What happens if you leave your leftover cooked ribs out on the counter all night? Is it still okay to eat them as long as you reheat them first?
Despite what you may have heard—or what you’ve done in the past—the answer is no. We’re here to tell you why.
Cooked Ribs Left Out Overnight
It’s not a good idea to eat ribs—or any meat products—that have been allowed to sit at room temperature for longer than 2 hours. Doing so increases your risk of contracting a food-borne illness. To prevent this possibility, discard any leftovers that have been sitting out overnight.
How Long Can Cooked Food Sit Out Before Going Bad?
When cooked food sits at room temperature, it enters the “danger zone” between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Here’s what that means.
The bacteria that are responsible for causing food-borne illness thrive within this temperature range. If you allow cooked meat to remain within the danger zone for too long, you dramatically increase the risk of getting sick from the food.
To prevent this possibility, always refrigerate cooked meats within 2 hours. When the ambient temperature is extremely hot—over 90 degrees—you should refrigerate the food within one hour.
Can You Eat Cooked Ribs Left Out Overnight?
No. If the ribs were left out for longer than a couple of hours, then you should discard the leftovers. Even if the meat looks and smells fine, it spent too long in the danger zone for you to risk eating it.
Bear in mind that the meat isn’t necessarily spoiled just because it sat out for a few hours. However, the dangerous bacteria aren’t visible to the naked eye. There’s no way to tell whether the meat is still safe to consume, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Will Reheating The Ribs Make Them Safe To Eat?
Unfortunately not. There are certain bacteria—such as staphylococcus aureus, sometimes shortened to staph—that form heat-resistant toxins. That means that reheating them won’t ensure safety.
Again, there’s no way to test for these bacteria or toxins beforehand. The only way to tell whether the food is infected is to consume it and wait to see if someone gets sick. For obvious reasons, this isn’t a feasible option.
What About Uncooked Ribs?
You need to follow the same guidelines for raw ribs that you would for cooked ribs. Regardless of whether the meat is cooked or raw, it should be refrigerated at a temperature below 40 degrees Fahrenheit within a 2-hour window.
This is why it’s important to thaw ribs in the refrigerator or in a cold water bath. Many people think it’s acceptable to speed things along by leaving frozen meat on the counter to thaw. In truth, this is a hazardous practice that increases the risk of food-borne illness.
How To Store Leftover Ribs
If you’re lucky enough to have some ribs left over after your guests are finished gorging themselves, proper storage is key.
Once the ribs have had a chance to cool, wrap them tightly in foil or plastic wrap. Add the wrapped ribs to a shallow container with a tight-fitting lid. After sealing the container, place it on the lowest shelf of the fridge, toward the back.
How Long Do Cooked Ribs Keep In The Fridge?
When stored in this fashion, the cooked ribs should remain fresh for 3 to 4 days. For best results, reheat them according to one of the methods outlined below.
If you think you won’t get a chance to reheat and enjoy the ribs within that time frame, try freezing them instead. Properly wrapped and sealed ribs should maintain their quality when stored in the freezer for up to 3 months. After that, they might start to dry out.
How To Reheat Leftover Ribs
On The Grill
The best way to reheat ribs is to put them back on the grill to give them a second dose of smoky goodness. It’s also a fairly quick method if you use a gas or pellet-fueled unit, though a charcoal grill will take a while to preheat.
To start, turn the grill up to high. Let it preheat while you take the ribs out of the fridge. They should sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes while the grill heats up.
After the half-hour waiting period, slather the ribs with barbecue sauce. Alternatively, you can drizzle them with leftover pork juices or simply splash a few drops of water onto each side of the rack.
Your next step is to wrap the ribs in foil. Don’t wrap them too tightly—you want to give them a little bit of breathing room, since you’ll be using a higher temp than you did for the original smoke.
When you’re ready to put the ribs on the grill, turn the heat down to medium. Heat the rack for 4 to 5 minutes, then flip the package over. Continue to barbecue the wrapped ribs for another 4 to 5 minutes, or until they’re heated through.
Speaking of which—the ribs are considered fully reheated when they achieve an internal temperature of 140-145 degrees Fahrenheit. This gets them out of the danger zone and allows you to enjoy the meat without burning your mouth.
In The Oven
If the weather isn’t cooperating—or if you’d just prefer to reheat the ribs indoors—then the oven is another reliable method.
For this technique, you’ll want to mimic the low-and-slow treatment that you applied to the ribs originally. This allows the meat to retain its moisture while reheating to your desired temperature.
Take the ribs out of the fridge about 30 minutes before you plan to begin. This will allow them to reheat more evenly.
While you wait, set the oven to 225 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s the ideal temperature for warming the meat without overcooking it.
Set the ribs on a sheet of aluminum foil. Add a coating of barbecue sauce, if you served the ribs with sauce originally. For dry-rubbed ribs, use a sprinkling of leftover pork drippings, chicken stock, or plain water.
Wrap the ribs tightly in the foil. For this method, you should add a second foil layer to keep the moisture from escaping as the ribs reheat.
Place the package in the oven and close the door. Let the ribs heat up for about 30 minutes, depending on what type of ribs you used. Spare ribs, which are thicker and fattier, will need more time in the oven than leaner loin back ribs.
Once the ribs are heated to 140-145 degrees, remove the foil wrapper. Add more sauce, if desired, and serve hot.
Can You Eat Ribs Cold?
Sure. As long as the meat was cooked to a safe temperature and refrigerated within the proper time frame, it’s fine to enjoy the leftovers straight out of the fridge.
For us, the decision of whether or not to reheat comes down to the texture. If the meat has a decent amount of “chew” to it, then we prefer eating the ribs cold. On the other hand, we think exceptionally tender rib meat is better when it’s reheated.
Flavor also plays a role. In order to enjoy a cold leftover rib, it has to taste amazing on its own. You can add another layer of sauce if you’d like, we think barbecue sauce tastes better when it’s warm.
The Bottom Line
It’s disappointing to wake up and discover that you forgot to refrigerate your leftover ribs. However, it would be more than disappointing if you—or anyone—got sick as a result of ignoring basic food safety considerations.
Look on the bright side: You might have to discard this batch of ribs, but that’s all the more reason to fire up the smoker again soon. Maybe the next round will taste even better—and this time, you’ll remember to store the leftovers properly.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!