When you’re hosting a party, you’ll want to serve grilled meats and other hot dishes as soon as possible. With any luck, they’ll be gone before you need to worry about leftovers. But just how long can cooked pork sit out at room temperature and still be safe to eat?
How Long Can Cooked Pork Sit Out?
As a general rule, cooked pork should be refrigerated within two hours. If it sits at room temperature for any longer than that, it might invite dangerous bacteria. Additionally, you should always make sure to cook pork to a safe internal temperature before serving it.
How To Handle Pork Safely
You might be surprised to learn that pork is the most popular animal protein in terms of global consumption. The meat is mild enough to lend itself well to many flavor combinations, and there are enough different cuts available to keep things interesting.
Most fresh pork will keep in the refrigerator for three to four days. One exception is ground pork, which should be cooked and eaten within two days.
If you’re purchased raw pork and don’t plan on cooking it within these recommended time frames, it’s best to transfer it to the freezer. Plan on defrosting and cooking frozen pork within three months. For more information on defrosting, see the separate section below.
Anytime you’ve stored fresh pork in the refrigerator, check the meat for freshness before cooking it. If the pork has an “off” smell, or if the flesh is sticky or slimy, or if the meat is discolored, then it’s no longer safe to consume and should be thrown out.
To defrost frozen pork, set it in a baking dish on the lowest shelf of the refrigerator for at least 24 hours. As an alternative, you can put well-sealed pork in a cold water bath until the meat has thawed completely. You can also defrost pork in the microwave, but if you do, the meat needs to be cooked and consumed right away.
Also, know that you don’t have to defrost leftovers at all. While we definitely recommend doing so if time allows, it’s safe to cook pork even if it hasn’t been thawed out in advance. Just remember that frozen meat will take about 50 percent longer to cook.
We should also add that you should never use the slow-cooker method to cook frozen pork. The meat won’t have a chance to thaw evenly as it cooks, meaning that some parts might remain frozen while the others have cooked through. Moreover, at low temperatures, the pork will remain in the “danger zone” for too long (see the section below for more details).
Refreezing Thawed Pork
Let’s say you’ve taken the pork out of the freezer and allowed it to thaw in the fridge for a day or two, then decided not to cook it after all. Is it safe to refreeze the meat at this point?
In a word, yes. The USDA claims that raw pork can be safely refrozen as long as it’s been thawed in the refrigerator. On the other hand, if you’ve used the cold water method, it’s best to cook it as soon as possible. Meat that has been thawed in the microwave will also need to be cooked off immediately.
Be aware that twice-frozen pork might turn out a bit too dry, owing to the moisture loss that’s incurred during the thaw. To combat this issue, try marinating the pork for several hours before cooking it.
The USDA recommends cooking pork to an internal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit. Lean cuts shouldn’t be cooked beyond this point, or the meat may dry out.
Tougher cuts that contain a lot of fat and connective tissue, meanwhile, should cook for a lot longer to give the meat a chance to tenderize. Pork butt, for example, is at its best when it’s cooked to at least 195 degrees. At this temperature, the meat is tender enough to fall apart when you prod it with a fork, making it the best option for pulled pork.
To test the pork for doneness, use an instant-read thermometer with a digital display. These will give you a fast, accurate readout. Make sure to insert the probe at the meat’s thickest point, and take care not to touch any fat or bone when you do.
Use a glass cutting board when preparing raw meats, and keep it away from any other dishes until you’ve had a chance to wash it. Ditto for any knives or other utensils that have come into contact with the raw pork. Make sure to use separate plates and utensils when it’s time to serve the cooked meat.
The Danger Zone
Cold food should always be kept at temperatures at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, while cooked foods need to be kept at 140 degrees or higher. In the “danger zone” between these two extremes, the food can attract food-borne pathogens that make it unfit for consumption.
If you wake up the morning after your party to find that you’ve forgotten to refrigerate your leftovers, don’t be tempted to try and salvage your mistake by reheating them. In the 40 to 140-degree range, toxic bacteria can grow at an alarming rate.
What’s more, these bacteria aren’t killed off when the food is reheated, so the only safe course of action is to discard the leftovers. Even if it looks and smells good enough to eat, it may still be harboring toxins that could cause serious illness.
How Long Can Cooked Pork Sit Out at Room Temperature?
Always refrigerate any leftover pork within two hours of taking it off the heat. Otherwise, the meat will be prone to dangerous food-borne bacteria that will make it unsafe to eat.
One caveat: If it’s any hotter than 90 degrees outside, the meat will enter the danger zone much more quickly. At these temperatures, you’ll want to stick the meat in the refrigerator within the hour.
Remember that small pieces of meat will cool off more quickly than large cuts. When you’re serving baby back ribs or pork chops, it’s a good idea to put them in a warm serving dish so that they hold their heat longer.
You can take this step while the meat rests. After removing the meat from the grill, find an oven-safe pan or plate that’s large enough to hold all the meat in a single layer. Heat it in a 300 degree oven for 5 to 10 minutes. When the pork is ready, transfer it to the heated dish.
If you’ve used the faux Cambro method to keep a large cut of meat warm, the time it spends in the Cambro shouldn’t be included in the two hours. That’s because the insulation keeps it at a safe temperature for a longer period of time.
On the other hand, if you’ve wrapped a pork butt in foil and let it rest for an hour, then it should be refrigerated at some point within the next hour. When you’re making a big batch of pulled pork, it’s a good idea to enlist at least one other person to help you shred the meat so that the job goes more quickly.
How To Store Cooked Pork
Once it’s time to refrigerate the pork, place it in a shallow container. It’s fine to stack the meat in more than one layer. In fact, this will prevent too much air from circulating around the pork, which will help keep it fresh.
Refrigerate the pork at 40 degrees or below. Always consume any leftovers within 4 to 5 days. If they smell sour or are showing any other signs of spoilage, discard them right away.
About Freezing Cooked Pork
Like raw pork products, any leftover cooked meat can be safely kept in the freezer for up to 3 months. If you leave it in the freezer any longer, the pork may begin to lose its flavor and texture.
You can use coated freezer paper to help preserve the pork during storage. Make sure the waxed side is pressed firmly against the meat. If you don’t have any freezer paper on hand, use heavy-duty aluminum foil or zip-top plastic bags. Always write the date and the name of the pork product on the wrapper to help you identify the leftovers later on.
In order to maintain the integrity of your leftovers–as well as your own physical well-being–make sure to refrigerate them promptly. Of course, the best way to avoid this issue is to make pork that’s so tasty, it will disappear from the table within the two-hour window anyway.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!