In commercial foodservice, understanding food safety temperatures is crucial to protecting your guests from foodborne illness. All operators and food handlers are responsible for recognizing the importance of the temperature danger zone and should be educated to perform established food safety procedures. Keep reading to learn all about the food temperature danger zone, how long food can safely stay in the danger zone, and the food safe temperature range for hot and cold food.

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What Is the Danger Zone?

The danger zone refers to the temperature range in which bacteria growth occurs most rapidly on food. According to ServSafe recommendations, food temperatures between 41 and 135 degrees Fahrenheit represent this danger zone. Bacteria can multiply at any temperature within the danger zone, but temperatures between 70 and 125 degrees Fahrenheit provide the most hospitable environment for bacteria to thrive. The longer food sits in the temperature danger zone, the greater the risk that bacteria will grow on the food.


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Why Is the Temperature Danger Zone Important?

When foods are allowed to enter the temperature danger zone, bacteria may grow to unhealthy levels and cause the food to spoil. Dangerous bacteria growth like this may occur without any visible signs that the food is unsafe for consumption. Foods may smell and appear normal, but could actually contain harmful amounts of bacteria that will cause foodborne illness.

This is what makes the temp danger zone extremely important. As a food service professional, it’s your responsibility to keep foods out of the danger zone by using approved methods to chill, heat, and store foods.

What Is Time Temperature Abuse?

Time temperature abuse is the act of allowing foods to stay in the temperature danger zone of 41 to 135 degrees Fahrenheit. Along with cross-contamination, time temperature abuse is a common source of foodborne illness. Foods may become time-temperature abused in three ways:

Foods are not held or stored at food safe temperaturesFood is not cooked or reheated to the temperature required to eliminate possible pathogensHot food is not cooled properly before being placed in cold storage

What Are TCS Foods?

TCS stands for time/temperature control safety. Foods that require strict time and temperature control are considered TCS foods. Pathogens love TCS foods because they present an ideal environment for germs to grow and spread. Preventing TCS foods from entering the danger zone and becoming time-temperature abused is a critical food safety practice. These are the high-risk TCS foods that should be closely monitored at all times:

Milk and dairy productsMeat and poultryFish, shellfish, and crustaceansShell eggsBaked potatoesCooked rice, beans, and vegetablesTofu, soy protein, or other plant-based meat alternativesSprouts and sprout seedsCut tomatoes, melons, and leafy greensUntreated garlic and oil mixturesBack to Top

How Long Can Food Stay in the Temperature Danger Zone?

ServSafe states that 4 hours is the maximum length of time ready-to-eat foods can stay in the temperature danger zone. After the 4 hour limit, foods must be thrown away. Within the 4 hour time limit, foods can be consumed, reheated, or chilled to bring them back to food safe temperatures. Checking temps every 2 hours allows for a greater window to perform any corrective actions that are necessary.

How to Keep Food Out of the Danger Zone

Kitchen thermometers are the key to keeping foods out of the temp danger zone. By monitoring and recording food temperatures regularly, you can prevent foods from becoming time-temperature abused. This is imperative while prepping, cooking, and holding food on your buffet line or salad bar.

Follow these important tips to ensure you’re making the best use of your kitchen thermometers to keep food safe for consumption.

Never rely on the temperature display of your equipment alone. Place a thermometer inside your refrigerator or freezer as an additional safety measure.Keep a written record of all temperature checks that includes the temp, the time, and the name of the operator.Clean and calibrate thermometers often.Back to Top

Food Holding Temperature

Once your food is cooked to the proper internal temperature or chilled to 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below, it’s important to maintain these safe temperatures before serving. There are a number of instances in which foodservice professionals need to hold food for extended periods of times. These instances could include holding food in salad bars and buffet lines or transporting food to off-site locations and catering events.

When transporting food, it is recommended you use a food pan carrier or insulated catering bag to ensure your hot or cold foods remain safe for consumption.

Cold Holding Temperature

The cold holding temperature for TCS foods must be at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below. Here are some tips to properly hold cold foods so they don"t fall into the danger zone:

Ensure your cold-holding equipment keeps foods at 40 degrees Fahrenheit and below.Any cold food held without refrigeration is safe for up to 6 hours, starting from the time it was removed from refrigeration at 40 degrees Fahrenheit and below.Check the temperature of cold foods every 2 hours and discard any cold food that reaches a temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.

How Cold Does a Salad Bar or Refrigerator Have to Be to Keep Food Safe?

Salad bars and refrigerators need to maintain temperatures at 40 degrees Fahrenheit and below to prevent the growth of dangerous bacteria. This is especially important as you house vulnerable TCS foods including cheese, yogurts, meats, salad dressings, and egg products.

Holding Temperature For Hot Food

The appropriate holding temp for hot foods is 135 degrees Fahrenheit or above. Here are some tips to keep hot foods out of the danger zone:

Never use hot holding equipment to reheat food. Foods should be heated to safe temperatures prior to holding. Hot holding equipment is designed to maintain current temps, not bring food up to temp.When possible, keep food covered to help maintain temperatures and keep contaminants out.Stir frequently to distribute heat throughout the food.Use the appropriate thermometer to monitor food temperatures often.Discard hot food that has been sitting below 135 degrees Fahrenheit for more than 4 hours.Never mix freshly prepared food with foods already being held for service to prevent cross contamination.

