Food doesn’t need to be just cooked to the right temperature to fend off pathogens like bacteria that make people sick, but it also needs to be held at the right temperature.
Food not held at the right temperature can slip into the temperature danger zone where bacteria quickly multiply.
This article explains everything you need to know about holding temperatures for food to keep the customers, residents, and patients you serve safe.
Safe holding temperatures
Holding food at the right temperatures is necessary to prevent food from entering the temperature danger zone where bacteria can multiply quickly and make people sick.
There are different safe holding temperatures for hot and cold time-temperature control for safety (TCS) foods — whether you’re serving the customer or the customer is serving themselves, for example on a buffet line.
Food may be prepared in advance and then held on a hot line in hot-holding equipment or it can be made according to what the customer wants (made-to-order).
Many establishments use a combination of hot-holding and made-to-order. For example, fast food establishments may hot-hold french fries but make burgers to order.
In other restaurants, food may be hot-held for self-service such as a buffet.
In the case of hot-holding, a steam table or chafing dishes may be used.
A steam table uses temperature controls to heat water under the pans of food to create steam and keep the food hot.
There are also waterless hot food wells, which rely on the transfer of heat from hot elements, humidity, or fans rather than steam to keep the food hot.
A chafing dish is a metal cooking or serving pan on a stand with an alcohol burner holding chafing fuel below.
Unlike a steam table, there is no temperature control with chafing dishes since there is no burner control.
A heat lamp is another example of a non-temperature-controlled hot-holding device.
Regardless of the hot-holding equipment your establishment uses, you must hold hot food at 135ºF (57ºC) or higher (1).
This is the top of the temperature danger zone range which is 41ºF to 135ºF (5ºC to 57ºC).
In many food establishments, food may also be cold-held.
Similar to hot foods, cold foods can be prepared in advance and then held in cold-holding equipment.
Cold-holding equipment may use ice-filled wells or refrigerated wells to keep foods cool.
Cold food well units that use refrigeration are temperature controlled whereas those that rely on ice are not.
You must hold cold food at the bottom of the temperature danger zone — 41ºF (5ºC) or lower (1).
Hold hot foods at 135ºF (57ºC) or higher and cold foods at 41ºF (5ºC) or lower.
Temping the food
It’s unsafe to assume that food is maintaining a safe temperature just because you’re using hot- or cold-holding equipment.
Therefore, you must regularly check the temperature of the food that is being hot- or cold-held to ensure the food is not within the temperature danger zone.
If any food is in the temperature danger zone, you must throw it out since you don’t know how long it remained there.
Many types of hot- and cold-holding equipment have a thermometer gauge. However, you cannot rely on this gauge to know whether food is at a safe temperature since the gauge displays the temperature of the device, not the internal temperature of the food.
Instead, you must use a sanitized, calibrated food thermometer to check the temperature at least every four hours.
While not required, temping the food more often, such as every two hours, allows you to take corrective actions if you find that the food is within the temperature zone.
For example, if you find that after two hours on the steam table, the roast beef is at 125ºF (52ºC), you can reheat it to 165ºF (74ºC) and return it to the steam table.
Never use the steam table or other hot-holding device for reheating food. Just as a refrigerator isn’t designed to cool foods but keep them cool, a steam table is designed to keep foods hot, not cook them.
If you need to hold food without temperature control, such as during a catered event, or if electricity isn’t an option, you can hold cold food without temperature control for up to six hours as long as it doesn’t exceed 70ºF (21ºC) (1).
In this case, label the food with the time you removed it from refrigeration at 41ºF (5ºC) or below and when you must throw it out.
In contrast, you can hold hot food without temperature control for up to four hours. Label it with the time you removed it from hot holding at 135ºF (57ºC) or higher and the time in which you must toss it (1).
You cannot hold TCS foods without temperature control if you serve susceptible populations such as older adults or patients with cancer, diabetes, or other conditions that compromise the immune system.
Temp hot- and cold-held foods at least every four hours — but preferably more frequently — to ensure the food isn’t within the temperature danger zone. You can hold hot and cold foods without temperature controls if you follow certain guidelines.
The bottom line
Keep TCS foods out of the temperature danger zone by holding hot foods at 135ºF (57ºC) or higher and cold foods at 41ºF (5ºC) or lower.
Check the temperature at least every four hours and toss the food if it is within the temperature danger zone.
Temping the food more often — like every two hours — allows you to take corrective action if needed.
You can hold hot and cold foods without temperature control if you follow certain guidelines.
Get Our Food Safety Newsletter
Be among the first to know when we release new courses and articles.