We’ve known for quite some time that the longer cooked rice is left out at room temperature, the more likely it is that bacteria will make the rice unsafe to eat. This is because uncooked rice contains spores of bacteria that can survive even after the rice has cooked.
Aware of this, kitchen staff in senior living communities and long-term facilities should ensure that rice is served as quickly as possible after cooking should discard any leftover rice. Reheating the rice will not necessarily kill the bacteria, so it should not be served later or used as a leftover.
But rice is not the only food item that can pose a health risk, potentially resulting in severe food poisoning if it is left out too long. This also can happen with meat, fish, chicken and even vegetables; very often, some of the most serious problems arise when just-cooked food is left out to cool.
Senior living executive directors and skilled nursing administrators must take this situation — the cooling of food after cooking — very seriously. This is because “elderly people, people with weak immune systems, diabetes or kidney problems are … at increased risk of complications from food poisoning,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Invariably, food does have to cool before serving. Further, if large amounts of food are cooked at one time, with the intention of putting the food in the refrigerator or freezer, then it, too, has to be cooled first before going into cold storage.
Placing food in the fridge too quickly can cause food to spoil by rising temperatures in the refrigerator or freezer; this, in turn, can cause bacteria to develop in other food items being stored. It also can cause condensation and water to pool in the refrigerator, which is conducive to the development of bacteria and mold.
So, is there a guide kitchen staffers can use to help ensure we do not chill food too quickly or leave it out too long after cooking, potentially causing food poisoning? What is viewed as a “rule of thumb” is to leave food out to cool no longer than two hours after cooking. If it is a very hot day or a very hot kitchen, then we should leave the food out no more than an hour.
Because food poisoning can be so dangerous, especially for older people or those with health issues, however, according to Dr. O’Connor, do we really want to trust their health to a “rule of thumb?” And who, in a busy kitchen, has the time to just keep watching the clock?
Fortunately, we can take steps to help ensure that the food left out to cool is safe to eat or store in refrigerators. Among them:
- Because senior living and long-term care facilities may need to cook large amounts of food at one time to be served throughout the course of a week, an option to consider is to use what is called a blast chiller. These systems blow chilled air over food, cooling the food and reducing quickly and reducing the possibility of bacteria from developing.
- A less expensive option is to just cook food in smaller portions. Food cools more quickly in smaller amounts.
- Place pots and pans containing just-cooked food in cold water to speed the cooling process.
- If preparing a soup or liquid food item, take it off the burner and continue stirring it. This will help cool the food and cool it more evenly.
- If available, move just-cooked food to a cooler location. Some commercial kitchens have a “cold larder” area where food can be left to cool.
- Select ovens that have a “cool” setting.