Keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold is important when serving food. It’s also important to cool food before it goes into the refrigerator to be eaten later.

Follow these three easy steps to properly cool your food, avoid bacteria and help you, your friends and family LiveSafer.

Step 1: Put the food into smaller containers. For example, use a 9” x 11” glass dish or similar shallow container (or containers) to pour the food into while it is still hot. Do not fill the container more than one to two inches high with food. Shallow dishes allow the food to spread out and cool while eliminating hot spots (areas above 42˚ F / 6˚ C) where bacteria can grow. Remember to stir the food while it is cooling to release heat.

Hot foods must be cooled to 41˚ F (5˚ C) or lower within six hours.

Step 2: Put the shallow containers in the freezer or refrigerator without a lid. The most important step of proper cooling is to get the food from its heated temperature to below 70° F (21° C) within a maximum of two hours. Use an NSF International certified thermometer to test the temperature of the food during cooling and at the two-hour mark. You may do this step in the refrigerator or freezer. The container should be open or loosely covered and vented to allow steam to escape. If the hot food did not cool down to 70° F (21° C) within the first two hours, you need to reheat it to 165° F (74 °C) and begin cooling it again starting with step 1.

Step 3: Chill the food down to the proper cold storage temperature. Within the next four hours the food must be cooled from 70° F (21° C) to 41° F (5° C). If the hot food did not cool down to 70° F (21° C) within the first two hours, you need to reheat it to 165° F and begin cooling it again in a larger shallow dish or in multiple shallow containers, filling them about 1 inch high with food. Once the food is cooled to 41° F (5° C), you can transfer it to another container such as NSF certified food-safe containers with sealed lids to keep it fresh in the refrigerator. Keep in mind the six-hour window is a total time; however, the first step must be achieved within two hours of being at or below 135˚ F (57˚ C).

The temperature danger zone for food is above 41° F (5° C) and below 135˚ F (57˚ C). Use your certified thermometer, not your eyes, to check food temperatures.

Later, when removing your leftover food from the refrigerator, reheat it to 165° F (74˚ C) and keep it warm (135˚ F (57˚ C) or above) while serving or store within two hours. Following these steps will help avoid bacteria growth in your leftovers and keep you and your friends/family from getting sick.

For more information about food safety, cooking and cleaning, contact our consumer information hotline at 1.800.673.8010 or info@nsf.org.