

Adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in River Cottage Veg Everyday.

Most people associate gratins with loads of cheese. As some French friends of mine pointed out recently, traditional French potato gratin is just made with potatoes and cream.

When I first mentioned this to my Irishman, he wasn’t very keen to try it. It’s definitely one of those more unusual dishes that tastes much much better than you can imagine. The salty peanut butter does a great job of contrasting the rich sweet potato.

enough for 4
1 cup double cream (or heavy whipping cream)
1 clove garlic, finely sliced
1 small red chilli, finely sliced, optional
1kg (2lb) sweet potato, scrubbed
150g (5oz) crunchy peanut butter

1. Preheat your oven to 180C (350F).

2. Mix cream, garlic and chilli, if using, in a large bowl. Season. Finely slice sweet potato into rounds.

3. Toss sweet potato slices in the cream mixture. Layer half the sweet potato over the base of an oven proof dish. Scatter over the peanut butter and finish with the remaining sweet potato.

4. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes.

5. Remove the foil and bake for another 20-30 minutes or until the sweet potato is tender and browned on top. Allow to cool a little before serving.

vegan / dairy-free – replace cream with coconut milk.

nut-free – replace the peanut butter with a few handfuls of chopped bacon or pancetta.

more Asian vibe – combine the peanut butter with a few tablespoons Thai red curry paste. And serve with lime wedges.

less Asian vibe
– skip the chilli and possibly the peanut butter too.

Video version of the recipe.

With love,
Jules x

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