Dear Dot: What’s the Best Way to Store Leftovers? 

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Dear Dot,

How long does leftover food last in a refrigerator? Is it important to cover or seal it, and why? 

–David

Dear David,

“Food” is a pretty broad category. Some “leftover food,” of course, lasts months, like peanut butter and salad dressings. But Dot assumes you mean leftover things you’ve cooked, like pasta, or chicken, or fish. 

While we have already taken a careful look at the myths and misinformation around expiration dates, and we have provided a handy-dandy guide to avoiding food waste (proper storage is key), you are right to point out that we have not addressed either how long we might safely store leftovers in the fridge or how to store them appropriately. So let us take this opportunity to remedy that omission.

But first, experts consistently advise us to store food in “sealed airtight containers,” so let’s consider why. While airtight containers don’t actually prevent food from spoiling (bacteria exists within the container), they do prevent any spoilage from contaminating other food. But the real benefit of airtight containers is their ability to contain smells and hydration. A fridge is a dry environment — a good thing! — but we need only leave a sandwich or a piece of cheese unsealed in the fridge to understand the impact a fridge has on a food’s hydration. Airtight containers keep moisture — and odors — in! And … for how long do these  leftovers last in our airtight containers? That, of course, depends:

  • Sauces/Gravies: If you open a jar of spaghetti sauce or curry or have some leftover gravy and don’t plan on using the rest within a week (more like three days if the sauce contains dairy), pour the remainder in an ice cube tray and freeze, then store the frozen sauce cubes in a silicone freezer bag. I do the same with pesto, which never lasts long enough in the fridge for me to use up the oversize jar I buy. 
  • Poultry: According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), leftover cooked chicken should be refrigerated at 40 degrees fahrenheit or less and consumed within three to four days of being stored. The USDA emphasizes that the refrigeration process slows bacteria growth, but doesn’t stop it. In order to maintain the freshness of your poultry, store it in an airtight container once it has cooled to room temperature. Bluedot, of course, eschews single-use plastics in favor of reusable sealable containers, such as glass or silicone (available on Amazon, and in your local shops). And don’t forget to save any bones for future soups. You can store them in the freezer in resealable silicone bags. Handy, (industrially) compostable bio-based ziptop bags, our Marketplace Editor’s favorites, work great as well, though if your city doesn’t have a green bin program, or you don’t compost in a municipal facility, better to stick to reusable options. (Compostable bags won’t break down in your home compost — only in special municipal composters.)
  • Beef: The USDA states that leftover cooked beef, like chicken, should be consumed within three to five days of being refrigerated at 40 degrees fahrenheit or less. Once the beef has cooled down, wrap it tightly with compostable parchment paper and store it flat in the fridge. When unwrapped, your leftover beef should look, smell, and feel the same as it did when it was initially stored. If not, it has gone bad and should not be eaten. 
  • Fish: According to the USDA, cooked fish, like chicken and beef, can last three to four days in the refrigerator at 40 degrees fahrenheit or less. When frozen, any fish or shellfish will be safe to eat indefinitely; however, freezing will compromise the texture and flavor. The USDA recommends freezing cooked fish for no more than three months for the best quality. (But remember Dot’s admonitions around throwing out perfectly edible food. You likely don’t have the palate of a food critic!) In the refrigerator as well as the freezer, cooked fish should be stored in an airtight container to contain any odor. 
  • Casseroles: Create individual servings of leftover casseroles then freeze them for quick and convenient future lunches or dinners. (Otherwise store, covered, in the fridge for, you guessed it, three to four days, which seems to be the magic number.) 
  • Cooked veggies: Different vegetables last varying times (and canned veggies typically last longer than fresh-cooked). On average, cooked vegetables will last up to a week. They don’t last as long as raw vegetables because they’re both soft and moist —  attractive conditions for mold growth. Those with a higher water content should be consumed first. 
  • Bread: Refrigerating bread keeps mold at bay but is disastrous to its freshness. Instead, no less an expert than Martha Stewart recommends wrapping homemade bread (which goes stale more quickly) in bee’s wrap or a linen bag, even a tea towel. You can also use a breadbox. If you’re going to freeze it — a perfectly acceptable option if you won’t get to it any time soon — wrap in parchment paper and put in a reusable bag. Don’t slice homemade bread until you’re planning to eat it. 
  • Cakes: HAHAHAHAHA! Ahem. Seriously, perhaps you are someone who does not devour a cake in its entirety in a sitting (or two) and find yourself needing to store the leftovers. A cake, assuming it’s not dairy-based or made with fresh fruit, is best stored at room temperature for up to four days, at which point, you will likely be left with just crumbs, anyway. Otherwise, treat cake like bread and wrap in bee’s wrap or freeze in parchment paper.
  • Cheese: Once you’ve opened up cheese, discard its original packaging and instead store in either bee’s wrap or reusable silicone baggies. Hard cheese will last up to a month, while soft cheese should be consumed within a week. (You can freeze cheese. Martha Stewart, again, weighs in with advice from her cheese freeze expert. Short version? Better to freeze cheese you intend to use in cooking, and hard cheese freezes better than soft.) 

Hope that helps, David. 

Freshly,

Dot

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