It happens to the smartest and the most diligent of all – forgetting to store cooked pasta in the refrigerator and then waking up the next morning to question whether you can still eat it. And if you had guests over and had a lot to drink, leaving out leftover pasta on the kitchen counter is not too surprising.
As the morning greets you with doubts and a giant hangover, you look at the bowl full of pasta and are understandably reluctant to throw it, because, well, it was too yummy! If you have faced such situations and have been in two minds regarding the edibility of leftover pasta, here is your answer.
While as a rule, any cooked food that has been sitting out at room temperature for more than two hours should go straight to the trash, there are other factors to consider before you chuck out your deliciously prepared macaroni dinner. So, what is the food safety rule? Does it apply to cooked pasta? Are there any loopholes to this rule? Let’s find out.
The Two-Hour Rule
According to the US department of agriculture (USDA), the two-hour food safety rule applies to most cooked food. The rule states that food that has been left outside of the refrigerator for more than two hours gives some of the notorious bacteria enough time to multiply profusely.
This is especially true if the food has been sitting on your countertop and the temperature around is more than 40 degrees F. At temperatures between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F, bacteria tend to double every 20 minutes! That does not sound good, does it?
Are any of these bacteria dangerous to human lives? Well, cooked pasta with sauce might encourage the growth of bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli. Both are known to be dangerous to the human digestive system. You probably won’t die with a few bites, but might get severe food poisoning.
While going by the two-hour rule you might tend to think that, oh, well, if that’s what the rule says, might as well get rid of the cooked pasta that has been sitting out overnight before someone gets sick.
You are correct in your thinking, but wait, because there are other factors to consider, one of which is the temperature of your kitchen.
Now, if you live in tropical regions, or if you have your entire house thermostat (including the kitchen) always set to 75 degrees F, you may want to strictly follow the two-hour rule.
But if you have your house designed in such a way that your kitchen temperature can be maintained at a much lower temperature than the rest of your house, plus it is a colder clime in general, then your pasta might still be good-to-eat in the morning.
Type of Preparation
Certain types of food ingredients and spices rot much quicker than the others. And so, even if your kitchen temperature has been sufficiently low, the edibility of your leftover pasta still depends on the type of sauce you had used the previous night.
For example, in Italy, especially in the southern parts, people often happily eat a particular type of preparation that has been left overnight. It is known as “frittata di pasta”. The preparation entails a thick omelet with pasta imbibed in it (usually the type is spaghetti), and/or bechamel sauce. This traditional preparation is good to consume (and incredibly delicious) the morning after.
Contrarily, some other common sauces tend to go bad sooner, such as sauces based on cream, soft cheese, tomatoes, and so on. If your pasta was just drizzled with oil, it might last longer, but of course, the temperature of your kitchen is still of the foremost importance.
We emphasized a great deal on the ambient temperature, but what about the temperature of the leftover pasta itself? Does it matter? Well, it could.
If your prepared pasta the night before was a kind of a Pasta Fredda (salad) and was cold, to begin with, it might still be okay in the morning. It again depends on the ingredients you had thrown into the salad, though.
If you had made a simple salad with just drizzles of oil as a dressing, your pasta could be safe-to-eat for breakfast the next day. Any dairy-based dressing may not fare that well, so check thoroughly before you decide whether to throw or to consume.
How to Properly Store Cooked Pasta
Leaving out cooked pasta accidentally over the countertop through the night may happen to anyone. But if it has been happening frequently with you, you may need to learn some storage strategy.
Planning is crucial, but leftovers are inevitable, especially when you have a large house-party. If you have planned well, though, and are not sure how to store your leftover pasta for the night, here are two ways you can do it.
If possible, it is always best to store the cooked pasta separately from the sauce. This is why planning is crucial while cooking pasta. When stored properly, cooked pasta can last up to five days in the refrigerator.
Be sure to drizzle some oil over the cooked pasta before packing it in an air-tight container. This way, the pasta will not turn into a sticky mush when you want to use it again.
If you are not in a position to store the pasta and the sauce separately, do not fret. You can still store the complete preparation in a sealed container in the refrigerator, but it is best to consume the food in the next three days.
Otherwise, the dish will lose its flavor and the sauce will tend to lose its original melt-in-mouth goodness. Also, always make sure the pasta has cooled down completely before refrigerating it.
Freezing is, more often than not, the way to go if you want your food to last longer. So, can you freeze cooked pasta? You absolutely can!
But this method works best if you store the pasta separately from the sauce. If the pasta sits inside the sauce for too long, it may end up getting freezer burns too quickly.
Cooked pasta stored in the freezer could last up to three months, but if you will not be cooking the entire amount at one go, be sure to freeze in smaller portions. Excessive thawing and freezing of any food can cause harmful bacteria to grow on it.
Always thaw it well before you prepare a meal out of the frozen cooked pasta again.
When in Doubt, Throw It!
Good food is costly and you should never throw away food if you can help it. Having said that, do not endanger your or your loved one’s health by eating something that has potentially gone bad.
All of the above are suggestions that are not set in stone, and you are the best judge when deciding about throwing away food that has been sitting outside overnight.
If even after considering the above factors, you feel that something is not quite right, let the food go into the garbage. Better be safe than sorry.
Having semi-spoiled food one day may not kill you, but food poisoning is not exactly fun to go through. So, if you are not a hundred percent sure, toss out that pasta made at night and prepare a fresh meal the following morning.