Of all the elements you have to think about when putting together an event, the most crucial -- if not the most exciting -- is food safety. Keeping perishable foods safe to eat while they're sitting out at room temperature can be tricky, but it's worth the effort to ensure your guests don't go home with a foodborne illness. Several strategies can help keep cold cuts cold, and a little planning will make the job easier.
Principles of Food Safety
One of the cardinal rules of food safety is to keep cold food cold and hot food hot. The purpose of this is to keep food out of the danger zone -- between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature range in which harmful bacteria can grow and multiply on food. Further, foods should not be kept at room temperature for more than two hours. Cold cuts in particular can harbor Staphylococcus -- staph -- and listeria bacteria, which makes proper handling of these foods especially important.
Put It On Ice
When putting cold cuts on a buffet, it is essential to do two things: keep them cold and start your timer. For a large, shallow tray of meats, you can fill a deeper, larger tray with ice and set the cold cut tray on top of the ice; drain the water as the ice begins to melt and replace with more ice as needed. While this should be enough to keep the meat cold, you must return the meat to the refrigerator before two hours have elapsed or throw it out.
A Rotating Buffet
If you plan to leave your buffet open for more than two hours, divide your cold cuts onto separate serving platters and keep one platter out at a time -- on ice, of course -- while the others remain in the refrigerator. Replace with a fresh platter as it empties or by the time two hours have elapsed, whichever comes first. Do not use the old platter to serve fresh cold cuts as bacteria may have begun to grow and could contaminate the new batch.
If your even is on a particularly hot day -- 90 F or above -- food should be kept at room temperature for only one hour. Keep in mind that the type of bacteria that causes foodborne illness is different than the type that cause food to spoil, which means even if the food looks and smells fine, it still may harbor harmful bacteria. Finally, starting with cleans hands, tools and serving platters, as well as preventing cross-contamination during all stages of preparation and service, are just as essential to preventing foodborne illness at events.
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