Some cooks have a rather cavalier attitude to leaving raw meats on their counter, reasoning that people did it for centuries before refrigeration was invented. Others are militant about keeping their meats refrigerated until the very last possible second. Safe food handling falls in between those extremes. The USDA's food safety guidelines allow for up to two hours at room temperature.
Time and Temperature
The food safety guidelines published by organizations such as the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration usually focus on two main points. The first is the importance of cleanliness, including good hand-washing technique and the use of clean, sanitary utensils and work surfaces. The second is the effect of time and temperature, usually making reference to the food safety "danger zone." Those are temperatures between 40 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, where bacterial activity is highest.
That's important because few dangerous microorganisms, or pathogens, can make you ill until they establish a large and active population. The number needed -- referred to as the "infective dose" -- can range from just a few dozen to several million, depending on the pathogen. At temperatures below 40 F most pathogens are sluggish, and won't reproduce quickly. At over 140 F they die or go into hibernation, and also don't reproduce. They can only create dangerous populations quickly and easily between those temperatures.
There are a few perfectly good reasons for raw meats to sit out at room temperature. Thick steaks and chops cook more evenly if they're allowed to come to room temperature before they're grilled. Often meats must be sliced, diced, rubbed with spices, marinated, deboned or prepared for cooking in some other way. All of that time counts toward the two-hour limit. Organ meats are especially perishable and can sometimes develop off tastes in less than that time, so it's advisable to keep them refrigerated whenever possible.
A Few Concerns
Although leaving raw meats out at room temperature is sometimes appropriate, it's important to always follow good food safety habits. Cover the meats to prevent them being contaminated by insects, pets or curious children. Always handle raw meats with gloves on, or with freshly washed hands and clean, sanitary utensils. Keep raw meats separate from cooked meats, vegetables and other foods. If they should bleed onto your counter or other work surface, scrub it with hot soapy water or clean it with food-safe antibacterial wipes.
- On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen; Harold McGee
- USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service: How Temperatures Affect Food
- Photo Credit Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images