If hot holding isn’t difficult, how do we get ourselves into trouble? by Mark Barnes

As the CDC says, holding food at improper temperatures is one of the five most significant causal factors of food-borne illness in our country. This matters because food-borne illness is a real problem in the US, with an estimated 48 million cases of food-borne illness each year! That number is HUGE, equating to about 15% of our population contracting a food-borne illness EVERY. SINGLE. YEAR. Compare that with the UK, where the population gets sick at a rate of 1.5% annually from food-borne illness, and you see there’s significant room for improvement. When it comes to holding food safely, we use the phrase “keep hot foods hot and keep cold foods cold,” or more quantifiably, keep cold foods at 41°F or below and keep hot foods at 135°F or above.

While it can be challenging to keep cold foods at 41°F or lower without freezing the food, as long as your hot food is above 135°F the range of acceptable temperature values is much broader than for cold food. This, in theory, should make hot holding easier and my own anecdotal experience in commercial food service operations supports that theory. So, if hot holding isn’t that difficult to do safely, how do we get ourselves into trouble?

A common danger to food safety arises when using hot holding equipment as cooking equipment. Say, for example, you have a steam table setup in the kitchen for sauces, sides and other items that you need to keep hot throughout service. Before dinner starts, it’s a cook’s job to setup that steam table, perhaps reheating yesterday’s leftover sauces while prepping new sauces and sides as necessary. The treatment of yesterday’s sauces can be a problem. It’s not uncommon to see the cook pull those sauces out of the refrigerator and put them directly into the steam table completely cold, i.e. using the steam table (hot holding equipment) as cooking equipment. The Food Code tells us those sauces need to be reheated to 165°F within two hours before we can hold them hot at 135°F or above. Placing a cold pan of sauce into a piece of equipment designed to hold food at 135°F is never “reheating” that sauce to 165°F, let alone within two hours. Long story short, cooking and reheating of foods should be done with actual cooking equipment, only after the food is properly cooked or reheated can hot holding equipment be used to maintain 135°F or above.

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