Please let me know how long you can leave freshly cooked food out at room temperature, i.e. turkey, roast beef. I was told by a friend that you must either freeze or refrigerate immediately because bacteria builds up immediately.--Annette
This is probably the post I get the most comments on, and most of them are "I hate to waste food." Just in case the message below isn't clear, do not risk you health or that of others to save a few dollars. Throw out any food that has been left in the temperature range below for more than 2 hours. -- Dave
The general rule of thumb is that the time the food spends between 140°F (60°C) and 40°F (4°C) should be no longer than two hours, total. Within this temperature range, which is often called the danger zone, bacteria can multiply at a very fast rate, doubling in number about every 20 minutes.
Because the turkey, roast, chicken or whatever, comes out of a significantly hotter environment, there is a bit of time at the start where the food is still warmer than the danger zone. On the other hand, the two hours is not the amount of time before you put the food into the refrigerator or freezer, but rather the total time it spends in the danger zone, since the food may still be warmer than 40°F (4°C) when you put it away.
In fact, your friend may be creating a different risk all together if they are putting the food into the fridge or freezer immediately. If it is too warm, heat from the food being put away may raise the temperature within the fridge or freezer high enough to increase bacterial growth on food that is already there. This is especially true for anything that is either touching or just close to the food that was just put in, as it will be the most likely to get warmed up. This lesson I know from personal experience -- and not a fun one!
The best approach is to leave the food covered with foil or plastic on the counter until it has cooled down until it is just warm to the touch and then put it away. In practical terms, this means you can probably eat supper while the food is cooling down. If you enjoy long slow meals and sit at the table for hours on end, put the food away between courses.
Sometimes it may be necessary to speed up cooling in order to avoid having food sit in the danger zone too long. When making larger batches of soup, for example, I will frequently place the stockpot full of soup into my kitchen sink and run cold water around it. To speed things up even further, I keep a couple of large plastic pop bottles filled with water in the freezer and may drop one or both of them into the surrounding water bath. If not, I drain and refill the sink as soon as the surrounding water gets warm.
Improper cooling of food is the cause of about 30% of all food borne illness and not leaving food at temperatures within the danger zone for longer than two hours is a key food safety skill.