How Often Should I Check the Temperature of Hot or Cold Holding Food?

It is recommended you check the temperature of your hot or cold holding food every four hours. However, if you check every 2 hours instead, this allows enough time to take corrective action in the event that food has fallen into the danger zone. By staying on top of your food’s internal temperatures, you can prevent the spread of dangerous bacteria and eliminate food waste by simply re-heating or re-chilling the affected foods before bacteria has time to spread.

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Safe Cooking Temperatures

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To prevent the spread of salmonella, staphylococcus aureus, listeria, and other dangerous bacteria, it’s important to monitor the internal temperature of the foods you serve. Follow the recommendations below for safe cooking temperatures of common TCS foods.

Cook to 165 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 15 seconds:

Poultry, whole or groundStuffing made with poultry, meat, or fishStuffed pasta, meat, poultry, or seafoodAny dish that contains a cooked TCS food

Cook to 155 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 15 seconds:

Ground beef, pork, or other meatsFlavor-injected meatsTenderized meatsRatites (ostrich, emu)Ground, chopped, or minced seafoodEggs from the shell, held for service

Cook to 145 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 15 seconds:

SeafoodSteaks and chops (beef, pork, veal, lamb)Commercially raised gameEggs from the shell, served immediatelyRoasts of beef, pork, veal, lamb (must be cooked for at least 4 minutes)

Cook to 135 degrees Fahrenheit (no minimum time):

FruitsVegetablesRice, pasta, and other grainsLegumes

Click below to print a visual reminder of the safe cooking temperatures listed above:

Printable VersionBack to Top

What Do You Need to Know About Resting Time for Meats?

Before taking temperatures, it’s important to note the rest time of meat required when removing it from the grill, oven, or other heat source. During this time, the temperature will remain consistent or continue to rise. This process helps to destroy harmful germs.

How Do You Rapidly Cool Hot Foods?

Many institutions and large commercial kitchens prepare dishes ahead of time for maximum efficiency in their kitchen. The food is then cooled down and held until service. When doing this, it’s important to cool the food quickly and safely so that it doesn"t linger in the danger zone for too long.

If you"re preparing food ahead of time, you must bring the temperature down to 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below within 2 hours of hitting its proper internal temperature.

Tips for Cooling Hot Foods to Food Safe Temperatures

Placing hot food directly into your refrigerator or freezer is never recommended because it endangers the food around it by raising the ambient temperature in your fridge or freezer. This creates the possibility of other foods in your refrigerator or freezer entering the temperature danger zone and developing bacteria without you even knowing. Instead, follow these tips for quickly cooling your hot foods.

Store foods in shallow containers to allow the temperature to distribute more evenly.Create an ice bath by filling a pot, container, or sink basin with ice. Containers of hot foods can be placed in the ice bath to quickly cool food to 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below.

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Cold Food Storage

In addition to holding and serving cold foods, it"s important to know how long you can store cold foods before they become unsafe for consumption. Always date label your refrigerated foods and use a first-in, first-out (FIFO) system. Use this chart as a reminder of how long items can be safely kept before they must be discarded.

Food ItemRefrigerator (40°F)Freezer (0°F)
Bacon1 week1 month
Beverages3 weeks unopened, 7-10 days opened8-12 months
Cheese - hard (Swiss)3-4 weeks6 months
Cheese - soft (brie)1 week6 months
Chicken, egg, macaroni, and tuna salad3-4 daysDo not freeze
Cottage cheese1 weekDo not freeze
Dough - cookieUse by date2 months
Dough - tube cans of rolls, biscuits, pizza doughUse by dateDo not freeze
Egg substitutes - opened3 daysDo not freeze
Egg substitutes - unopened3 days1 year
Eggs - fresh in shell3-5 weeksDo not freeze
Eggs - hard cooked1 weekDo not freeze
Fish - fatty (salmon)1-2 days2-3 months
Fish - lean (cod)1-2 days6 months
Ground meats - raw1-2 days3-4 months
Ham - fully cooked, slices3-4 days1-2 months
Ham - fully cooked, whole1 week1-2 months
Hot dogs - opened1 week1-2 months
Hot dogs - unopened2 weeks1-2 months
Luncheon meats - opened3-5 days1-2 months
Luncheon meats - unopened2 weeks1-2 months
Margarine4-5 months12 months
Mayonnaise - opened2 monthsDo not freeze
Milk1 week3 months
Poultry - cooked3-4 days2-6 months
Poultry - fresh, chicken or turkey1-2 days6 months
Prepared leftovers3-4 days2-3 months
Sausage - raw1-2 days1-2 months
Sausage - cooked1 week1-2 months
Steaks, chops, and roasts - raw3-5 days4-6 months
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It"s every food service operator"s top priority to keep the food they"re serving safe for consumption. Following these important tips and guidelines will ensure your managers and staff have the knowledge to keep food out of the danger zone, take corrective action, and keep customers safe from harmful foods.