After you’ve taken your succulent grilled or smoked meat off the heat, how long do you have before you have to refrigerate it? This isn’t just a matter of curiosity—if the food is left out at room temperature for too long, it won’t be safe to consume.
This guide will tell you all you need to know about this important food safety issue, including how long you can expect the meat to keep once it’s refrigerated.
How Long Can Cooked Meat Sit Out?
Whether meat is raw or cooked, it should never sit out at room temperature for longer than 2 hours. If it’s left out too long, it won’t be safe to eat. In fact, if the temperature outside exceeds 80 degrees, you should be sure to refrigerate meat products after just 1 hour.
Why It Matters
You might wonder why it’s so important to refrigerate the meat after it’s cooked. After all, exposing the meat to high temperatures destroys hazardous bacteria. While that’s certainly true, leaving meat out at room temperature can invite a host of other problems.
Bacteria breeds rapidly at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s one of the reasons why it’s crucial to check the internal temps of large cuts of meat during the early stages of long smoking processes.
Although cooking the meat to a safe internal temp will kill off pathogens such as salmonella and E. coli, these bacteria (among others) will have a chance to repopulate if the meat is left unrefrigerated for too long.
If you consume meat that’s been contaminated with these bacteria, you may develop food poisoning. Symptoms can range from mild stomach discomfort to vomiting, fever, stomach cramps, and diarrhea. Food poisoning can be even more serious if left untreated.
Don’t be tempted to assume that reheating the meat will eliminate the danger. The bacteria will leave behind toxins that are resistant to heat. It’s never safe to consume meat that’s been left out at room temperature for extended periods of time.
How Long Can Cooked Meat Sit Out at Room Temperature?
So, how long do you have before the meat is rendered unsafe? Fortunately, you have a fairly large window. It’s permissible to leave cooked meat at room temperature for up to 2 hours, although you should shorten this to just 1 hour if it’s really hot outside.
In case you were wondering, the same rules apply to raw meat. It’s common practice to let steaks and pork chops come to room temperature for a while before putting them on the grill, and that’s fine. Just make sure they hit the grill before the 2-hour mark.
How Long To Let Meat Rest
You should never neglect the resting period. This is one of the most critical stages in the cooking process, as it allows the meat’s juices to settle right where you want them. What’s more, resting the meat brings the internal temperature up a few degrees, thanks to carryover cooking.
The length of the resting period depends on what cut of meat you’re dealing with. For example, smaller steaks and chicken breasts only need to rest for about 5 minutes. Beef brisket, pork butt, and whole turkeys can rest for up to 45 minutes without ill effect.
How To Keep Food Out of the Danger Zone
If you’re hosting a party and expect it to go on for several hours, there are ways to keep both hot and cold foods from straying into the danger zone.
Your best bet for hot foods—such as pulled pork and shredded beef brisket—is to put the meat in a slow cooker. Set it on a table next to an electrical outlet, so you can plug in the slow cooker and set it to low. That way, the meat will remain above 140 degrees.
If you have access to chafing dishes, that’s another option. Also known as steam pans, these units keep food warm via a heated pan of water that’s set beneath the dish used to hold the food. Some may require electricity, but most rely on Sterno to heat the water.
What if you’re serving potato or pasta salad that needs to be kept below 40 degrees? Try filling a large bowl with ice, then draping a clean kitchen towel over the ice and setting a smaller bowl containing the salad on top of that.
How Long Does Cooked Meat Last in the Fridge?
When storing leftovers, make sure to wrap them tightly beforehand. This will prevent air and moisture from getting into the package, thereby ensuring that the meat will last longer.
Airtight plastic containers are a great option as long as you pack them tightly. The key is to keep as much air out of the container as possible. Sturdy zip-top bags are another possibility, especially if you plan on freezing the leftovers (see section below).
Keep all meat products on a lower shelf of the refrigerator. Push them back toward the rear to help keep them cold. When stored in this manner, most cooked meat products should retain their best qualities for 3 to 4 days.
How Long Does Cooked Meat Last in the Freezer?
Don’t have time to enjoy the leftovers within a few days? Put the containers in the freezer instead. That will buy you another 2 to 3 months, although in theory, the meat will keep indefinitely once frozen because bacteria can’t grow at subzero temperatures.
The reason you’ll want to thaw the meat sooner rather than later is because long stints in the freezer can result in dry leftovers. This is a concern especially if you notice any ice patches forming on the meat, as this phenomenon leads to freezer burn.
Before putting the wrapped meat in the freezer, label the packages with today’s date and the contents. That way, you’ll know exactly what you’re defrosting, as well as how long it’s been in the freezer.
The best way to defrost meat products is to keep them in the fridge. You can thaw them in cold water if you need to speed things along. Alternatively, it’s fine to reheat frozen leftovers without thawing them first, but it will take a bit longer for them to heat up.
What About Cured Meats?
Cured meats have been treated with special salts to extend their shelf life. In some cases, they don’t even require refrigeration. Summer sausage, for example, is shelf stable, meaning it can keep at room temperature for several weeks or more.
The truth is, however, that cured meats will last even longer if you keep them in the fridge. The lower temps will slow bacterial growth. When kept at temperatures between 33 and 38 degrees, an unopened package of summer sausage can keep for up to 6 months.
If you don’t have room in the refrigerator, at least try to keep your shelf stable cured meats in a cool, dry place. Freezing them is also a possibility, although this option is less appealing considering how long the meat lasts in the first place.
Dehydrated meat products like beef jerky don’t require refrigeration either, even if they haven’t been cured. The dehydrating process removes enough moisture from the meat to make it shelf stable. That said, jerky will also keep longer when refrigerated.
The Bottom Line
If you forget to refrigerate your leftovers after 2 hours have passed, your only recourse is to throw them away. It’s disappointing, but unfortunately, there’s no way to tell whether the meat is contaminated with toxins just by looking at it. It might not even smell any different.
Keep an eye on the clock when you’re serving your feast. It’s better to put the cooked meat away and reheat it later than to risk food poisoning.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!